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How to Be a Civic Environmentalist

It is something of a truism to say that we live in polarized and polarizing times. This has most recently been laid bare by the Kavanaugh hearings south of the border and the Trump presidency more generally. But the political and social irruptions dominating the news in America are manifestations of broader cultural trends that are increasingly pitting politics and the identities we construct around them against one another. It’s a reality that many are struggling to come to terms with, contribute to, or even understand. 

David Brooks delves into some fascinating new research on these matters in his piece called “The Rich White Civil War” in today’s New York Times. Here are some of the conclusions he mines out of a study called “Hidden Tribes” conducted by a group called More in Common.

American politics is no longer about what health care plan you support. It’s about identity, psychology, moral foundations and the dynamics of tribal resentment.

Few of us would disagree with this. The evidence is all around us (it dominates our Facebook and Twitter feeds). But, perhaps surprisingly, the tribal resentments that seem to feed American politics and so much of our cultural discourse—the 5-10% on the far right and the far left of the spectrum—are driven by those who are mostly white, educated, and rich.

These two groups are the richest of all the groups. They are the whitest of the groups. Their members have among the highest education levels, and they report high levels of personal security… My first big takeaway from “Hidden Tribes” is that our political conflict is primarily a rich, white civil war. It’s between privileged progressives and privileged conservatives.

You could say that tribalism is the fruit of privilege.

Brooks goes on:

People with college degrees are more likely to describe their ideology as central to their identity. They are much more likely to derive moral meaning from their label, more likely to affiliate with a herd based on their label and more likely to vote on the party line.


All in all, as someone who’s richer that I’d probably like to admit, sorta educated, and pretty white, that’s some interesting (and indicting) research.

The good news is that once you get outside the two elite groups of privileged white, educated people on the fringes that seem to drive the agenda, there is a lot more “independent thinking and flexibility.” Around two-thirds of Americans (and, again, we could probably extrapolate beyond America into other parts of the Western world) could be categorized as the “exhausted majority.” You would never know this by reading the papers or watching the news on TV or online. You would, at times, think that we are on the verge of all out liberal vs conservative warfare. But of course the media has a vested interest in making us think this. Extreme positions sell. The rich white civil war sells particularly well. It generates clicks and, more importantly, outrage, which at times seems like our last remaining common currency.

So, what’s an “exhausted majority” to do? Well, Last week, David Brooks wrote another insightful article called “A Complete National Disgrace.” In it, he argues for creating a new “environmental movement”—a movement that recognizes that the only way through and (hopefully) beyond our present state of affairs will be to start taking personal responsibility for “policing our civic environment.” The solutions will only come when we resist the easy and lazy scapegoating that we so easily trade in (especially online) and actually begin to interact with real human beings rather than convenient categories to serve as ciphers for all of our rage, scorn, fear, and helplessness.

According to Brooks,

You detoxify disputes when you personalize them. People who don’t have regular contact with people they disagree with become intellectually dishonest quickly.

I think he’s one hundred percent correct on both counts here. Disputes are detoxified when they are personalized. It’s far harder to be a jerk when you’re interacting with a flesh and blood human being, no matter how distasteful you find their positions on this or that issue. When you’re talking with a person rather than a category, you quite quickly realize that many of the same human concerns that animate you are driving them. It becomes possible to have conversations instead of arguments. Discussions become more exploratory and curious and less adversarial.

And he’s right about the second part, too. When we remain in our ideological silos, lobbing discursive bombs at those we blame for all that is wrong in society, congratulating ourselves on our correctness and virtue, we do, in fact, become intellectually dishonest. Rather quickly, it seems to me. We construct straw men and gleefully tear them down. We present the views of others in terms they would never agree with. We describe our own views in terms far too certain and personally flattering. We do ourselves and our communities a profound disservice when we surround ourselves and interact with people who pretty much think exactly like us on all matters. We lose the ability to see the world from another point of view. We forget that we have things to learn.

I’ve seen this many times in my own life. I’ve sat down over coffee with people who were antagonistic to, say, the refugee work I was involved in a few years ago. Online, these people were often combative and closed. In person, the tone changed. There was give and take and concessions and questions. There was still disagreement, sure, but it felt different. It felt… detoxified. I regularly sit in hockey dressing rooms with friends whose politics and worldview does not always map on to my own, but who remind me that just because things look a certain way from behind my desk, that doesn’t mean that they look and feel the same while laying concrete or working as a mechanic or whatever.

I’ve heard this from others, too. A few weeks ago when I wrote about the experience of reading Jordan Peterson, I got a handful of private messages from people (some of whom would probably be more politically liberal than I am) who said things along the lines of, “You know, I’m scared to admit this online or in public spaces, but I’ve read Peterson too. He speaks the language of the guys I hang out with, my co-workers, the people I meet at the rink or the gym. No, I don’t buy everything he’s selling, but he makes sense to people that I care about and I think it’s important for me to pay attention to this.”

I could go on, but this post is (predicably) getting long.

It’s important to have contact with people who think differently. Really important. Having people in my life who are both more conservative than me and more liberal than me has taught me a great many things, not least that how you say something is often at least as important as what you say. It regularly reminds me of just how important it is to “police” my contributions to the civic environments of which I am a part. And, well, it’s a lot more interesting (and rewarding) than lining up and dutifully taking up arms in the rich, white civil war.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    Very thought provoking,Ryan. A great contemplation. this helps me to realize the extent that emotion/emotionalism plays in my online persona.

    October 17, 2018
    • Thanks very much, Mike. I think the same is true for most of us!

      October 17, 2018
  2. Paul Johnston #

    So the New York Times concludes the real issue is white privilege, wow there’s a shocker! Tribalism the white privilege phenomena. Try that as a doctorate thesis, see how far you get. I can hear Dr. Jordan Peterson warming up a lobster story that might suggest tribalism has been around a little bit longer then the progressives on the NYT might have you believe. 🙂

    Tribalism, as it is presently experienced, is mostly a phenomenon of the socialist left. Creating classes of victims, united by their real and perceived suffering at the hands of the white western patriarchy, is the unifying undercurrent. Populism, as this author wilfully ignores is the majority response to building a nation of peoples united by their victimhood. History is replete with examples of violent revolutions whereby peoples who perceive themselves as nothing more than victims of a particular ruling class, wrecked havoc on the societies they were attempting to overthrow. Millions have died as a consequence.

    This author maliciously underestimates his, progressive left numbers and wilfully ignores the millions of people of colour, gender and sexual orientation who populate the progressive left. The only white people I encounter within the movement are 4th wave feminists and a few male environmentalists. Intersectional politics, being what it is, places white people lower on the totem pole of grievance.

    It is simple. The answer to two questions is all you need to know. Are you in favour of equality of opportunity or do you favour equality of outcome. If the former, welcome to liberal democracy in all it’s human unevenness and if you are able, do what you can to advance fairness within the system. If the latter you are a totalitarian and your objectives can only be met through a complete betrayal of democracy and personal freedom and maintained through violence and death.

    October 18, 2018

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