Tips for avoiding a civil war

By Robert Wright, Sep 04 2020

Last Thursday—two days after two Trump opponents were shot to death at a protest in Wisconsin, and two days before a Trump supporter was shot to death at a protest in Portland—the Washington Post ran a piece about the rising tide of civil conflict in America:  

In a spate of exchanges that have spanned from Kalamazoo, Mich., and Bloomington, Ind., to Chicago and Portland, Ore., people on both sides of the United States’ political and cultural divide have been filmed exchanging punches, beating one another with sticks and flagpoles, or standing face-to-face with weapons, often with police appearing to be little more than observers.

Note the phrase “have been filmed.” Lots of forces—political, economic, cultural—have gotten us to this point, but one of the strongest is technological: the fact that so much of life is now captured on video. Nothing has so intensified tribal animus on both sides of the divide as the fact that every day the worst things done by members of either tribe are injected into the social media feeds of the other tribe. 

Which wouldn’t be such a regrettable form of entertainment if everyone kept reminding themselves that these viral spectacles are by their nature aberrant. The reason you’re watching (say) a Trump supporter throw a fit over having to wear a mask in a supermarket isn’t because that’s typical of Trump supporters but, on the contrary, because that’s the most obnoxious thing any Trump supporter in the entire country was seen doing that day. 

Or, to take a more timely example: the reason the social media feeds of Trump supporters recently featured a left-wing protester celebrating the killing of that Trump supporter in Portland (“I am not sad that a fucking fascist died,” she said to scattered cheers on the streets of Portland) is because that was the most reprehensible thing a left-wing protester was seen doing that day. 

But keeping things in perspective is hard, and as a rule people don’t do it. So we get a positive-feedback cycle that draws us toward the abyss: people on each side, incensed or frightened by extreme behavior on the other side that they take as closer to normal than it is, get more passionate in their tribal commitments—which leads more of them to do things extreme enough to stand a chance of making it into the other tribe’s social media feed. Which then leads to the same reaction on the other side, and so on. Over time, attitudes and behaviors that were once unusual in their intensity become less so.

And now here we are. There’s a sense in which last week was historic. When was the last time—50 years ago? 100? 150?—that within a span of five days, Americans on both sides of a political divide were killed by Americans on the other side? Now the hope is that we can keep last week from becoming really historic—remembered by historians as a gateway to something way worse. 

To put it more concretely: As of now you can accurately remind yourself that 99 percent of Trump supporters don’t get in pickup trucks and drive to Portland (or anywhere) looking for confrontation; and that 99 percent of Trump opponents aren’t inclined to celebrate the death of one of those Trump supporters. But those percentages could drop if the dynamic that got us to this point continues long enough. I’m not sure civil war in the classic sense—two geographically defined populations in armed conflict—is possible in America, given the residential distribution of the tribes; most red states are more than 35 percent blue, and vice versa. But various kinds of violent dissolution are possible, including some that loosely merit the term “civil war,” and I’m not in favor of any of them.

Lamenting this intertribal positive-feedback cycle is a favorite pastime of mine. I did it in this newsletter a few months ago, and I did it on Twitter a few days ago. My Twitter lamentation led someone to reply: “But what can we do about it?” 

Good question!

1) First, do no harm. When you’re tempted to share something tribe-related on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere, stop, close your eyes, and examine the feeling behind the temptation. Is it a pleasurable feeling? Does the pleasure derive from a sense that the post you’re about to share is testament to the badness of the other tribe? Then don’t use that feeling as a guide! Instead, ask yourself whether sharing the post will achieve some concrete good that outweighs the bad.  

Fans of Buddhism may recognize this kind of careful examination of feelings as a form of “mindfulness”—something I’ve advocated with tiresome persistence. I believe that doing regular mindfulness meditation can make you better at such reflection—and can in general make you less likely to do things on social media that hasten the apocalypse. But even if you don’t meditate, give this feeling-inspection thing a try. You may be surprised by the power of focused introspection.

2) Harm those who do harm. This may not sound very Buddhist, but I’m not talking about physically harming anyone. I’m talking about undermining the power of superspreaders, the social media potentates who use their influence to inflame their own tribe—and who, typically, became potentates by inflaming their own tribe, by generating incendiary sharebait that brings them more and more followers. Superspreaders include both social media grifters—people who knowingly and cynically exploit the weak parts of human nature—and earnest but undiscerning moralists. I feel worse about harming the second than the first, but avoiding civil war is a brutal business. There will be casualties.

So how do you reduce the power of the superspreaders? For starters, see (1) above: If you refrain from spreading their sharebait, you are, however marginally, slowing their acquisition of social media power. But you can go further by formally withdrawing your attention—unfriend them on Facebook, unfollow them on Twitter, whatever. 

Or, alternatively, you can keep monitoring them and publicly criticize them when you think that’s in order. Which leads to…  

3) Refuse to submit to the tyranny of the tribe. One byproduct of intense tribal conflict is the suppression of internal dissent: members of each tribe are expected to defend, or at least not criticize, even the more dubious behaviors of their tribemates. There are times when this dictate is worth defying. Such as:

a) when tribemates do ugly things that could go viral within the other tribe, ratcheting up its fear or loathing. For example: If you’re a Black Lives Matter supporter and you see a video of a speaker at a BLM protest in Washington calling for the murder of police, condemn that. If you see a video of BLM protesters surrounding sidewalk diners and intimidating them into professing allegiance, condemn that. And reward fellow condemners with shares or likes. 

b) when the aforementioned superspreaders are doing their superspreading. In particular, consider condemning them if they distort utterances from the other tribe by taking them out of context, or act as if isolated misbehavior is typical of the other tribe (if, for example, someone with 160,000 Twitter followers links to a piece about an assault in Denver and tweets, “Adult woman punches out an innocent 12-year old boy on a bicycle because he had a Trump sign. That's your Democratic voter in 2020.”) 

But be careful! Condemnation is a double-edged sword. Many social media grifters yearn for condemnation, which can help fuel their continued ascent. Pause and reflect before giving bad publicity to someone who considers all publicity good publicity. 

And if you decide to proceed with condemnation, try to do it in a way that doesn’t much expand awareness of the condemned. For example, on Twitter, if you “reply” to a tweet rather than “retweet with comment,” your comment will come to the attention mainly of people who already knew about the post you’re criticizing—and may sway the opinion of those who are still on the fence about it. 

Also: if you state your criticism in a calm, reasoned tone, you’ll persuade more people and generate less of the indignant blowback that can ultimately strengthen the grifters. A high ratio of light to heat is pretty much always a good thing, but especially when you’re trying to avoid civil war. 

A natural response to sermons like this is: 

OK, avoiding civil war has its virtues, but what about winning the election? If my tribe follows these civil-war avoidance tips but the other side doesn’t, isn’t that unilateral disarmament? Isn’t my tribe more likely to prevail in November if it stays “mindful” of how horrible the other tribe is—so we can mobilize the base and maximize turnout? And if that involves a little blurring of the picture—like, conflating the average Trump or Biden supporter with the worst Trump or Biden supporter—isn’t that worth it in the end?   

Glad you asked! The underlying concern is valid. Whereas avoiding civil war is a non-zero-sum game—both sides win by doing it—the presidential election is a zero-sum game; one team will win and the other will lose. And it’s certainly possible that doing things to get to win-win in the non-zero-sum game could lead your tribe to lose the zero-sum game.

But the reverse could also happen: things you do to keep civil war at bay could help your tribe in the election. I’d say that’s especially likely if you’re in the anti-Trump tribe. After all, a big part of Trump’s galvanize-the-base narrative is that anti-Trumpers dislike and disdain his supporters, even hold them in contempt. Dampening outrage in anti-Trump circles could, in addition to reducing the chances of large-scale intertribal violence, undermine this narrative. 

Of course, it depends on how exactly you dampen the outrage—on what kind of anti-Trump social media posts you discourage the promulgation of. One pretty clearly good candidate: Indignant tweets about the cluelessness of middle Americans who go to church services or football games, and sing or shout, even amid a pandemic. (As middle Americans have been known to point out, the indignant tweeters don’t seem so upset about protesters who gather in dense throngs and shout slogans amid a pandemic).

Not all cases are so clear-cut. In fact, in general, deciding what to share and what not to share, what to criticize and what not to criticize, is a disconcertingly murky business. There definitely are times when the greater good—not just the good of your tribe, but the good of your nation—is served by amplifying awareness of bad behavior on the other side of the tribal divide (especially, I think, when the bad behavior comes from politicians and other elites). 

I wish I could generate a simple algorithm that delivers definitive guidance on a case-by-case basis. All I can say for sure is that the algorithm most commonly used—if it feels good, share it—is less good for the world than pausing and reflecting on the consequences of your online actions. And if, after pausing and reflecting, you’re still unsure about what to do, maybe you should try sitting down and meditating. 

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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