Can Polar Opposites Attract?

Anyone reading the headline expecting a racy tale involving penguins and polar bears can stop reading now as you will be sorely disappointed. Although now that I have said that, you can keep reading and may not be disappointed now that you know what this article is not about.

Looking at the world today through the prism of news, books and articles, and social media, it looks like everyone is fighting with someone about something — politics and religion appear to be the main topics, as they have been for centuries, but immigration, racial and cultural integration and identity, gender identities, and even age have become issues that people don’t only disagree about, but seem to have entrenched views on with no quarter given or taken. The old quote, associated with but often incorrectly attributed to Voltaire, that “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is under threat as amongst other things, people who, ironically, identify themselves as liberals condemn anyone who says anything that they deem to be unacceptable; they tear down statues that they see as glorifying people, often associated with British imperialism and the slave trade, whose views and actions they disagree with. Similar actions were decried as appalling cultural vandalism when the Taliban destroyed statues of Buddha at Bamiyan, but what is the difference? Who has the right to decide what we tolerate and what we don’t? The moral high ground is a very dangerous place to put yourself, as morality is a very subjective thing, despite the fact that most major religions agree on the same key principles. History is often the ultimate judge of morality, unfortunately usually ignoring what the people at the time believed and peering into the past through a lens of current values to view what were perfectly acceptable opinions and actions as horrific crimes. Imperialism, seen from the point of view of people like Julius Caesar and well-meaning explorers and missionaries as a way of civilising barbarians (and gaining huge amounts of wealth along the way) is now viewed as a way of assuming that one set of values is correct and imposing it on those who neither want nor need it.

So what is causing this polarisation of opinions, the demonisation of those who disagree, and the conviction that the opinion you hold is the only correct one? I believe that I have an answer and possibly a solution, but that is a very large QED indeed.

The first thing that helps to explain the current state of public discourse is the fact that the human animal is essentially tribal. Everything in our lives that does not occur in Nature is artificial, and I like to rationalise these artifices by thinking of them as an infinite and ever-changing series of Venn diagrams. We all belong to numerous sets and sub-sets simultaneously, but only some of them are in play at any one time. For example the set someone is in at work is different to the set they are in as a sports fan, or movie fan, or lover of books. They will always be in those sets (unless of course they decide to leave) but only some are active at any given time. Tribalism fits into this because for various evolutionary reasons people look for and are drawn to people who share similar likes, beliefs and affiliations. This may have started out as a survival mechanism to identify people who are not like you and therefore may constitute a threat to you and your social unit. I read a while ago that the first things a person notices when they see people they have not met before are those things that are not the same — skin colour, hair colour, gender, features etc. It was suggested that intelligence, in the form of getting to know the person, overrides the evolutionary instinct to be wary of strangers but history shows us again and again that it is all to easy to stimulate this inherent mistrust of those who are not like us. Jews have been a scapegoat in Europe for centuries, and immigrants (the word refugees is not as prevalent as it once was) are touted by many newspapers and politicians as the current global cause of current woes and problems.

The key point is that people are still tribal whether the tribe is geographic, genetic, social or political, but that doesn’t explain why the level of debate in almost any argument has degenerated to shouting at each other from entrenched positions based on opinion, leaving those who seek facts lost in the crossfire of rhetoric, opinions and insults. This is where the modern phenomenon of social media and the ancient phenomenon of political manipulation of the electorate come into the picture.

The antics of Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica are now reasonably well-known, but in case you missed what they were up to, they used publicly-available data on millions of social media users to identify people who they thought would be suggestible and easy to influence. They then sold this ability to whoever could afford their services, the upshot being that people who would soon be asked to vote in an election or referendum started to see articles in their social media news feeds purporting to be news, but which were in fact propaganda — a good example is the use of immigration as a way to persuade sections of the electorate that if they didn’t get out and vote for candidate or party X, the threat from immigration would have devastating consequences on their society. This thinly-veiled use of racism to appeal to the subconscious tribal instincts of people appears to have worked when you consider the Brexit vote in the UK (immigration was cited as the reason most people gave for voting to leave the EU although in my experience the immigrants people are not comfortable with are not from EU countries) and the triumph of Donald Trump in the 2019 US presidential election despite many voters expressing concerns about some racist and sexist aspects of his behaviour. Of course there are many other factors at play, but the use of social media to persuade millions of people that their way of life was under threat and to trigger that tribal response is something new.

That doesn’t explain why many people on both sides of an argument now appear to be engaged in trench warfare — dug in, and firing whatever they can come up with at the enemy. I believe that this comes down to the role of print and online media, and social media. As print media declines, publishers and editors are keen to generate income in any way possible. The rise in ‘clickbait’ headlines, designed to attract online traffic to a particular website so that advertisers can be charged more, has led to many spurious stories being written, with many stories being sensationalised in order to persuade people to visit the web page carrying that content. Take into account the fact that certain content is targeted at people, and social media becomes a giant online echo chamber where everyone appears to share your opinions and agree with your view of things — creating global tribes of either right-wing fascists or left-wing liberal snowflakes, depending on where your politics lie. People who readily subscribe to these tribes without questioning the motives of the people behind them will often defend their position beyond the point of reason — in the UK, any stories pointing out potential negative aspects of Brexit are dubbed ‘Project Fear’ and are dismissed by those who support it. Stories supporting Brexit are dismissed as fantasy and wish fulfilment by those who oppose it. In the US, those who support Donald Trump are vilified as ignorant, racist and sexist whereas those who oppose him are decried as weak, anti-American metropolitan elite liberals. There appears to be no middle ground as these tribes slug it out, as the people with the money continue to pull the strings of ever-increasing numbers of people in order to achieve their own aims — increased wealth and influence.

So where does that leave us? Is there any hope for a return to relatively sane and sensible discussion and argument, where people who disagree with each other can still treat each other with respect? When the ‘Leader of the Free World’, the ‘World’s Most Powerful Man’, uses his public platform to mock disabled people and denounce anything he doesn’t like as fake news, why shouldn’t everyone follow suit and simply pick the ‘facts’ that suit their own arguments and justify their own prejudices? What can be done to redress the balance and restore decency to public discourse?

In my opinion the solution is simple but at the same time extraordinarily difficult — we must start to question everything — and I mean everything — put in front of us by news companies, newspapers, social media, TV chat show hosts, political commentators, business leaders, experts, and especially politicians. Ask yourself why does this newspaper/TV channel/blog always seem to take the same view of any incident? Who owns it, and what are their opinions? Ask yourself why the other person is wrong? What could lead them to have that opinion? Is this a fact or an opinion? Remember that there are lies, damn lies and statistics, so if an argument relies on numbers, question those numbers. Look at the other side of every argument without prejudice and with an open mind — essentially, we have to start questioning ourselves. That may not lead to a change of mind, but it leads to a degree of tolerance and understanding of other opinions and even a little respect for them, then the battle is half won.

As for the ability of manipulators to use tribalism to make us vote the way they want, what can we do about that? These are instincts hard-wired into us over thousands of years, what can we do about that? Well these instincts may be there, but we can train ourselves to overcome them and look beyond tribal borders. In my opinion, the best way to do this is to avoid the use of labels when it comes to people. The search for an appropriate label that many people go through is counter-productive and ultimately may lead people into the smallest tribe they can find. The need for people to define themselves by their race, creed, gender or sexuality, is symptomatic of a society where people want to create tribes that cater for as small a population as possible, one that suits them 100% even if that means being a tribe of one. If we did away with labels for people and all we needed was a way to identify someone regardless of their gender, sexual identity, religious belief, political leanings or marital status then we could perhaps start to acknowledge that humanity is not a series of binary absolutes but a spectrum that people can inhabit at any point and move along for any reason. A spectrum populated with an infinite number of Venn diagrams, and we should be prepared to meet whoever is any one of them without judgement or prejudice.

At the end of the day, the ultimate tribe is the human race and we all belong to that.