In response to yesterday’s blog post about residential “sorting,” one of this blog’s regular readers sent me a report about a study that confirmed that sorting, but also confirmed a disquieting element of contemporary American life:
According to Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University, often the most divisive aspect of contemporary society is: politics.
“Unlike race, gender and other social divides where group-related attitudes and behaviors are constrained by social norms,” writes Shanto — with co-author Sean J. Westwood of Princeton University — in the recently published report Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization, “there are no corresponding pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents. “
The study’s conclusions mirror my own research, and I’m persuaded that they are accurate, but I think the quoted paragraphs raise a different–and even more troubling– question.
Is our brave new world of Internet interactivity and social media eroding those “social norms”?
I recently had this discussion with the editor of a local “niche” paper. He was bemoaning the tone and content of comments left on the publication’s website, and posited that the ability to speak without having to identify oneself–the ability to remain anonymous or at least feel that you are shielded by the medium–has weakened those social norms, and thus our reluctance to share unpopular and socially disfavored opinions. The expression of bigotries has become less constrained. (The recent Facebook rant by Charlotte Lucas is just one of hundreds of examples.)
There’s no doubt that online nastiness is at its worst when the discussion is political, but it is also increasingly–and distressingly– common to come across racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic sentiments as well.
The real question, I suppose, is: has the Internet simply operated to shine a light on the nastiness? Has the advent of this new communication medium operated to “turn over the rock” so that we now see things that have always been there, but have been less visible?
Or has the ability to go online and find fellow bigots who will confirm your resentments and displaced hostilities actually increased their numbers?
I don’t know. But I worry….