In this first post in this series, we described how The Current Thing works. In the second post, we outlined how The Bizarro Current Thing works. In this third and final post, we’ll discuss why both Current Things and Bizarro Current Things are impervious to rational conversations and nuanced debate. I also discussed this series on The Narrative Monopoly podcast.
In an excellent 2017 conversation between Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen, and Kara Swisher, an audience member asks Reid and Marc if the cause of our inability to have rational conversations is that too many of our conversations are happening digitally instead of in person.
Reid gives a strong example of an organization called Village Square dedicated to in person conversations that are civil and polite.
Marc on the other hand challenges the premise of the question, referencing the book Infamous Scribblers to describe how, hundreds of years before social media, Ben Franklin and others were using pseudonyms in newspapers to attack people in far more vicious ways than people do today. In other words, the idea that we can return to a golden age where everyone was polite and rational is a pipe dream, because that golden age never existed. The health of our current discourse is abysmal, but it’s always been abysmal. The status quo is the norm, not the exception.
How Twitter amplifies polarization
Now, this isn’t to say that Social Media doesn’t exacerbate polarization.
It’s fair to say that Twitter drives most people to extremes, either far left or far right. You can think of Twitter as a machine to maximize outrage: It will serve up an endless series of examples of things for you to be outraged about.
And, due to motivated reasoning and the other biases, if you're on the right, you will interpret all the outrageous examples as proof of the hypocrisy of the left, and vice versa. And then the algorithm will reinforce that harder and harder as you get driven further to the extreme.
There are studies that show that if you take people who have differing views and put them together in small groups, they’ll often moderate their views in order to coexist in harmony. But if you take people who have similar views and put them together, they’ll often strengthen each other’s views, subconsciously competing with each other for the status of most loyal to the group. That’s what Twitter does: it simultaneously places you in a community of people with the same views as you, *and* also puts you within earshot of a community of people with opposing views. This dynamic leads to a purity spiral where people are constantly one-upping each other to prove their loyalty, and it’s why every community gets politicized, from Birdwatching to Knitting.
Someone on Hacker News described a variation of this dynamic called “The Toaster Fucker problem:”
Man wakes up in 1980, tells his friends "I want to fuck a toaster" Friends quite rightly berate and laugh at him, guy deals with it, maybe gets some therapy and goes on a bit better adjusted.
Guy in 2021 tells his friends that he wants to fuck a toaster, gets laughed at, immediately jumps on facebook and finds "Toaster Fucker Support group" where he reads that he's actually oppressed and he needs to cut out everyone around him and should only listen to his fellow toaster fuckers.
Apply this analogy to literally any insular bubble, it applies as equally to /r/thedonald as it does to the emaciated Che Guevara larpers that cry thinking about ringing their favorite pizza place.
If you’re a highly rational person, you get disgusted with the dynamic. You’d think there’d be enough rational people who can enforce norms of civility. Incorrect!
Extremists will always care more than people in the middle (see The Intolerant Minority). Whereas people who want to be left alone are by definition no good at recruiting or defending their tribe. If you disagree with The Current Thing or The Bizarro Current Thing and you try to convince both sides to moderate, you will have no home and you will get accused of treason by both sides. Non-aggressors will always lose to aggressors. This is why there’s no durable middle. This is why people pick sides. This is why we can’t have nice things.
This increasing extremism helps explain why everything is so bonkers. COVID and Ukraine were our first Twitter-native pandemic & war, and both entailed purity spirals that influenced crazy policy proposals and nearly led to a world war. Politicians look to Twitter to identify what their constituents want, and since Twitter amplifies the loudest voices and scares the silent majority from speaking, politicians only hear from the most extreme sides of the base and mistakenly think it represents the majority.
Is Social Media the Engine or the Camera?
Marc Andreessen recently tweeted: is the internet an engine or camera?…Are things actually more stupid today, or were they always stupid and we’re just more aware of the stupidity now?
Of course, Communism and Nazism predated the internet, and those movements were crazier than anything we’re seeing today. People have been taking political sides and forming up mobs and killing scapegoats since….forever.
It seems obvious that the internet is both: It’s a camera that becomes an engine. People act differently in front of the camera—they perform for their tribe, especially when people’s tribal loyalty is in question, as it always is in a society where our tribal bonds are formed over beliefs instead of genetics or geography. And the internet offers the widest camera angle possible—everyone is in the frame 24/7, always at risk of being called out.
And this is why we don’t prioritize rational conversation: We care more about being part of the tribe. Everything makes much more sense when we understand that people are hard-wired to choose a tribe, stick within it, and defend it unconditionally.
Tribalism over Truth
As we discussed previously, we’ve evolved to rise up within tribal structures. People who focused on improving their reputation passed their genes successfully. People who were focused on finding truth for truth's sake, even at the cost of social cohesion or their own spot in the hierarchy, were less likely to pass on their genes.
We need tribes to survive, so we’ll do nearly anything to increase our reputation within the tribe that we care about. Indeed, it’s more predictive to think of “belief” not as something someone thinks of as true, but as something someone thinks will improve their reputation within a tribe.
This is why people aren’t as interested in being as rational as possible in their ideas. because there's no reason they should be. Ideas aren't about logic. Ideas are badges of group membership. They are Schelling points. Ideas aren't things we hold in our minds; they’re things we say. If saying the same things wrong people say isn't going to make you more friends, you aren't going to say those things. But if saying what the right people say is going to make you more friends, well, you’re probably going to say those things instead. That’s the purpose of ideas—to express loyalty to the tribe.
Here’s the kicker: the crazier a bonding ideology is—the further away it is from objective reality—the more powerful it is in forming tribes. Why? The crazier the idea, or the crazier the way a person defends their idea, the more it proves their loyalty to the group by shutting off their other available options. Your perceived loyalty increases when you make yourself unsuitable for other tribes because it proves you won’t defect and join them. Until you do that, all tribal attachments are fleeting and contingent.
Consider the phrase, “Abolish the police”, a Current Thing in 2020. Even the people who claimed “Abolish the police” concede that’s not what they truly meant. They meant redirecting police funds to social services and reforming police accountability. But the phrase “Abolish the police” achieves the goal of improving their reputation within their tribe because, by abandoning reasonableness, they are burning the boats to the enemy tribe, demonstrating their in-group loyalty.
This is also why Abolish the Police was such a textbook Current Thing. “Increased social services for poor people” would have never taken off, nor would “Reform police unions”. People have been trying to get attention to those topics for decades. Only something crazy, but with a kernel of truth, could get such wide attention.
To reiterate: The Current Thing is sometimes true, but it certainly isn't run by the scientific method, it's run by high school politics. People are often vessels looking for a hit. They don’t really care where they get it; they only care that it’s good.
Tim Urban and Bret Weinstein and others have talked about the battle being about neither left vs. right nor democrats vs. republicans, but actually between rational people vs. non-rational people, but this is naive. Rationality will never win for the same reason that libertarians will never gain power. Rationality can’t beat irrationality head on. It just doesn’t sell. One look at politics can tell you that.
This is why Current Things may be true, but they are not optimized for truth. They are optimized for fitness, or in this case, going viral.
Take Marxism as an example: Marxism is not a “true idea” in the sense that its economic theories/implications have led to disastrous effects when tried, and yet the idea still remains wildly popular. What gives? It’s not a true idea, but it has “fitness” in that it appeals to a wide number of people across generations.
To take another crazy example: Homeopathy. Again, not a true idea, and yet a majority of the world believes in it. Which makes sense when you realize we’ve always believed in mass delusions. Bret Weinstein has gone so far to say that religion, while likely logically false, must be metaphorically true (“fit”) in order to have flourished (i.e. gone viral) for so long.
In fact, some ideas are so “fit” that evidence asserting their falsity won’t debunk them. People are so incentivized to believe them that they keep believing in them in spite of evidence to the contrary. Religion, communism, and fascism are common examples. If you expect these to go away via the marketplace of ideas, you're going to be waiting for a long time.
So. This is why things seem so stupid: The truth doesn’t win, because that's not what binds people together. There’s certainly a market for truth – the thousands of intellectual shards that permeate Substack, Twitter, and other independent media – but it’s often niche by definition, much to my chagrin. So what does that leave us with? The Anderson Coopers or Alex Joneses of the world: The Current Thing, or The Bizarro Current Thing. The rest of us who want rational conversations are on ice floes headed slowly out to sea.
Thanks to Molly Mielke
I enjoyed this three part series so much. Solidified ideas that I've been thinking about. Especially, beliefs being tribal membership that have little to do with objective truth. Tribal vibes all over.
I found your explanation of extreme beliefs to be fascinating, I.e. why believing in something patently absurd is the ultimate marker of tribal membership.
I tend to agree that most people don't want to think. They want to drink some beer, watch the game, text their vote to American Idol and go to Disneyland for their vacation. I read an interesting take a day or two back. I can't remember who said it, but they argued that many people won't start to think because if they did it would force them to question an entire lifetime of decisions. It's like, you can't start pulling on the thinking thread because the entire sweater will unravel. If you remove the foundation of following the current thing, your life may quickly collapse.
Anyways. Loved this series, thanks for publishing it.
Weird hypothesis: "rationalism" is more likely to be midwit, and that playing around "current thing" is the smartest move. Saying one thing and doing another.