Are we unfairly demonizing partisanship?
Academia is becoming self-aware. Scholars now realize that academic communities are as prone to groupthink as any other community. That’s led to the Intellectual Dark Web: academia’s version of the emerging anti-woke counter-culture, and a vital corrective to decades of ideological radicalization in universities. We should applaud Quilette’s article about how myside bias (a propensity to believe our own side without sufficient evidence) leads to groupthink and the ways to fight it.
However, while the author, Keith Stanovich, is brave to take on the zealotry in corners of academia, it’s not black-and-white. Myside bias may have positive social effects that we ignore at our peril, even if the mixture of myside bias and identity politics has created a toxic stew.
Stanovich deals with the myside bias of convictions, which he defines as beliefs that we hold because we want them to be true, not because we studied the evidence impartially. He compares political convictions to moral convictions and cites the work of Jonathan Haidt showing our moral convictions come from a mixture of innate disposition and social influence.
Stanovich argues that our political convictions form the same subjective way as moral beliefs. Myside bias leads us to treat our convictions as objective facts, though. That’s led us to ‘alternate facts’ and ‘cancel culture.’ We now ignore (or censor) those who hold different convictions because we believe they’re objectively, inarguably wrong.
The upside of myside: trust
Stanovich makes a compelling case for the damage done by myside bias. He has expertise and evidence on his side. However, he may be overlooking the positive side effects of myside bias.
Adopting convictions binds groups together: more exclusive and homogeneous groups trust each other more, and extreme convictions increase both exclusivity and homogeneity. These convictions drive away most of the population and make the in-group closer to each other relative to the distant masses.
Group members can prove their loyalty by sticking to convictions that outsiders would reject based on the evidence. Think of the phrase “right or wrong, our country!” or the spectacle of ideologues trying to out-crazy each other (browsing Twitter is a great way to study this). They’re competing to prove they’re the most loyal to the cause.
These proofs of loyalty create myside bias but also have positive social effects by producing trust within the group. Trust is a precious thing. Companies with high levels of trust are more productive, and the high levels of trust in the Nordic societies led to their socioeconomic success.
Elaborate proofs of loyalty are a normal part of life. Look at the vast sums of money and time spent on weddings. They’re just a way for two people to signal their loyalty to each other, but they’re a $53b dollar industry in the USA. We place a high value on creating high-trust marital relationships even if they don’t have many practical day-to-day differences from long-term relationships.
The upside of myside: ethics
There’s another social benefit to convictions implied by its common-usage meaning. Convictions inoculate people from the self-serving rationalizations that lead to cheating, corruption, selling out, and other betrayals of the group.
People want to see themselves as good. People also want to succeed in life, sometimes by acquiring wealth and power. These two goals conflict when the opportunity to cheat is available. That’s when people rationalize. They invent justifications that feel persuasive so they can cheat but still feel good about themselves.
Convictions block those rationalizations. A radical feminist can’t make excuses for women being treated poorly when those excuses would benefit him, e.g. if his own behavior towards women is bad. Even if he feels his own rationalizations are persuasive, he’s committed himself to believing all women, so he has to ignore his inner temptations and stick to his convictions.
Myside suits the moment
The identity politics that Stanovich laments has been present in academia for decades. Why has it only now gained ascendancy in academia and pop culture?
If we look at convictions as a way of proving group loyalty, then the rise of absurd convictions in the past few years is easy to explain. The recession, COVID-19, and Internet problems like cyber-bullying have made people feel more vulnerable. Vulnerable people trust others less, so have a greater need for loyalty tests. Young people also have declining levels of trust and are enthusiastic advocates of identity politics.
It’s also a reaction to the way the Internet has changed traditional power structures. Academia has lost prestige because of the free online availability of decent educational materials (and because of its self-inflicted crisis), journalists have lost prestige because of online sources of news and fact-checking, and cultural giants like Hollywood have lost power to democratic cultural outlets like YouTube.
That threat to their power has motivated them to pursue vigorous purges. It’s like the Red Scare during the Cold War or the Spanish Inquisition as a response to Moorish threats. These institutions are creating ever-more extreme loyalty tests as a response to a growing, threatening out-group.
You can think of the academic conflict as an ideological battle between old-school dissolute intellectuals and new-school Sartrean campus radicals and champagne socialists. As members of the former camp, we have to attack even our own convictions about the value of convictions.