The tyranny of opinion is causing polarization.

The tyranny of opinion is this: the media-driven pollution of our social currents with the expectation that everyone should have an opinion on everything.  The insidious drive to have an opinion on everything is not just a byproduct of so much media pollution.  Some people think that we have more opinions now just because we have so much more information.  Not so.  Media is not just the presence of large amounts of information.  Media is the expectation that the information is important, that one should be forming an opinion on it, and that your opinion is important.  Media inculcates this expectation by polling, by doing frequent features where they ask notionally random people for their opinion on a subject, and by arranging for you to share and comment on information that catches your eye.

Of course its obvious why media does this.  If you feel like you ought to have an opinion, you consume more media.

Its also obvious why the behavior the media encourages is bad for you.  Engaging in media–participating in buzz–consumes time and energy with little return.  It is a low-grade social infection.

But one less obvious side effect is polarization.

Studies show over and over again that the most polarized people are the most informed.

Of course you can’t disagree with someone about something if you don’t have an opinion on it.  That’s natural.  Even if opinions were randomly distributed you’d get more polarization than if there weren’t opinions at all.

But opinions aren’t randomly distributed.  The expectation that you should have an opinion mostly outstrips the time and effort you have available.  Even if you are badly infected with a case of the media, you are not going to be able to hunt down a wide variety of sources and get fully informed on every available topic.  Instead, you can adopt an ideology as a crutch.   You have a set of rules, instincts, or heuristics that let you quickly form superficial opinions on a wide variety of issues.  Or, you can adopt tribalism as a crutch.  Tribalism can be your ideology, you can just form an opinion of the news based on whether its good for the X, but even more simply you can simply start adopting the opinions of a group you identify with.  You outsource the labor of forming opinions which reduces the burden.  Where ideology and tribalism combine is when you form a tribe based on shared ideology.  That’s how you get Red v. Blue.

Lets think about the Great and Spacious Building for a moment, which seems to represent the whole media-status-consensus complex that rules our world.  Have you ever asked yourself why the people in it spend their time mocking and pointing?  Are they just inherently wicked people?  Sure, maybe, in part.  But its more than that.  The design of the GSB encourages that behavior, because there is nothing else to do there.  You point and mock faute de mieux.  By analogy, the media flood you with information, but what then? Information seems sterile and pointless unless you form an opinion about it, and opinions demand to be argued about.

P.S.  This post is not a blanket denunciation of either tribalism or ideology or other heuristics.  There are probably healthy versions of all of them outside the hothouse hyperstimulized atmosphere of modern life.


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