Why the nastiest arguments dominate conversations

Opinion by Nick Pether
June 21, 2017, 12:19 a.m.

Back in January, when I was in a bit of a dark mood, I wrote a column titled “Why performances of white liberal guilt make me want to punch myself in the throat.” Basically, I was venting at what I felt was a toxic and frustrating part of politically correct student culture. It wasn’t my best work. I didn’t write it for the sake of being controversial. I wrote what I meant and I don’t think my argument was entirely wrong, but it was more aggressive, polarizing and perhaps unfair than anything else I’ve written for the Daily.

Ironically, this turned out to be probably my most successful column all year, if we define “success” in terms of Facebook likes, retweets from famous people and nice emails from strangers telling me what I had written was important. The thing is, I didn’t receive a lot of nice emails from strangers in spite of my being mean, I received them because of it. When a handful of upset social media commenters started giving me grief, the piece only got more positive attention. I think I’ve written other columns that were not only thoroughly nicer but had better analysis and covered vastly more important subject matter. So what’s going on here?

We see something similar with the Stanford Review. The Review has a lot of writers and produces a lot of content, some of which I think is great, but is better known for polemical moves like its proposal for a “Western Civilization” humanities requirement last year or the not-at-all-clickbaity “Students for Justice in Palestine Linked to Terrorist Affiliate.” The writers who regularly alienate large chunks of the student body are the ones everyone seems to know by name.

The pattern here is that the more controversial something is, the more it gets talked about. Informedness, careful analysis, worthwhile subject matter and charitable or constructive engagement with different views is less important for getting your article attention than dividing people.

More specifically, anything that can be perceived as an attack by one tribe against another tribe will blow up. Take what happened to the piece I wrote in January. I wrote something that (unintentionally) felt like an attack on Stanford’s activist community to both activists and people who make a big deal about not liking activists. This raised my status as an ingroup member to the latter, to whom the article served as a sort of affirmation of their contempt for activists and vilified the former and caused them to flag me as an untrustworthy outgroup member. When a handful of Facebook commenters responded angrily, the exact same thing happened the other way round. They weren’t just criticizing me for being unfair, they were criticizing what I represented, a hostile tribe that was out to get them. This dynamic built on itself for a bit, with different people offering supportive Facebook likes for different sassy comments depending on their tribal affiliation until someone complained that the whole stupid affair was giving her anxiety and everyone rather sheepishly calmed down (Stanford’s student body is not entirely lost yet). I didn’t intend for that article to turn out as distressingly as it did. I don’t think my detractors wanted that either. But it happened anyway.

There are several toxic dynamics at play here. First, there’s an incentive to be mean. Loudly proclaiming your allegiance sends a stronger signal of commitment to cause and community than cautious criticism. Saying “I think you’re wrong about this” sounds milquetoast. “Screw you and everything you represent” shows you’re not playing around. Second, people are forced to take a side. When discussion around an issue or opinion starts to look like an argument between two different tribes, acknowledging any kind of point can seem like a cop out or betrayal of whatever side you usually identify with, particularly when they’re currently under attack. Third, meanness and tribalism are likely to snowball because it’s easier to say unkind things to people who’ve already acted unkindly themselves. Fourth, the most heated arguments are likely to dominate the conversation because it’s hard to let unfair mean-spirited accusations against your tribe stand. And so it continues.

This means that content producers have every incentive to produce the most polarizing content possible because that’s what people are going to engage with, even if the engagement isn’t good for them. And this is approximately how every political argument on Facebook or Tumblr ever works, how the media fuels political polarization and how the most polarizing issues and arguments tend to dominate conversations on campus and across the nation. As always, there is a slatestarcodex post that discusses this in far greater detail. It is called “The Toxoplasma of Rage,” and everyone should read it.

The purpose of opinion pieces should be to contribute arguments that make people better or better off for having read them. Getting people to balkanize and distrust each other does not do this. I think making a deliberate effort to recognize these tribal dynamics and avoid feeding the monster is an incredibly important duty for all loud, opinionated people.

Contact Nick Pether at npether ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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