On Crowds and Tribalism
“The crowd is untruth.” — Søren Kierkegaard
Libertarians are and ought to be naturally skeptical of crowds. Passionate groups may be necessary for some kinds of progress, but it is a recipe for trouble whenever one faction holds too much power.
The brouhaha around the Covington Catholic kids seems to stem from the crowd dynamics and powerful visuals displayed at the Lincoln Memorial last weekend. On one side was a group of rowdy prep school boys—some wearing MAGA hats—fired up by professional antagonists on the other. It’s really no wonder many recoiled at the image of a lone native American elder surrounded by jeering faces of “white privilege,” even though later video revealed a much more nuanced picture.
Soon the response to the incident turned into a mob of its own and one individual from the crowd of rambunctious boys became the target of an unprecedented drive-by media shooting. This was a separate event from the boys’ tribalistic display, which itself was an off-shoot of another group’s aggressive tribalism (a group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites hurled vile insults for nearly an hour before the boys began their school chants). But by the time the full video footage came to light, vindicating the boys and implicating those who rushed to judgment, the damage to the Republic had already been done.
A Twitter mob descended on the boys. Threats poured into their Kentucky high school and false accusations were directed at innocent bystanders. Confirmation bias and selection of preferred facts was the genre du jour on social media, and rumors and innuendo ruled the day. It was a textbook case of the “Truth Decay” I recently explored with RAND corporation’s Jennifer Kavanagh.
Eventually, Robby Soave (an editor of Reason Magazine) decided to actually watch the footage in its entirety to see what really happened. Soave has a keen eye for media hoaxes on politically charged issues—he was one of the first to express skepticism when Rolling Stone released the now-debunked UVA rape story. However, his critical eye toward sloppy journalism does not make him a knee-jerk contrarian. He has also pointed out that while we should not automatically believe everyone who claims victimhood, neither should we dismiss such claims lightly.
Soave’s careful article was widely read and provoked apologies from many on the left and the right. Calmer heads may not have prevailed, but the article slowed down the spiral of madness.
The point of this is emphatically not to take sides with one tribe or another, nor is it to neglect to assign guilt to those who acted foolishly or perpetuated false narratives, but simply to recognize that our politics have devolved into an ugly form tribal warfare. In rushing to find, tar, and feather the ideal political scapegoat, every tribe in the culture war ends up obscuring the real victims and creating new ones in the process.
I have pointed out that this is inevitable when so much power is vested in the Federal Government. “We the People” feel powerless, and so we lash out in fear and anger.
There are two remedies as I see it:
1) Fact-based journalism — we need to value media that takes time to digest the facts before reaching a conclusion. Soave has done an exemplary job on this front, and I look forward to hosting him on my show to discuss the topic with the care that it deserves.
2) Decentralization of power — Whether or not people realize it, much of the rancor and polarization of our politics stems from its increasing centralization. When power solidifies in Washington D.C., there is a demonstrative erosion of freedom. When people feel freedom disappearing, they feel powerless. This brings out the worst in them.
One more thing we can do to combat the dangers of rapid-response social media is foster in-depth conversations where the truth can be analyzed from all angles. Tune in to the show this Sunday(8–9am Pacific Time) to my conversation with Robby about what happened, and what it means for our democracy.
I encourage you to listen. Maybe we can all give Twitter a break.