How empathy intensifies political polarization
There are people who believe that the political polarization now afflicting the United States might finally start to subside if Americans of both parties could somehow become more empathetic. If you’re one of these people, the American Political Science Review has sobering news for you.
Last week APSR—one of the alpha journals in political science—published a study which found that “empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”
The study had two parts. In the first part, Americans who scored high on an empathy scale showed higher levels of “affective polarization”—defined as the difference between the favorability rating they gave their political party and the rating they gave the opposing party. In the second part, undergraduates were shown a news story about a controversial speaker from the opposing party visiting a college campus. Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.
It gets worse. These high-empathy students were also more likely to be amused by reports that students protesting the speech had injured a bystander sympathetic to the speaker. That’s right: according to this study, people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.
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Virality and virulence
This week I was reminded anew of the promise and peril of tweeting right after your morning coffee. And in the process I was reminded (not that I really needed it) of Twitter’s tribal nature.
On Friday morning, just as the caffeine was taking full effect, and I was settling in to work on this newsletter, I fatefully took a look at my Twitter feed. I saw that Hillary Clinton, in an interview, had suggested that Tulsi Gabbard was being “groomed” by Russia to be a third-party spoiler candidate, and that Jill Stein, who played that role last time around, was “also” (like Gabbard, that is) a “Russian asset.”
That’s pretty extreme. As Hillary Clinton undoubtedly knows, and as Wikipedia confirms, the term “asset,” in that context, is typically taken to mean that the person in question isn’t just being exploited by a foreign power but is consciously and secretly cooperating. Not to mention the fact that people aren’t typically “groomed” without being aware of it.
Now, my opinion of Jill Stein—like my opinion of Ralph Nader ever since his third party candidacy got George W. Bush elected president—is low. And I’m not a big Gabbard supporter. I like much of what she says about foreign policy, but I also find her in some ways offputtingly quirky. (For example: She replied to Hillary’s conspiracy theory with a kind of conspiracy theory of her own. And, though I’d like to think this was sly commentary on Hillary’s seeming paranoia, I fear it wasn’t—and if it was, I think it was too subtle for its own good.)
NBA’s China Syndrome
This was a tough week for San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr. It all started when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protestors. The Chinese government—and lots of Chinese people—didn’t like that one bit, and China is a huge market for the NBA, so various NBA officials and players set about saying conciliatory things. Kerr, when asked about the controversy, did what you might expect: He declined to comment.
At this point Donald Trump somehow found the time—even while getting impeached and getting Kurds slaughtered—to tear into Kerr (a longtime Trump critic) for not being manly enough to stand up to China. Which in turn kept the whole issue alive long enough for Kerr to be asked by a reporter whether, in the course of his many visits to China, there had been discussion of how the NBA’s financial interests relate to “a country whose human rights record is not in step with the United States.”
How virtue signaling saved my dog’s life
Our dog Frazier was on death row when we got him—slated to be “put to sleep” if the animal shelter couldn’t find a home for him.
If you don’t recognize that sentence as virtue signaling, you need to get more in touch with the zeitgeist. Over the past few decades it has become cooler and cooler to casually mention that your dog is a “rescue dog.”
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Matt Bershadker, president of the ASPCA: “Rescuing an animal has become a badge of honor,” he told a New York Times reporter. “People proudly go to dog parks and walk around their neighborhoods talking about the animal that they rescued from a shelter.”
And this fact—that you can actually brag about your dog being an outcast and get social credit for it—seems to have been good for dogs. The percentage of dogs at animal shelters that have to be put to sleep for lack of adoption has dropped sharply over the past decade, the Times reported this month.
Plant-based game theory
Sunflowers, believe it or not, play non-zero-sum games with one another—and do so with impressive skill! At least, that’s one reading of a study published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
A typical sunflower, not surprisingly, tends to send its roots more profusely into nutrient-rich patches of soil than into nutrient-poor patches. But two researchers—Megan Ljubotina and James Cahill—report that, when there is another sunflower in the neighborhood, this behavior gets recalibrated.
If much closer to the nutrient-rich patch than its neighbor, the sunflower sends its roots into the patch more profusely than when there’s no neighbor around—as if it were rushing to colonize land before a rival gets to it.
On attribution error
Worse and worse
Remind me to never again ask this question: “How could things possibly get any worse?” This week showed us that things can always get worse. You can have a president who has played on bigotry and xenophobia in various disgusting ways but at least has never told four non-white congresswomen to go back to where they came from. You can have a president who has inspired supporters to do deeply unsettling things but at least has never stood in front of a crowd, basking in its malevolence, as it chanted—about a Somali woman who came to America as a child refugee, gained US citizenship, and then got elected to Congress—“Send her back.”
Regular readers of this newsletter are familiar with my sermons about the importance of responding to Trump’s provocations with discernment—which can mean not responding at all, since sometimes Trump’s goal is to elicit a reaction that will fortify his base. Well, for the record: This is not an occasion when tactical silence is in order. When Trump adds a whole new dimension to his incitement of hatred and bigotry, when he stands in front of a crowd and evokes with new power memories of history’s most dangerous authoritarians, there has to be pushback.
Still, this being the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, I’m duty bound to ask what form the pushback should take—and, in the course of answering that question, to assess this episode as dispassionately as possible, under the circumstances.
Last weekend I attended my college reunion, as I do every five years. There are lots of things to do at a college reunion. Such as: put a positive spin on the last five years of your life, then do that again, then do that again.
Plus, reunions are a good place to study ritual. And I don’t just mean the opening ritual of slowly grasping the awful truth. (“Who are all these old people? Where are the people from my class?… Oh.”) I mainly mean the kinds of rituals an anthropologist might study—rituals of tribalism.
This year I engaged in a ritual that led me to add a new species of tribalism to my taxonomy of tribalisms. I call it ironic tribalism, and I’m wondering if it offers hope for the world.
As it happens, I attended a college, Princeton, that makes a famously big deal out of reunions. It is said to have the highest reunion participation rate of any college in America, or in the Ivy League, or something. And presumably the highest gaudiness quotient. My class-issued orange-and-black weekend wardrobe consisted of three shirts, two hats, and a blazer that made my high-school-senior-prom tux jacket (a tangerine plaid) look dignified. Plus orange shoe strings.
Abortion down south
This week’s passage in Alabama of the most severe anti-abortion law in recent American history triggered a flashback. I was back in my sophomore history class at Douglas MacArthur High School in San Antonio. There, at the front of the class, wearing cowboy boots, was Mr. Lightfoot, a stout middle-aged man who, in addition to being a history teacher, was a football coach and a farmer.
This was the year of Roe v. Wade. Mr. Lightfoot explained to the class that the people who think abortion should be legal are people who “want to have their fun and not pay for it.”
What struck me at the time was that this was a pretty grim view of parenthood—child rearing as a kind of decades-long penance for having had sex. What strikes me now is something different: even back then, before America was famously tribal, abortion was a tribal issue.
Mr. Lightfoot didn’t just think the people who disagreed with him about abortion were bad people because they were on the wrong side of that particular morally charged issue. He had a broader picture of their badness; they were people who engaged in or tolerated sexual promiscuity. And this perception, I would guess, only strengthened his conviction that they were wrong about abortion—even though, as a strictly logical matter, the question of whether promiscuity is bad and the question of whether a fetus is a human being aren’t the same question.
To boldly go where no cliché has gone before
In keeping with my long history of taking courageous positions, I opined in last week’s newsletter that hatred is a bad thing. Now MRN reader Jane is asking whether I could develop that observation into something that is, you know, actually of use to someone.
Jane put it more politely than that. I had said that we seem to be witnessing an escalating war between violent extremists—mainly white nationalists on one side and jihadists on the other. Recognizing that hatred was fueling this war, I said, was the place to start in thinking about “constructive policies the next administration might pursue and about constructive non-governmental initiatives (including the micro-initiatives that each of us can take in our everyday lives).” Jane quoted the part about micro-initiatives and wrote, “I wish you’d elaborate on this.”
OK, I’ll try. But please keep your expectations low. Remember: I said micro-initiatives.