Dental hygiene among Paleolithic people was, all things considered, pretty good. This came as a surprise to the first archaeologists who studied it. But it soon became clear that the issue was that our teeth had evolved for the kind of diet we had. With the rise of agriculture and especially more recently with processed foods and refined sugar, we reached a point that we were doing things to our teeth that they just weren’t designed for.
I think we are seeing this with our media diet. Fox News is a particularly good example because they have managed to refine their product better than anyone else. I’m very interested in the way that it is able to finetune the worst aspects of tribalism.
There are important and good aspects of our tribal nature. But a little tribalism goes a long way. And it’s hardly necessary for Americans to subdivide themselves — especially when many claim that they are the only “true Americans.”
For a long time, I’ve pushed back on the idea that many white Americans “vote against their interests.” My (and many others’) argument is that we shouldn’t define a person’s interest in selfish economic terms. By such terms, I vote against my own interests all the time.
I now see this as a limited argument, however. Far too many people are made to be confused about their interests. Yes, I fully admit that for insecure white men, the rising status of women and people of color can be seen as catastrophic.
But is it? In a more hopeful world, would their feelings of worth really be determined by Marvel only publishing comic books with white male superheroes — all other characters relegated to villains and bystanders?
I’m constantly shocked at the insecurity of those around me who are ostensively powerful but who require constant reassurance. I’ve noticed this about patriotic displays at sports events and the hysterical anger at the use of “Happy Holidays.” If you are secure in your patriotism, why the need for others to demonstrate it? If you know Jesus is the savior, why the need for Target clerks to reinforce it?
But outlets like Fox News have found that it isn’t profitable to tell these people they are doing fine (which is true). Instead, they stoke resentment and fear.
Trump Is Always Right
One of the most remarkable things during the Trump presidency is how nothing bad about him ever makes its way to his supporters except as an example of the “fake news” that is being unfairly reported by radical leftists at The Washington Post. And when talking to Trump supporters, you hear a never-ending stream of Fox News-approved talking points.
There is certainly some of this on the left. But it is limited by the fact that liberals and leftists still exists in the fact-based world. It’s really amazing that online conservatives like Jordan Peterson spend so much time complaining about the left’s “postmodernism” and “relativism,” yet it is the right in this country that has completely abandoned the concept of absolute reality.
And I don’t think this would be the case without Fox News and related media. Most people think that there is something like absolute reality. Even the Fox News viewers who act like cultists believe in it outside of politics. And why? Because that is the default belief. It is only the constant assault of propaganda that allows them to abandon it in politics.
Problems on the Left
Where this manifests most profoundly on the left is in internecine conflicts. What I have in mind is the Democratic primary. I’ve seen a lot of people who only get information about candidates they don’t support from supporters of the candidate they do.
I first noticed this with myself regarding Kamala Harris. I kept hearing the same three talking points about her. They weren’t good, but they always weren’t terrible. Eventually, I started to think that if these were the worst things about her, she probably wasn’t that bad. So I did some research and I learned that they were largely true. There was more nuance to issues. But while I still found them negatives, they weren’t disqualifying.
This comes most from Bernie Sanders supporters, but only because they are more organized. I sometimes think if Sanders got a hangnail, his supporters would get #BernieNailCare trending. The problem is with everyone.
On the other side, people are hysterical in their hatred of Sanders. I’m not keen on some things that Sanders has done. But again, are they disqualifying? No. I never thought so little of Hillary Clinton as when she wouldn’t commit to supporting Sanders if he were the nominee.
Narratives and Facts
And it’s all the same thing. The only information that gets through to Sanders haters are things that make him look bad. And I am tired of hearing people tell me they get the full picture but these bad things just really matter. That’s just having a particular narrative and dismissing everything that runs counter to it as “unimportant.”
I first saw this tendency among Clinton supporters against Sanders in 2016. Then I saw it from Sanders supporters against Clinton in 2016. Most recently, I’ve seen it from Sanders and Harris supporters against Warren.
How do I know this is happening? Because these people only ever talk about these opponents when they have something bad to share. I’m constantly surprised to hear of a little-reported Warren gaff in a Twitter thread. But don’t worry: they know all about Warren; it’s just that only the bad things matter.
It’s as though each campaign has its own negative press secretary for the other campaigns. And their supporters think this constant stream of negativity represents who the other candidates are. And why not? It supports their narrative.
Humans are not designed to deal with modern media that is designed to solidify tribes. Just as our teeth are harmed by the refined sugar in our food, our society is harmed by the refined tribalism of Fox News and social media.
And in this way, conservatives have the advantage. While the Democrats are fracturing, increasingly looking at a billionaire from New York to save us, the Republicans are as committed to Trump as ever.
But as long as [fill in your most hated Democratic opponent] doesn’t win, it’s all fine. Amiright?!