People frequently speak about how divided the United States is right now. This comment is often associated with things like left-wing protests on college campuses, discussions of partisan media, and gridlock in Washington DC.
This divisiveness is frequently attributed to “tribalism.” But “tribalism” doesn’t strike me as a very informative explanation. It is merely a description of the effect but, doesn’t say a lot about the cause. The question then is, what makes our society more or less tribalistic?
No doubt this is a complex issue. However, it seems to me that a significant factor in these divisions is the pervasive intellectual culture of the United States right now. In particular, the appearance of widespread intellectual conformity.
By intellectual conformity, I simply mean the practice of adopting the views of people that you identify with, rather than thinking for yourself about a given issue. Thinking for yourself requires challenging the ideas of those around you - not merely accepting these ideas because of your group identity (e.g., “I’m a liberal” or “I’m a conservative” etc. therefore I believe this).
Why might intellectual conformity specifically lead to a divided society?
Intellectual conformity will create groups of people that are more committed to their side or group than to things like principles, ideas, values, reason, etc. These people will put their emotions and value judgments into tangible things like specific policy positions, rather than start from the principles and ideas they value and negotiate the specifics from there in a logical, clear-headed way.
Their views on a particular issue have more to do with their group affiliation and are not the result of principled, independent thinking.
In an intellectually conformist society, people’s opinions on specific issues tend to be harder, with less room for compromise because they are committed to a specific group’s preferred policy position, not to the ideas or principles that are the basis of informed opinions. This helps to explain why one can have such a strong emotional reaction toward specific people and policy positions.
Look no further than the vitriol that some college students have for Ben Shapiro or someone with whom they disagree. If you listen to the actual principles and ideas of someone that you disagree with, you might not share them, but you can at least have some respect for them and would be less inclined to feel such hate toward these people.
But of course, an intellectual conformist does not look to the ideas and logic of another person's views because they’ve already invested their emotions into hard specifics.
The specific policy positions do not come as the organic result of independent thinking, questioning, and discussion. If they were, it would be very unlikely for one’s specific policy positions to be so inflexible - there would be plenty of room for adjustment and compromise.
The conformist thinking leading to a dysfunctional society is not so different from other kinds of herd behavior that have caused dysfunction and suffering in the U.S.
The financial crisis of 2008, for one, had a lot to do with people not thinking for themselves. Bankers and financial industry experts went along with what they were told and didn’t question what (we know with hindsight) they needed to examine.
But we know now that if they had thought for themselves and questioned things, the adverse economic outcomes that ravaged the global economy perhaps would not have occurred.
It is undoubtedly true that a free society doesn’t get rid of the biological or psychological basis for pressures to conform; human minds are wired toward high receptivity to social norms. However, we should not allow this to be an excuse for complacency if herd behavior and intellectual conformity are destroying our society.
Therefore, I believe that this is a larger problem that we must be aware of for the broader health and cohesion of our society: independent thinking vs. intellectual conformity.
One of the miracles of a free society is that independently thinking individuals can steer society itself in the right direction. A culture where people don’t think for themselves squanders this miracle, making it little better than a collectivist society where citizens are legally obliged to follow the herd.