Alternative Is Here To Stay: Ideologies As Tribes

“The name of the sound: Alternative
And that’s the way I want to live
Alternative, if you’ll turn it on
We’ll alternate all night long
Let’s dance to an alternative song
And alternate all night long”

For my money, Arnold Kling of Econlog (along with myself, of course, as well as the TimeCube guy) is on any short list of best bloggers on the internet. The perfect blog post is not too long, pithy, says a lot, and makes a good, original case for something, while seeming effortless. Nobody could possibly do that all the time, probably not even a majority of the time. But Kling accomplishes it with a mind-bogglingly high frequency compared to everyone else. An example worth highlighting is this post on some peoples’ reaction to/treatment of “tea-baggers”:

…I am fed up with the psychoanalysis of the tea party movement. When people say that they do not like big deficits and government activism, why not take them at their word? Why say that what they really believe are wild conspiracy theories?

It would not surprise me to learn that many tea partiers believe strange things. But it would not surprise me to learn that many people of all political stripes believe strange things. If you are willing to filter out the strange beliefs of ordinary Democrats and Republicans in order to provide a narrative of a coherent ideology, then you should do the same with the tea partiers.

This is a useful explanation not just of how anti-“teabagging” operates, but how bias (self-centered bias, ultimately) operates in general. The groups we like and identify with are treated straightforwardly, at face value, even charitably. The groups we dislike and identify as our antagonists, on the other hand, are treated as uncharitably as possible, their motives questioned, any inconsistency or bad/weird subset instantly seized upon as being representative of the group as a whole. This is just how people seem to play the game of political combat, learned and honed in battles between the “cool”, “nerdy” and other cliques since school days.

“Some people like to rock
Some people like to roll
And that was cool in days of old
But all the kids where the action is
Got to have alternative”

As Kling goes on to describe,

I think that a lot of pundits would be comfortable describing the 2008 election as the a rational, focused statement in favor of the progressive agenda, rather than an emotional outburst of frustration with economic circumstances. Yet those same pundits would feel comfortable describing the tea party movement and the election of Scott Brown as an emotional outburst of frustration with economic circumstances, rather than a rational, focused statement in opposition to the progressive agenda.

This is a perfectly fair and obvious observation but it’s also easy to dismiss it as identifying mere hypocrisy. I think that misses the point. What’s really going on is a kind of analytical blindness.

Because let’s face it, while I’m sure Kling is right, it’s not as if the media know they’re doing this, or scheme and plot in secret to tilt and slant all news analysis and interpretation in the favor of ideologies they prefer, while giggling “heh heh heh that’ll show ’em”. This behavior is not a conspiracy, and probably not even intentional. It just seems to be what humans do. Since the humans who populate the news media are disproportionately on the left, it’s the right that gets it. But this is not an exclusive property of left or right.

“I’m in love with an alternative girl
She’s not like the other alternative girls
She’s pierced and dyed and scarified
She hates Tom Cruise, She loves Anne Rice
We’re gonna be an alternative sight
When I take her out on Saturday night”

If you’re on the left, you are constantly on the lookout to find something wrong with, say, the group of people “those who desire lower taxes”. So (people being what they are – imperfect) you inevitably can, and will. You’ll find and link to a Youtube clip of some hick who showed up to a tea party protest saying something stupid, or racist, or whatever. You’ll point, and say looky, and it will make you feel better about yourself and your beliefs. If you’re on the right, you’re on the lookout to find something wrong with the group of people “those who desire single-payer health care”. The Youtube clip you find and link to will be much different of course – say, some overweight lesbian saying government should pay for her hypothetical abortions. Or whatever. But you’ll find one won’t you?

The point is, in any (reasonably sizable) group of humans you’ll find some weird, imperfect, or bad ones. What ideologues do is ignore the bad apples on their side while citing any bad apples on the other side as evidence of the other side’s inherent, intrinsic, foundational inferiority.

This sort of one-sided analytical blindness helps people nurture their ideologies. It’s what feeds and keeps ideologies alive and coherent. Because ideologies can’t, or don’t usually, survive merely by being a good and appealing set of ideas. The way they survive and flower in human populations is through group identification: by adopting an ideology, you’re not just getting some ideas into your head, you’re simultaneously signing yourself up for this or that sort of group membership. And it may be the latter not the former that appeals to people the most.

This is true of lefty socialists, for whom advertising themselves as ‘smart, nice people’ so often seems more important to them than the actual tangible results of the policies they favor. But it is true of righty “tea-baggers” as well; watching this interview of Andrew Breitbart by Glenn Reynolds, one thing that struck me in Breitbart’s laudatory comments about the tea partiers was that he didn’t merely, or even primarily, cite their ideas as appealing – he cited them as appealing. To him, they were good and decent and nice people, and it almost seemed as if that (not the ideas themselves) was, for him, the tea party’s biggest selling point.

In both cases, if these ideologies were just ideas, they would be much less appealing, or at least salient, to people. But really what they are is cliques. Tribes. Maybe the modern world doesn’t quite have enough ‘standard’ tribes to satisfy peoples’ need for them. Maybe nation-states are just too big, religions too weak, neighborhoods too fragmented. So, starved of that tribal craving, like a recovering junkie reaching for a cigarette, people need a substitute – in this case, some canned political ideology. “I’m a leftist”, “I’m green”, “I’m a conservative”.

This organic, consumer-driven splintering and antagonistic ingroup/outgroup bias even happens in relatively unimportant walks of life – note the rise of ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’ rock in the past 30 years or so. Until sometime in the ’80s, there was Rock. Sometimes there were distinguishable offshoots, like Punk. But then we were told there was (supposedly) something called ‘Alternative Rock’. Which, as far as I could tell, was just a subset of rock (guitars, bass, drums, 4/4..) played and listened to by people who had decided that the other subsets of rock weren’t ‘cool’ enough for them. I mean, it was never as if ‘Alternative Rock’ was a distinguishable form of music from ‘Rock’. You can’t listen to a song and tell whether it is ‘Rock’ or ‘Alternative’, because they are not different types of music. They’re different types of people, and different ways of marketing those people. ‘Alternative’ was essentially a marketing niche created to appeal to people who felt a need to distinguish themselves from ‘regular’ Rock listeners. And it worked. Virtually all rock listeners, millions of them, distinguished themselves as ‘special’ rock listeners, not like those dumb regular rock listeners.

Of course, at some point it worked too well, because your local Tower Records at some point inserted an ‘Alternative’ section, and there were ‘Alternative’ radio stations, and you could see characters on Beverly Hills 90210 talking about ‘alternative’, to the point where the idea that there was anything truly alternative about ‘Alternative’ was almost – actually, scratch that: literally – laughable. Hence the inevitable rebranding, sometime in the ’90s: suddenly there was ‘Indie’. Same thing, new name. What the heck’s so indie about ‘Indie’? Beats me. Still seems like rock musicians playing rock songs and trying to sell them to us. Is ‘Indie’ a style of music that one can aurally distinguish from ‘Rock’? Again: no. Again: it’s a type of person. It’s a tribe.

People just like and want to be part of tribes, it seems. They all want smaller, not bigger ones – although (somewhat paradoxically) the more people who join their ‘small’ tribe, up to a point, the happier they are. Similarly, they want to be in ‘special’ tribes, tribes that make them ‘special’ just by being a member – even if the tribe has zillions of such ‘special’ people. And when in tribes, people behave in predictably ‘hypocritical’ ways towards the enemy tribes. This is just the way people are.

Back to Kling’s post, I think it just happens that one tribe had, until the past decade or so, dominated the media; in a real sense, it was the tribe that was better at ‘media’, and still is. So they have used it shamelessly, perhaps subconsciously so, for their tribal ends. But that tribe lacks the same overpowering advantage on the internet, which the enemy tribe is now able to use to regularly and skillfully point out their (almost embarrassingly obvious) hypocrisy and bias. There has now arisen a sort of uneasy balance of power and I think perhaps that’s the best that can be hoped for.

“Alternative is something more
Than number 1,2,3, and 4
It’s 5,6,7,8,8,9
Alternative is doing fine
Alternative is how we live
We believe in alternative
And I think it’s safe to say
Alternative is here to stay
Alternative is here to stay
Alternative is here to stay”

(Sincerest apologies to The Mr. T Experience)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 501 other followers