Politics, Polarization, and Outrage in America

Federico Pistono
Nov 12, 2017 · 8 min read

Most muslims are terrorists. Islam is a religion of hate. Socialist ideology always leads to mass murder. If a white man shoots 20 people, he was just a troubled individual, and certainly he was not part of an ideology that allows for these accidents to happen, and then condones them. There is no systemic discrimination against women, homosexuals, or any minority. The state is a coercive institution that restricts our God-given rights. A truly free market would lead to prosperity for all. Capitalism is the only system that can govern our society without falling into chaos.

If one were to listen to “conservative” media only, this is the picture of the world they would get. Facebook, YouTube, and other social networks would reinforce these beliefs, selecting and filtering all videos and articles, in a spiral of increasingly more extreme views, in some cases leading to white nationalist and even neo-Nazi sympathetic content.

Similarly, if one were to watch, read, and listen only to liberal media, they would get an equally idiotic caricature of the world.

No muslims are terrorists. Or, if there are, they just happen to be muslims, and there is no connection between their acts of terrorism and their religious ideology. Most men are sexual predators, and most evils of the world are a direct consequence of an oppressive patriarchy. Women are paid less than men for the same exact job. Women also rarely commit crime, murder or rape, and are systematically oppressed. Gender is a social construct, and it has little or nothing to do with biology. Capitalism is, at its core, the root of all evil.

How did we get here?

Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase of political polarization in the US, where what used to be extremists’ views have now become the norm.

Source: Pew Research Center, in the largest political survey in its history.

But the polarization extends beyond political party affiliation. It is not unusual for people to lump a plethora of seemingly disconnected and logically inconsistent beliefs together.

Conservatives believe the government should get rid of subsidies for renewable energies, because they interfere with the free market; and yet they are happy to turn a blind eye when one points out that fossil fuels receive enormous government subsidies (as much as $5 trillion/year globally), which cause unspeakable damage to our health and the ecosystem from which we all depend. They also believe that governments have no right to interfere with our personal lives, for example with the freedom to purchase firearms; but are happy to have the government decide what a woman does with her womb, or what kind of substances we are allowed to take—alcohol and tobacco, two of the most dangerous drugs in the world, are perfectly acceptable, but psychedelic mushrooms and LSD, two of the least dangerous, are not and should be illegal.

Liberals believe that women are systematically paid less than men for the same job. When economists and sociologists point out that, when adjusting for variables and different life choices, the supposed gender pay gap practically disappears, they throw their arms in the air and refuse to accept the validity of objective, scientifically accurate data analyzed by experts. Many liberals hold the view that there is no discernible difference between men and women’s brains, despite all evidence to the contrary, all the while believing that women are generally more empathetic than men. Some even claim that gender is a fluid concept, a social construct, and that biology plays no role in determining one’s gender, even though 99% of people self-identify with the gender associated with their sex at birth.

Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways.

This kind of behavior has, I believe, a common root.

It is anti-scientific dogmatism, where instead of looking for evidence and then form your opinion, you hold an opinion in the presence of little, bad, or no evidence at all, and then look for data that supports your view.

If you are a reasonable, evidence-driven person, who looks for reliable and verifiable data, and tries to gain a nuanced and sophisticated understanding before taking a position on a topic, you are in for some rough times.

For example, data shows the gender pay gap in most OECD countries is minimal to non-existent. Yet, if you say that, they will call you a sexist bigot. Conversely, if the pay gap is a myth, does that mean that women are never discriminated against in the workplace? Sorry, no again. The world is bit more complicated and often can’t be explained by simple dichotomies.

We know from data that most Muslims are not terrorists, and that the majority of Muslims in the world do not support terrorist acts against civilians. Yet, if you report this simple fact, conservatives will label you as an Islamic apologist and an enemy of the state.

The same data tells us that an alarming number of Muslims (millions!) do support terrorist attacks against people criticizing the Muslim faith or disrespecting their prophet—for example, only 28% of Muslims in Nigeria believed it could never be justified, while 23% of believed it could be justified rarely, 38% sometimes, and 8% thought it could be justified often. Yet, if you report this simple fact, or suggest that the Islamic religion has any connection with any terrorist act, liberals will call you a bigot.

This tendency to fall to various cognitive biases isn’t new, and we all fall prey to it, however intelligent and conscientious we think we are. But this problem has recently exacerbated to the point of absurdity, trivializing and sensationalizing every subject.

White supremacists in southern states rewrote history books to make it look like black salves were treated fairly and were actually having a good time, while liberals managed to cut To Kill A Mockingbird from a school’s curriculum because “words in it made people uncomfortable”. It’s not lies, it’s historical revisionism. It’s not censorship, it’s creating “safe spaces” for the kids.

The US political and social discourse has reached a pathological state, where cyclical stages of outrage are punctuated by temporary moments of insanity, followed by witch-hunts, twitter mobs, and sometimes even physical mobs. Suddenly, a new existential problem has central stage, it dominates the public landscape for weeks, only to be forgotten shortly after.

The work required to achieve long-lasting change, social, political, and economic justice is often long, tedious, and exhausting. It requires commitment, thorough study, community outreach, public investments, political strategy and a vision, not cheap sensationalism and twitter-fueled mobs.

The real issues plaguing the US persist, while mindless extremists scream injustice left and right to gain their 15 minutes of glory, stealing and diverting the much-needed attention and resources needed to address those issues.

For example, we know that black people in the US are systematically being discriminated against, particularly when it comes to economic opportunity. One of the answers to this problem promoted by liberals has been Affirmative Action, the policy of favoring members of a disadvantaged group who suffer or have suffered from discrimination within a culture. The group identity is never economic status (which would make sense), but rather skin color or ethnic affiliation. Aside from being a patently racist policy (it checks all the marks in the very definition of racism), at least it starts with good intentions. It could be racist, but if gets the jobs done, one could argue it’s worth it. Well, we tried it, and not only data shows that it doesn’t work, but in fact it exacerbates the problem is tries to fix.

So what does work? In the case of black kids living in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods, we know that the single biggest contributor to the success of the child–namely to stay out of gangs and to continue studying–is the presence of both parents and a stable family. But that would require addressing the fact that many young, black kids have their fathers in jail. This implies a comprehensive restructuring of the criminal and justice system (many of those men are in prison for petty crimes or simple drug use), providing opportunities to these older black men forgotten by society, reintegrating them into the social fabric.

In short, it means addressing economic and structural inequality, and a shift from the entrenched American ideology that people are solely responsible for their actions, regardless of their socio-economic background, upbringing, and living conditions. This is hard stuff. It takes decades of work. It’s much easier to set a few millions aside for “Affirmative Action”, turn a blind eye to the fact that it’s a racist program that doesn’t work, pat yourself in the back, feel good about yourself, and call racist bigots all those pesky economists and sociologists who point out its objective and obvious flaws.

It’s a type armchair-activism. Temporary, feel-good measures, supposedly in support of a social cause, but which solve nothing, and simply steal resources and attention.

Unless we move past this kind of attitude, nothing will ever be fixed, and things will only get worse.

p.s. This is only part of the picture. The other important factor at play is power, which I will address in a future essay (this one is getting too long).

Hi, my name is Federico Pistono. I am an author, angel investor, technologist, and researcher.

I try to fix problems.

I’m head of Blockchain at Hyperloop TT, building the future of transportation.

I consult for large companies on innovation and exponential tech, and I’m available for keynote speeches.

Sometimes I post on Facebook.
I think out loud on Twitter.
I make educational videos and ramble on YouTube.

More on my website.

Federico Pistono

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I like to solve problems.