Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
Politics Doesn’t Have to Be Our Everything
Featuring Jonathan Haidt & Alison Goldsworthy
If politics is the new religion, we’re in desperate need of reform. Alison Goldsworthy, CEO of The Depolarization Project, and Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School, examine how we’ve landed in the middle of a polarization hurricane and how we can get out if it. In the long run, they tell us, things are likely to settle. But short-term, Gen Z in particular might be in for a rocky ride.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, here with Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are having a series of conversations with seriously interesting people about seriously important topics. And there is nothing more seriously important, or at least something that all of us seem to think is seriously important, than the crucial issue of political, social, ideological, religious, and interpersonal polarization in a polarized time, in a polarized age, in a polarized planet. So the question is, what do we do about it? Is there anything to be done? And is it more of an issue in the way we talk about it than in reality? And no one is better to have this conversation with than Jonathan Haidt and Alison Goldsworthy.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Alison is the founder and CEO of The Depolarization Project, which is an organization that provides training courses to businesses, students, community groups, and encourages leaders to open up, to change their minds. Before that she was very active in politics and campaigning for 20 years and has written for various publications. She has a book out in September 2021 called “Poles Apart.” And Jonathan Haidt is a professor of ethical leadership at New York University Stern School of Business. He’s the author of several books, among them the “New York Times” bestseller “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” And you can see his writings everywhere from “The New York Times” to “The Wall Street Journal.” So today, for this two-part conversation, we’re going to start with Jonathan, talk about his work a little bit, and then we’re going to bring in Alison in the middle.
ZK: So let’s go. Jonathan, it’s great to be having this conversation with you today. I don’t think there’s anybody in the world that we know of—and I believe that between Emma and I, we know of absolutely everybody in the world—that we could have a better conversation with about, not just polarization and the challenge of people communicating, but someone who, let’s say as opposed to George Packer—and I’m not saying this critically of George, who’s an amazing writer, and I think a really compelling voice—who does tend to focus more on the looming dystopian fissures that beset societies. A Lot of your work has been to sort of point them out and then try to articulate and think through what could ameliorate them, what we could do with a clear issue to make sure it doesn’t continue to be a clear issue, rather than simply standing on the rooftop saying we have a problem.
So given the world today, where the perception, perhaps rightly, in the United States for sure, and certainly in Europe in many ways, in India, you name it around the world, the idea that the pandemic highlighted, aggravated, intensified these alt realities that different parts of the world are living in socially and politically do you come out of that just reinvigorated about the work that you’ve been doing, or do you come out of that going, “Oops. Oh, wow, we’ve got a problem”?
Jonathan Haidt (JH): Well, first, thanks for having me on. Thanks for starting The Progress Network. Thanks for bringing together a large group of people who don’t want to just talk about gloom and doom but actually want to do something about it and think that something can be done. And I think the difference between me and, say, George Packer, I think he—well, he’s one of the greatest writers out there. So that’s one difference. But another, I think, is that I have just much lower expectations. I think George is a true liberal who’s very disappointed, as many are and many should be about how things are going. I’m a social psychologist who studies morality, and especially from an evolutionary point of view as well as a cultural point of view. And I’m just delighted. That isI have such low expectations for what human life should be like. And you read accounts of hunter-gatherers—now, those who are very politicized people on the left love to point to the San Bushmen, and “Oh, everything was harmony, and they didn’t have to work,” but you read a bunch of accounts from around the world and it was like constant violence and starvation—not constant violence, but it was miserable.
And the reason why people run to the cities and civilization is because life without it is incredibly miserable and full of conflict. And the fact that we live together with so little violence is just extraordinary. So yes, if you care about democracy, we are in a democratic recession. If you care about truth, science, research, we are in epistemic crisis. Things are getting worse for our democracy. Things are getting worse for our ability to find truth. But that’s at the level of 10 or 20 years. The overall trend—whenever I get depressed. I just remember I have an inner Steven Pinker in my head… And it’s the same thing for Robert Wright, and for the rational optimist Matt Ridley. People have always thought society was going to hell. And at times they’ve been right, but in the long run, it’s just gotten better and better.
EV: So this is the secret to happiness and success in democracy, to lower our expectations.
JH: Well, yeah, and that’s sort of what the Stoics and the Buddhists have been telling us for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans really had this idea of the wheel of fortune, that if things are good, don’t get too attached to it because they’re going to go down. They can’t keep going up forever. And until the 1800s or so, life was just sort of ups and downs and ups and downs. And since the 1800s, it’s been overwhelmingly up with some downs, some big downs, but overwhelmingly up. So yeah, when you take the large view, you shouldn’t be too depressed. The other key—and this really just hit me over the last few weeks. The other key is to realize we are living in the middle of a hurricane, of a tsunami, and things feel crazier and crazier, and we still have intuitions and an evolved mind based on the before time, when life wasn’t always a tsunami.
And I finally have come to realize that the key to living and actually being happy in the present time is to just accept, “You know what? It’s going to be like this forever.” There’s the information revolution. Technology has changed. It’s always going to be like this. We’re never going to reach a point where we say, “Oh, wow, that was crazy. But things are calm and stable now. And they’re going to be sort of like this for the next five or 10 years.” No, it’s going to be like this for the rest of our lives. And you have to just kind of accept that and realize, you know what, this is an incredibly fascinating time to be living. And as long as my family isn’t in physical danger, and as long as I’m not literally in physical danger, I’ve kind of gotten used to the fact that people are going to say terrible things about me online, but just let it flow past, because if you wait 10 minutes or a day or two, you’re just onto the next thing.
ZK: I love that as an idea. And it’s, I think, a really important one, and strangely enough, one that is at least under-articulated; the idea that it’s not going to get better because there is an aspect of the human condition that is just going to be the human condition. I once wrote this book about Muslim, Christian, and Jewish coexistence, as an antidote, or an attempted antidote, to the widespread perception that we’ve lived in this world of endless conflict between the monotheistic faiths. And part of the point of that was, yes, there has been a lot of conflict between monotheistic faiths, but there’s also been a lot of periods where no one paid attention and everybody just kind of lived and let live, and that that, as a bar of coexistence—I think I mentioned this at one event and it got raised eyebrows, that you should start with coexistence, meaning you can live proximate to someone who you kind of want to kill and not act on it. And that’s a very low bar, but it’s not such a low bar given human history.
JH: That’s right. Anthony Appiah wrote a book—I believe this was in Cosmopolitanism like 15 years ago or something—and the key line that I took away from it is, how do we live together in these diverse societies? And the key line is we just have to get used to each other. We don’t have to agree. We don’t have to unite. We don’t have to come together. We don’t even have to respect each other. We just have to get used to living alongside each other; kind of a live and let live attitude, which is the hallmark of the liberal tradition until around maybe 2015. And so, yeah, in that sense, I’m a liberal. I think we will ultimately learn how to live alongside each other. But for now, parts of our society are in a collective maniaa moral panic in which they think you should bring your whole self to work, your organization for should reflect your values, whatever institution you’re in should advocate for your values.
And since we have diversity of values, that means endless conflict. But eventually, I think we’ll get used to the idea that, you know what? Don’t bring your whole self to work. You’ve got your values. I’ve got mine. There are certain domains in which we fight over our values, but work and restaurants and classrooms are not those places. That’s what I’m hoping we’ll get to.
EV: I definitely want to come back to work in particular. But just since Zachary brought up this idea that you need to get along with the people that you live near to, isn’t that part of the problem in the United States, that geographically, we are not living near to people very much anymore who have different political views than ours? As someone like Robert Talisse says, it’s not just that people in the cities tend to be more liberal than people who are in more rural parts, but we go to different grocery stores, we have different recreational activities. So how do you solve for that when we physically don’t intermingle very much anymore, we don’t get married to one another? How do you solve for that?
JH: So all of that was true and relevant in the before time, before 2009. In the after time, which is after 2012, it’s true and not relevant. That is, as we’ve seen in COVID, what matters is who we’re interacting with. And in the before time, people who lived within a few miles of you, you were more likely to interact with. But I don’t think that’s true anymore, and that may never be true again. So we have to look at our networks and who we’re interacting with. And there is still, I mean, look, we are still embodied creatures. We go to the supermarket, our kids go to schools—although, unless you send your kids to public school… You’re still isolated in different sub-communities. So yes, what you said is still true and it’s still somewhat relevant, but not nearly as much as it was before 2009.
ZK: And is that because, I mean, the flip side of that could be, to Emma’s point we’re interacting, just not physically. I wonder to the degree, I mean, yes, we’re also finding a way to technologically isolate ourselves, not just physically intermingle with who we want, but informationally only listen to what we want and the news we read, the content we consume. Surely there’s something there.
JH: I think we can refine that. So first of all, there is an academic debate as to whether we truly live in filter bubbles, as to whether technology isolates us or exposes us to more things. And it all depends on how you operationalize things. So there are some studies that show that, actually, conservatives are exposed to more liberal stuff online. And the liberals, [inaudible]. I’m a little dubious, because I suspect that what’s going on there is, sure if you look at their feed, conservatives might see stuff from “The New York Times,” but it’s because it’s being held up as something outrageous. So there’s a debate. I suspect that there is a lot of truth to the filter bubble thing, but I think there’s something deeper, more interesting going on. I’ve heard a few people say this. I think I first heard it from Yuval Noah Harari. And it is that one of the most essential skills of being a human being is learning to get along with people that really irritate you. And again, in the before time, before we were all connected by social media, there might be a kid in your class who really annoyed you, there might be a person or a coworker at work. In all kinds of ways—you rode the bus to school—you had to actually live with a jerk.
As we move on to more virtual interactions, there’s almost nobody you’re stuck with. You can just delete them, block their feed. And so I think, it’s bad enough for adults who once learned how to get along with jerks but now can block them out. I think this is disastrous for Gen Z. Gen Z is not learning many of the essential skills of normal adulthood, let alone an advanced democracy. So however bad things are now, I believe that as Gen Z becomes a larger proportion of the civically active population, things are going to get much, much worse. Now I’m not blaming them for it. It’s not their fault. It’s the combination of, we vastly overprotected them, we had this ridiculous idea that stress is bad for you—chronic stress is bad for you, but short-term stress is essential for development.
So we protected our kids. We prevented them from maturing. And then that same generation, those born around 1995, that same generation, we said, “Oh, we’re not gonna let you outside to walk around with your friends, but sure, you can play online, and lie about your age and join Instagram when you’re 10; sure.” So Gen Z is in really, really bad shape, especially when it comes to being able to tolerate someone that offends them. So all the problems we’re talking about—and I’ll put money on this—I think it’s going to get a lot worse in the next 10 years.
ZK: So Emma, as our millennial-Gen Z-cusp-designated spokesperson, does that resonate or do you think people maybe are chilling out a bit?
EV: First of all, I would like to separate myself from Gen Z, as a sort of elder millennial.
JH: No, there’s a big difference. You are not Gen Z. You’re a millennial.
EV: So, two things: first, I was going to ask Jonathan, especially with Gen Z coming into the workplace, I certainly do see Gen Z coming into the workplace with vastly different expectations, one, about like the values that they expect their company to hold and align themselves with, and two, just how the workplace operates. But since that’s the first generation that I’ve seen coming up after me, I don’t know if that’s just like, “Ah, this happens generationally,” or if this is a special thing, like Jonathan is saying. He’s shaking his head, so…
JH: There are all kinds of quotes from ancient Greece about how, “Oh, the young generation, they don’t have our values, and they’re not tough, and they’re disrespectful.” So there’s always a generational misunderstanding. And in some ways—so, this generation is extremely tolerant about race, gender, sexuality. And so everybody points to that and says, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful?” Sure. Yeah, that’s good. But they’re less tolerant about value or political differences. So that could just be, we’re changing one thing for another. The reason why I think this is different from everything before is that the rates of anxiety and depression have skyrocketed for Gen Z, not for the millennials. And that’s not just like, “Oh, they’re different. They have different values.” No, that is, you have a lot of members of Gen Z—and especially the women, the girls—have extraordinarily high rates of anxiety and depression. And what that means is that they see everything as threatening. We first saw this in university, because it really hit us first in 2014. We had a wave of students coming in, seeing threats everywhere. Now universities are about the most progressive, physically safe, tolerant, welcoming, inclusive places on Earth. Are they perfect? No place is. But we’re about as close to perfect as you can be. Yet, we had people saying, “Well, everything is power structures and oppression and racism and sexism. Everything is dangerous and threatening.” Like what? Do you mean a class? A speaker? We couldn’t understand it. But when you understand that we had a wave of depressed young people coming in, of depression and anxiety—your front right cortex is hyperactivated, your threat detection circuits, you’re not seeing opportunities, you’re not seeing like, “Wow, I could learn this, or I could meet these people.” It’s like, “Oh, I’m, I’m in danger.”
You can’t get an education if that’s your mindset. And then you get hired by a company, because you do have a degree from a good college. And it’s very hard for you to add value because you see threats and problems everywhere. So I’m hearing—I work in a business school, I talk with a lot of people who run businesses and who work in the corporate world—and I think about the millennials, there was a mix of, “Oh, they flit around, they change jobs, but they’re actually really creative, and boy are they good with technology!”
So it was a real mix of good and bad. And that was the normal generational stuff. You talk to people in the corporate world about how their youngest employees, 25 and under, are working. I’ve never heard a good thing said. It’s always like, “Oh my God!” One guy said, “If a light bulb burns out, they won’t change it. They come, like, ‘What should I do?’ Or they press us to not work with this client, or we have to express their values.” So they’ve grown up in a world in which there are no walls, in which there are not separate domains of expertise. And it’s very important for civic society that you have, like, doctors, and hospitals are their own domain with their own professional ethics. And courts and the law are different. And journalism is different. And the academy is different. You have to have walls and communities that have norms that are different from the public square. But Gen Z has grown up online. There are no walls; everything’s the same, and everything is Twitter. And it’s impossible to actually have functioning institutions when your young employees think everything is Twitter.
EV: I remember when I was around 24 or 25, and there was a plethora of articles in the media about millennials entering the workforce. And like you said, how we’re flitty and this and that. And I remember thinking to myself, they’re not really talking about millennials writ large. They’re talking about a certain type of millennials: mostly white coming out of elite institutions—like you mentioned with this campus issue—and going into certain kinds of jobs. So are we still talking about that right now when we’re talking about Gen Z, or are we really talking about all of Gen Z?
JH: Okay. Good point. So firstthe label Gen Z, we didn’t have five years ago. We thought that they were millennials. And when Greg Lukianoff and I wrote our article on the coddling of the American mind in 2015, we all thought college students were millennials, but we didn’t talk about millennials because the older people weren’t like this. But it’s only by around 2017 when Jean Twenge writes the book “iGen” and really gathers all the data, you can see the sharp discontinuity with people born around 1996 and later. And then, she proposed the name iGen, but the name Gen Z was because Gen Z comes after Gen Y, which was the other name for the millennials. So it’s only when you started reading those articles that Gen Z was coming into the workforce, and they were mistakenly being called millennials. And even today, a lot of people in the business world don’t seem to understand that Gen Z is different from millennials.
Second: Yes, there are big differences by race, gender, and education. And if you look at the depression data—and there’s amazing new data out on this from a Pew study and from other studies—the combination of the anxiety, the depression, the mental illness issues with the politics of “everything is oppression; everything is power structures,” that is overwhelmingly young women, and especially young white women, and especially those who go to elite colleges. So this way of thinking is not common at community colleges. This is something that wealthy, educated people learn, especially on the coasts, not so much at other schools. And I should point out that, so, I’m here, I’m talking about the politics, and the idea of this sort of confrontational “everything is power structures”—that is very limited. Now, the higher rates of depression and anxiety, that actually is everywhere. So in a survey of college presidents, done a year or two ago and published in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” mental health was either the number one or the number two issue, along with budget. It was the major issue when they surveyed college presidents. I’ve spoken at many institutions—some military institutionssome Christian institutions—that do not lean left. And so everybody has this huge rise of anxiety, depression, and fragility. But the link to this sort of aggressive politics, that is a small minority of Gen Z.
ZK: On that note, of the challenges generationally between millennials and Gen Z, but also the particular realities of how people are interacting with reality—work, each other, politics; mostly through a technological lens, not necessarily a physical one, and some of the particular dynamics in place—let’s bring in Alison now to talk a little bit about, one, is that a ubiquitously true thing? Do we find the same things outside of the United States? Is that true in the European Union? I know, Alison, you can’t really speak for the European Union anymore, there having been a recent Brexit, but perhaps you can reflect on your memories of that golden 20-plus-year period. And if this resonates as well for the work that you’re doing, because obviously you focused a lot on the political dynamics and working to bridge some of those problems in your deep polarization projects. So what do you think about all this?
Alison Goldsworthy (AG): Yeah, so I think it’s interesting: so much of the research is very American based on polarization, and that can really skew people’s understanding of it. So one of the [inaudible] things is people think America is the most polarized place in the world, and it really isn’t, actually. And it’s not even that polarized compared to places that have been extremely polarized. So, polarization’s often very tied—you talked about technology, that clearly has an impact and a difference. But to things like finances and the economic and environment, and the degree of certainty or uncertainty that there is in the world—Greece, Portugal, and Spain, all had far higher degrees of polarization than the US does now in the last financial crash in 2008 and 2009, because there’s no surprise, the anxiety levels rise and people cling stronger to their identities in times when there is resource scarcity than when in times of plenty, which is one of the issues I would say around how COVID is going to play out.
When people are uncertain with what’s going on, or they’re not sure where their next paycheck is coming from, they look to people like them for reassurance and to make them feel better. And that is probably why polarization will get worse as a result of the pandemic before things get better. But I would say that America is in many ways quite typical. There’s nothing that unusual that is going on here at the minute. There’s much that is very uncomfortable, but it’s not necessarily that unusual when you look in a global and broader context. Ebbs and flows of polarization are very typical. The thing is, once it reaches the stage that we’re at now—and you’ve just heard from John about some of the other much bigger challenges that are coming alongside it—how do you try and unwind that so that people can live and work together in a polarized environment and depolarize it. In fact, that’s a huge challenge.
ZK: Actually, we can ask Emma who’samongst other things, also our designated eyes on the ground in Greece. We try to have people in every country, and Emma’s in Greece right now. Do you feel a greater level of polarization when you walk out the door of Athens, or is everybody just so happy to be able to walk out the door right now that there’s [inaudible]?
EV: You know, I was thinking about that before this conversation, because obviously, if Allie says the data is there that Greece was more polarized in 2008, that would certainly make sense. And I’m sure that that’s correct. And I do remember the parliamentary slapping incident, although that was with the Golden Dawn. So the politicians were actually coming to blows around that time.
ZK: As they did in the United States in the 1850s and at various other points that we forget, in parliament, in actual civil war, and so on. But go on.
EV: It’s a little discomforting to me. Being also an American citizen, I don’t want the US to get anywhere near where Greece was around that time. But I will say this: Even though people obviously have very, very intense political opinions here, I don’t see this level of, like, if you follow Tsipras and Mitsotakis—the current prime minister and the previous—that you’re vile and maybe a trader to your group, and we can’t trust you as a human being. I actually don’t see that on the ground. So I’m curious about what Allie might say to that.
AG: Well, I wish I would have a better answer to the question. One of the core things about polarization or depolarization is when you don’t know, just say you don’t know, rather than try and make up an answer, because it’s much harder to revise an opinion than it is to go from there. So data on polarization often lags quite a bit behind where you are in real time or an authority of robust stuff. Sowhat they really ask for typically is how you feel about political out-groups. Like, “How warm do you feel to them on a scale of naught to a hundred typically?” and going from there. And that just takes a while to filter through the system. So if we go to the UK, for example, they’re still dealing with pre-Brexit times very often, with the data that they have at the minute.
And they’re really terrible at what complicates the situation in the UK when you’re looking at this: In Scotland, the dividing line is not actually along Brexit things. It’s about, “Do you want Scotland to still be in the UK or not?” And that makes things much more complicated to measure. Spain faces some of the same challenges around Catalonia. And how you measure polarization with what’s going on there can make it much worse than it seems. I’m relieved to hear things are generally better in Greece, though.
ZK: John I there was a period of time where I joked that, thank God for what was going on in the UK and Brexit, because it was the only thing going on in the world that made what was going on in the United States around Trump seem potentially less intensely dysfunctional, because Brexit was forever and Trump, at least nominally, in theory could have been voted out of office, which I at least believe that he was clearly, that’s a debatable comment and today’s political environment, but it is an interesting reminder, right? Americans do tend to oscillate between where either the best or the worst both of which violate how you began this conversation, which was we should kind of step back and recognize that there’s a lot that’s going on. That will always go on. That’s very prosaic as opposed to on either extreme.
JH: Well, first let me think on a couple of things that Ali said. So first I think it’s very important distinguish between different kinds of polarization and she put her finger on what I think is the most important kind, which is often called affective polarization, which means emotional. How do you feel about the people on the other side? And, you know, the, you know, the, the ideal amount of that in a democracy is probably pretty close to zero. Ideally you wouldn’t hate them. And then there’s also issue polarization. To what extent do you disagree on policies? And there are the ideal amount is not zero. You want some disagreement and some back and forth, but that’s all looking at mass polarization. The people then there’s a different issue, which is how to, what extent is the government in, in a constructive opposition, which is the way it was designed in the United States for ambition to check ambition and faction check faction.
And to what extent is a destructive conflict in which it’s zero sum or negative sum, if we can hurt them more than they hurt us. Look, there’s only two parties, it’s zero sum at election time. So we want to hurt them. And so those are two separate things, but they’re related. And in the US we had elite polarization and institutional polarization before when we had a big uptick in mass polarization and affective polarization. So just, just to get our terms straight as a social psychologist, I’m most interested in the ethic of polarization because that drives a lot of the pathology. When we really hate the people on the other side. Now this then links to Alison’s other point about scarcity. I think it used to be that scarcity and class and money were the dominant issues and in a Marxist analysis or when Marx was writing, those were and all the way through the depression and much of the 20th century class and economic economics mattered a great deal.
And beginning of the sixties with the new left and not just in the US but in Europe, much more focused on identity and gender and LGBT, you know, gay rights and the environment animal rights. So politics reorients now for one thing, we’re in an age of plenty people, very few people are starving anymore. Material material fears are greatly reduced, especially in Europe where there’s a good safety net. And there’s an academic debate as to whether the turbulence that began around the time of the financial crisis, should we understand this as primarily about money class scarcity resources, or is it primarily about culture, belief, identity, and I believe, and that was a debate back then, but I think now it’s really clear it’s about identity. Identity in the 2010s has come to swamp. Everything else. If you look at the More in Common report that wonderful, wonderful, hidden tribes report, the polarization in our country at every level comes from the two wings, the progressive activists and the devoted conservatives to the far left and the far right.
And as David Brooks wrote when writing about this, cause those are the two groups that are the richest, the whitest, and the most educated. So he said, this is the rich white civil war. You know, working class, people of color are not all upset about pronouns or, or flag burning. So our politics really has pivoted to become primarily a zero-sum culture war, a religious war about identity fought by rich educated white people. That’s in the United States. I don’t know if what’s going on with UK, but that’s…
ZK: Even more global, there is a very controversial, but has had some uptake in intellectual circles is a man named Peter Turchin. Who’s written about the surfeit, the excess of college degrees in societies with a dearth of jobs which by the way, it’s been true in a lot of the middle east, trying to, Egypt’s been producing a lot of university graduates and there’s absolutely zero economic place for them to go except nepotistically, or slotted into kind of a really corrupt bureaucracy. And obviously, you know, you have similar dynamics in the UK is as all these polytechnics became universities and everybody’s sort of funneled into higher education without necessarily an economy outside of London. Well, that’s changed a lot. I don’t know. I mean, I, I know that’s out there as a kind of a trope, I wonder about the the overedu-, the underworked overeducated people with too much time on their hands who take it to the internet to rail with increasing hysteria. I mean, what, what do we think about that, Ali, or is that…
AG: Yeah, I mean, I can chuck a couple of, of British layers onto what John was just saying. So interesting fact, start with Tony Blair, who was the former British prime minister. He did the huge drive to increase the number of people in higher education in the UK. So set a target of 50% of people going to university. His son actually now runs a company that is dedicated to help people not go to university and get apprenticeships. But I think that that’s, that’s, that’s very interesting. That’s that particular dynamic. The other thing I would add is John talked about the hidden tribes report in the US. There is a UK version of that now. And we layered some extra polling onto it with them. And one of the things that was particularly striking was this progressive activists group is that they were the least likely to have friends from different all contacts from different political tribes.
They were also by far the most likely to think that Russia stole the Brexit election. And if you think the evidence is scant for Russia, actually taking the election in the US in 2016, it’s almost non-existent in the UK for Brexit. So don’t think that progressives particularly like to think it’s the other side doing things. Particularly when you look at some racial elements, they’ve really got a point I think, but on this stuff on who will fall for things and go from there, that will be fine, I should say. So in my, my son has decided to have… He’s decided he is very, very hungry in the background. So I’m not sure how good your editing
ZK: We’re going to keep all of this, because it reminds me of, there was a at the beginning of, of pandemic land, there, there were these absolutely hilarious and delightful outtakes and people trying to do like TV hits.
AG: He is a very depolarizing force in my life at the minute, it has to be said, but when people talk about the UK, they often leave out what’s going on in Northern Ireland and in Ireland more broadly. So the hidden tribes research was so, so complicated that they actually had to stop doing it in Northern Ireland. If you are doing polling on any controversial issues in the UK, for example, abortion is completely illegal or was until fairly recently, completely illegal in Northern Ireland under all circumstances. Like you had to go to the chief exec of polling companies to get sign off on that. The BBC yesterday, there were, there are big parades every year. Documentary makers are saying they’re not from the BBC, so that there’ll be less likely to be subject to violence and abuse and attacks. And I think that’s often a part of the narrative.
That’s very uncomfortable for the UK around polarization that gets left out of the debate. It’s been going on for 500 years. I mean, there’s a peace wall that’s 20 meters high running down the middle of the capital of Northern Ireland Belfast. You know, like things are, are very uncomfortable there. But just to return before I hand off to that, so there’s a sort of slightly more positive. So de polarizing, what are the things that can be effective, that it’s finding something else you have in common with people. But it’s not about politics. And that is where my four-month old son has been a godsend, because I couldn’t tell what the John was agreeing with everything that I was saying, but I could tell as soon as there was a small child in the background that I know John has some kids too, he felt like a bond with me, like, I have been there. I have been the parent with the noisy child in the background. And it creates a different area where you can think of someone as almost in the same group as you, where John was talking about affective polarization, it can be really helpful in trumping some of that political identity.
JH: That’s right. I just want to underline that and say the two most obvious, often, often promoted and most effective strategies for talking to who, you know, has very different values and politics are one find common interests and identities and things you have in common. And the other is acknowledge something that they’re right about. Start off by saying, you know, you or your side, I’ve always maintained this. And I used to think you were wrong, but actually, you know, the research shows this or time has shown us that you start off by acknowledging something. And it’s just like magic. If you, if you acknowledge something that they’re right about by the power of reciprocity, they’re much more likely to acknowledge something you were right about, or at least they kind of have in their mind, they owe you, they owe a concession.
ZK: Yeah, it used to be true. I don’t know whether it, whether this is a generalization. And I say this where I lay that remains true, that it felt as if a woman could walk into any group of strangers anywhere in the world and talk about family in a way that was bonding. And men could go into any group of strangers anywhere in the world and talk about sports that there was, you know, that there are these languages of affinity that sort of transcend culture and politics. The problem with all these things is, you know, they’re certainly true, right? Human beings can bond over elemental human things, but it’s, it’s a hard sell when, when one is looking for more immediate answers, right? So some of the stuff that Jonathan you’ve talked about, and Alison, some of the work you’ve done and sort of some of the things I’ve written as well, speak more to cultural change in the, starting with the individual things that we can individually do to, to not accentuate polarization, not accentuate divisions, not accentuate conflict, but, but are not necessarily answers at the next stage up at the level of a corporation or government.
And I, you know, personally, I’m comfortable with that, right? I’m comfortable with the fuzziness of, it’s hard to create substantial, immediate structural change. But human beings seem to be able to create a lot of individual shifts en masse within a short amount of time. But I don’t know, maybe there is a, maybe that’s unsatisfying to people.
JH: So, you know, we, we, as I said earlier we’re living in the eye of a hurricane and it will always be this way. Just, this is a point from Martin Gurri is saying that the amount of information coming at us in the year 2000 was twice what came at us near 1999 or 98 because the beginning of the internet age sees a gigantic increase in it’s an exponential curve and that’s never going to level off. And along with that, as the tsunami of social and all kinds of distorting forces and agents, that’s never going to level off.
So we have to each decide how to live as individuals in that tsunami. And that’s where the things that Alison and I were just saying are useful personal skills. I’d call them Jedi master skills, how, especially for young people, how are you going to get along in a world? That’s always going to be fighting like this, and you have to kind of just like navigate through it with a sense of peace and not taking things literally that’s at the individual level. But as you say, Zachary, that doesn’t necessarily apply to higher level entities or companies or organizations. And there, I think it’s very important for organizations to be very clear about their telos, the telos, Greek word, Emma, maybe you can correct me here if it’s not in modern Greek, but you know, Aristotle wrote about, you know, teleology. What’s the purpose of that.
It tells us that a doctor was to heal. Every organization needs to be very clear on its telos and stick to that. And we’re seeing that now in what’s called the mission focused movement and Silicon valley, a lot of companies that were being pushed to say this, declare that fire, this person, fire that client saying, look enough already. We’re here to do something hard in a competitive environment. That’s good for our customers. We’re going to do that. So define your telos clearly. And then when people demand that you do something or respond to this, you can say, you know, no, that’d be, look, we’re living in a, in a hurricane as tsunami. We’re not going to do everything. We’re not going to appeal to everybody’s values. We have a lot of different stakeholders. So we’re going to be really excellent at creating this customer database program, whatever it is that we do. And similarly, I think journalists need to really focus on the telos of journalism and the idea now common in American journalism schools, among some of the Gen Z students and young people is we shouldn’t give a platform to the other side. You know, we as journalists, we have a duty to not give voice to the oppressors or the bad people. And that’s a complete betrayal of the telos of journalism. That’s basically, it’s assuming everything into the telos of social justice. There’s a place for social justice, but it’s not everywhere.
AG: Yeah. And I just would add to that, that the, one of the real dangers of what, what John was saying is, I mean, there are clearly times when you don’t want to give somebody a platform, but mainly you should earn to doing so that should be the default setting, but what you really risk when you start de platforming people unnecessarily is what’s called preference falsification. So where people start saying one thing in public and another thing in private, and that’s when you can very suddenly get huge swings in a change in opinion, which people say they catch them unawares because people have all been talking about it around the kitchen table at home where they feel safe and able to do so. And then once they start seeing a big swing, it becomes safe for far more people. And that that’s when you get a huge and at times violent uprising. So an example that we talk about in the book is actually in Yugoslavia when the fall of Yugoslavia and what went on there and that clearly sent it into civil war very, very quickly. And that’s quite a typical experience when people feel that they can’t express a view.
EV: I remember going to a journalism event around five years ago and there was a speaker there. She was a young journalist, maybe 23, 24 at the time. She had an article go viral on Teen Vogue. This was when Teen Vogue suddenly started writing really political content. And it took off because it was a very polarized content. And she said, journalism is activism. That’s what it is. And so the first time I’d heard that and I was shocked and I was only a few years older at the time, but I felt like, am I passe? Like, is, is what I, everything I learned about journalism wrong?
JH: So I’m so in the short run, I’m a pessimist. I think things are gonna get a lot worse in the long run. I’m an optimist. I think we’re going to figure this stuff out. And you know, the internet and social media will be seen as like the printing press, it upended all sorts of things. And 50 years from now, I think things are going to be generally better in all kinds of ways that we can’t even imagine. But the idea of that, you know, journalism is activism. Isn’t is a perfect illustration of what I mean when people are fundamentalists and they see their politics as a religious calling, they want it to infuse everything. Now, this is the urge behind Sharia. This is the urge behind any religious community that wants religious law to govern everything. And a liberal society is based on the idea.
And this is very much John Stuart Mill experiments in living. You know, if you’re, if you think you’re a woman in a man’s body, by all means, change your change, your, your, your, your body change your gender live and let live. We all have to learn to live near each other. But a fundamentalist is someone who says, no, you have to live by my rules. Everybody has to live by my rules because my rules or God’s rules or whatever it is. And so I think that’s where we’re seeing, especially for the progressive activists. Now, the far right group is the authoritarians. And there we see they’re heavily armed there. We see more actual physical violence, I believe, but the far left the sort of the, what we call America, you know, the woke group they are the fundamentalist. It’s basically, it’s a version of Protestant Christianity, but without any of the redeeming features, no forgiveness, no grace, no optimism, no love, but it’s very Protestant.
And that’s maybe why it’s so strong and, you know, in new England elite schools but it is a fundamentalism. And so when it takes over journalism then you get this idea that all the things you learned in grad school about what journalism is and why is this why free society needs good journalists, forget that everything is about fighting power structures. Like, no. Okay. And I just want to point out, wait, that’s a bid that they make. And the motto of leadership at all American institutions for the last five years has been always be surrendering, whatever you’re accused of immediately confess your sins and accommodate the young woke warriors. And that’s where we are at the New York times and a lot of other places.
ZK: I think one pushback to that though, is journalism, let’s say beginning of the 20th century, well into the early decades of the 20th century was a minefield of partisanship. Certainly in the United States, certainly in the UK, certainly in France. I mean the whole, you know, Zola affair was, was fueled by, sorry, the not… The whole Dreyfus affair was fueled by a partisan press in a weird way. There’s almost an absence of sufficient amount of partisan press in a lot of these countries, meaning you don’t have 14 local papers anymore with seven different points of view, fighting it out where you kind of know that’s the, you know, that’s the liberal one, that’s the conservative one. That’s the moderate one. That’s the far right one. That’s the far left one. There’s a lot of noise on the internet, but I’m not sure that there’s a space.
JH: Um well, yeah, I mean, local newspapers of course are dying and the economics are such that things are things are of course moving, moving online. But I think when we’re looking at journalists and the key thing to keep in mind is that the late 20th century was the anomaly. So journalism at the time of the American revolution was horrible. It was full of lies. It was all partisan. And that’s basically true up through, you know William Randolph Hearst and yellow journalism and the Spanish American war. And then in the early 20th century, you start getting professional associations by the twenties and thirties. It’s really a profession. And by the mid to late 20th century, it’s actually very good. Of course, you know, leans left, but it’s overall, but it’s not, it’s not like what it is today. So there was a real professionalism up through the nineties and a lot of the top ones were family owned.
And so then there’s two different things that happened. One is that they largely become corporate owned. And so now there’s not the professionalism that the human element of pride in our organization, but the larger end thing, the larger impact in the 21st century is now the pressure to get clicks and readers. And so you can, and I’ve talked to New York Times journalists. I mean, the Times is still one of the best papers we have, although actually I think the Economist yeah, the Economist is really the only one where I read it, I never think like, oh, there they go again with their, you know, their political slant. Granted they’re sort of liberal in the classical sense, but you know, at the times you kind of have to read it, knowing that they’re doing things based either on internal dynamics pressures from within the organization or fearing the number of subscribers who will end their subscriptions. So I think journalism has been become much less effective as a support of constitutional democracy as it was in the late 20th century. But you’re right in the early, in the 19th century, it was not very good.
ZK: So as we wrap up another engaging, but of course, unresolved conversation about eternal issues, I wonder Jonathan, if you have any pithy thoughts to usher us out of this conversation and into our days and nights and weeks and months and years.
JH: A quick closing thought: read Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus in the mornings or at night as you like. But I’m creating a document here, ancient wisdom on social media. The Stoics really warned us about social media and what it does to us and what it does to our societies. Yeah, I’ll just, here’s a quote from Marcus Aurelius, the things you think about determine the quality of your mind, your soul takes on the color of your thoughts. Here’s another one of the most important… The most important principle is be slow to judge, quick to forgive. Aurelius again. Blame no one. Set people straight, if you can, if not just repair the damage and suppose you can’t do that either, then where does blaming people get you?
ZK: Thank you, John.
JH: Thanks for having me on. And Alison, thank you for joining the conversation. So with all of these conversations, Emma, I am left of course, one wanting more. I always feel like we’re just at the moment of really getting into the meat of stuff and then things end, which I guess is a good thing. It’s like that dinner party you go to where you feel like you don’t want it to end, but of course, all good things must indeed come to an end. Nonetheless, I, on this conversation in particular, I continue to grapple with this problem. And maybe it isn’t a problem, certainly from Jonathan’s perspective. It’s not of, there’s a lot that we could potentially do individually. There might be a great deal we can do communally. It still doesn’t feel like there’s a satisfying answer as to what, what we can do collectively and immediately either in politics or business or society.
EV: Right, cause we, we didn’t much address the, sort of the, not to use a partisan and inflammatory phrase, but to use one, the axis of evil, so to speak of, you know, social media, politicians and media mainstream or otherwise, and how they’re contributing to polarization and what we can expect from them and push from them.
ZK: And certainly one of the reasons we’re doing this whole progress network is to try to be very much the antidote to the way the media is currently constructed. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t huge numbers of voices within various media platforms that are doing the, doing the Lord’s work. It just means that the collective reality tends to be one of both partisanship and increasing hysteria, hence the point of these conversations. And so the point of having these conversations with people like Jonathan and Alison and I I’m simply asking myself the questions of “yes, and” or “great, but” because I think a lot of people ask those conversations personally, I think Jonathan’s answer, which is take that step back and recognize that. So it is whoever shall be that, that we are not living in this unique moment of dystopia, that human beings are always creating unique moments of dystopia and then always creating if not unique moments of utopia then in incredible efflorescence and change. And I think he’s a reminder of that Allison’s work is basically saying, look, we can create the society we want to live in. We just have to do the work she’s doing the work.
EV: And as much as we can bring Marcus Aurelius into our personal lives, into our mornings and evenings, we can also look, you know, like ourselves, look for Marcus Aurelius type total media outlets, right? Like we’re in charge of the information that we consume and that there are places out there that are like us, that they have a nuanced point of view. They are, are non-partisan they are not contributing to polarization. So there’s one thing.
ZK: And once again, anytime you can end the conversation with Marcus Aurelius, any day that you can end the conversation or begin with the meditations is a good day. And thanks, Emma.
EV: Thanks Zachary.
To find out more information about The Progress Network and What Could Go Right? Visit theprogressnetwork.org. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter to stay up-to-date with everything happening with the Progress Network. If you like the show, please tell a friend, share an episode, or leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. What Could Go Right? Is hosted by Zachary Karabell, and me, Emma Varvaloucas. We are produced by Andrew Steven. Jordan Aaron is our production coordinator. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thanks so much for listening.
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