Discover more from Longterm Liberalism
Who is the enemy? (part 2)
Exploring group categorization heuristics in a digital age
“I’m sorry, but if you care about economics more than people that makes you a bad person. I don’t think you and I are compatible as friends. Wishing you all the best.” - Facebook follower’s response to a post of mine
In my previous post, I explored the unusual friendship of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. The story of their friendship was meant to be inspirational, but when I received the above response it was difficult to grapple with reality - most people are not interested in having friendswith pluralistic beliefs. If we are limited in meaningful relationships (see Dunbar’s Number) there must be necessary shortcuts we use in order to preserve one of our scarcest resources - time.
Most people want to be seen as open minded, being open minded can prevent ignorance. But a drawback is that in order to overcome ignorance, it requires expending valuable time to understand someone else’s framing.
Group Categorization as a Heuristic
A heuristic, to put as simply as possible, is a shortcut our brain uses to quickly interpret information and make decisions or draw inferences. We use heuristics constantly, if we didn’t we’d be quickly overwhelmed with the information we’re exposed to. Heuristics are used when it comes to deciding who is important enough to be included in our limited cognitive space for social relationships.
For better and worse, our identities play a large role in what groups we’re categorized into… racial identity, educational achievement, work, sexuality/gender identity, political identity, hobby interests, etc. all play a role in our own group categorization and the company we keep.
A benefit of group categorization is that we are not required to intimately know a person in order to have a basis of understanding about who they are. People who share similar experiences and interests are likely better to understand us compared to those who do not. These connections allow us to see ourselves in others more easily - something known as empathy.
Group Categorization clearly has it’s benefits. However, like anything that becomes simplified, this heuristic can leave us with blind spots and exacerbate our biases.
Social Media - Incentivizing the negative of Group Categorization
Part of group categorization necessarily includes instances where a group comes under criticism from those outside of that group. Oftentimes, people will react to group criticism with something along the lines of “It’s not everyone in that group!” Of course not, it usually isn’t. Most things aren’t black and white, they’re gray.
Demanding precision while ignoring the premises of the original critique allows that person to avoid a cognitive dissonance and claim a moral high ground in the conversation.
I find no issues with categorically criticizing a group - as long as it’s a criticism that accurately applies to the majority of that group. The problem with social media is that oftentimes criticisms aren’t reflective of the majority of the group being criticized. Rather, it is the most extreme examples of the competing side - something coined as selective permeability.
Through this selective permeability we develop our heuristics on what we believe the people in that group are like and become less likely to entertain the ideas they put forth.
The comment directed towards me on Friday (quoted at the start of this article) upset me initially. Someone who had initially presented themselves as open minded, and who is within a shared social circle, essentially called me evil. The response stung because the individual interpreted my post (send me an email if you’re interested in seeing the post in full) as saying how things should be instead of interpreting my post as saying how things are.
I want to envision a world where we all have a friendship akin to Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’m convinced that we need someone in our lives who disagrees with us and forces us to constantly evaluate our own worldview and core beliefs. Without it, we handicap ourselves with regards to embracing pluralism... If we do not have someone in our lives who we can disagree with on fundamental issues, it becomes far easier to categorize anyone who disagrees with us on those fundamental issues as evil.
I think it’s unlikely to find that on social media. Not because it doesn’t exist, but because humans operate based off incentives, and there aren’t a lot of incentives on social media to practice pluralism.
This blog is part of a biweekly column I write exploring communication. Thank you so much for taking the time to read, please like and leave a comment if you enjoyed it. My email is always open for critiques, compliments, and questions. Direct inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @alex_pilkington on Twitter.
I believe this one liner became popular when Covid initially hit and lockdown discussions were ongoing. It was a phrase people adopted in order to signal that they were good and empathetic people as opposed to those who disagreed about the scope of the lockdowns who were evil and deserved scorn.
I have recently started reading Aristotle’s Nichomean Ethics and I’m very excited to read the original source (translated of course) that covers his theory of different friendships.
Dunbar's number' is “the notion that there exists a cognitive limit on human groups of about 150 individuals. This because to maintain group cohesion, individuals must be able to meet their own requirements, as well as coordinate their behavior with other individuals in the group.” I believe that the theory of Dunbar’s number is crucial to examining behaviors on the internet and it’ll be a recurring theme.
There are many different heuristics… while writing this blog post, I necessarily engage in certain heuristics. Heuristics are NOT bad, but they are something we should be constantly aware of.
Binary Heuristics?? I feel like that must be a thing
I’m using a heuristic here since they didn’t actually call me evil. That’s how I interpreted it though.
Positive Claim vs Normative Claim
This needs to be done in as a respectful manner as possible of course, without mutual respect relationships fall apart.