Will the radicalization of white liberals create the monster they fear most?
I’ve written before about the “Great Awokening” of white liberals (or if you prefer Social Justice Warriors) who have made news in the past few years, often on college campuses. A couple of weeks ago, Zach Goldberg, a student pursuing his Ph.D. in political science, published a piece at Tablet offering a social science perspective on the phenomenon and his conclusions are interesting. Golberg argues that something quite dramatic has happened in the past few years among white liberals who are now the only group of Americans who express a preference for other racial groups over their own.
Over the past decade, the baseline attitudes expressed by white liberals on racial and social justice questions have become radically more liberal. In one especially telling example of the broader trend, white liberals recently became the only demographic group in America to display a pro-outgroup bias—meaning that among all the different groups surveyed white liberals were the only one that expressed a preference for other racial and ethnic communities above their own. As woke ideology has accelerated, a growing faction of white liberals have pulled away from the average opinions held by the rest of the coalition of Democratic voters—including minority groups in the party. The revolution in moral sentiment among this one segment of American voters has led to a cascade of consequences ranging from changes in the norms and attitudes expressed in media and popular culture, to the adoption of new political rhetoric and electoral strategies of the Democratic Party… For the woke and their allies, these rapid changes are heralded as signs of progress, leading at times to harsh criticism of anyone who would stand in their way. This ideological stridency and triumphalist attitude can be powerful weapons against political opponents but are alienating—perhaps deliberately so—to moderates and conservatives. But, in a sense, no one is put in a more strained and problematic position by the politics of white liberals than the white liberals themselves. The woke elite act like white saviors who must lead the rest of the country, including the racial minorities whose interests they claim to represent, to a vision of justice the less enlightened groups would not choose for themselves.
The jury is still out on what led to this sudden change but Goldberg points to the rise of woke media as playing a significant role. The reasons for this are interesting to tease out. There is a large amount of social science data based on the “big five” personality traits. One of those traits where liberals tend to score higher than conservatives is “agreeableness.” And a subset of that is “compassion.” Also important to liberals are issues of emotional harm and fairness.
Goldberg argues that when you pair already low thresholds for harm with the new social media landscape in which the message of harm is constantly reinforced through partisan media outlets, you get a kind of moral outrage feedback loop. This is aided by the fact that liberals spend more time on social media than conservatives. As a result, they have a disproportionate impact on the market for what gets reported and produced. And so, over a fairly short time, you see woke social justice terminology appearing on sites like the NY Times:
According to a recent content analysis I conducted—the percentage of Times articles mentioning race-related and woke terms saw unprecedented growth. For instance, whereas just 0.4% (or 334) of articles referred to racism in 2012, this figure had doubled by 2015 (to 0.87% or 813) and reached over 2% (or 2,353) by 2018. Interestingly, the number of monthly NYT articles mentioning racism also closely tracks Google search interest in the term.
If you had to identify a reason why these terms became so common after 2014, a good guess would be the media dominance of Black Lives Matter, which succeeded in elevating several instances of police brutality into months-long national stories. But Golberg argues the prevalence of some of those stories may be misleading many online progressives about how common those incidents actually are in America
One way that constant media exposure can warp people’s perception of reality is by leading them to overestimate the danger from certain threats. For instance, research shows that frequent and vivid exposure to crime-related media increases perceptions of the prevalence of crime and police racism. Other more limited work points to a relationship between Twitter use and the perceived prevalence of school shootings. This tendency to overestimate the prevalence and significance of things we are frequently exposed to and thus more easily able to recall is known as the availability heuristic. As a cognitive shortcut for quickly arriving at judgments the availability heuristic can be a useful adaptation in some circumstances but misleading in others. It means, for example, that if videos of white-on-black police shootings or other instances of discriminatory behavior are circulating on Twitter, people may perceive such incidents to be far more common than they actually are and, consequently, that white society is more prejudiced than it actually is.
And the misestimation of the moral climate creates activism that often seems detached from reality, i.e. the campus activism we’ve been seeing for the past few years:
When these moral emotions become hyperactive and detached from objective reality; when they motivate the division of society into ‘allies’ and enemies; and when they generate a level of sanctimonious outrage and judgment that places all political dissent beyond the pale. The advent of digital and social media has fomented just such a carnival of excesses. It cultivates an image of the world soaked in the very oppression and injustices to which the user is most sensitive and attuned—and thus one that frequently triggers liberal moral alarms. There is no shortage of oppression and injustice in America and the wider world. But things are not nearly as bad nor as uniformly black and white as they appear on Twitter and YouTube feeds.
In addition to the availability heuristic, i.e. overestimating how prevalent certain incidents are, liberals may also be underestimating the extent to which it is they who have become radicalized. Instead, they may assume it is conservatives who are suddenly becoming more extreme when in fact conservatives haven’t moved all that much:
Due at least in part to digital media, white liberal attitudes that more or less endured for decades have been drastically overturned in the space of months or single years. In contrast, the attitudes of white conservatives—and conservatives in general—have moved at a more glacial pace, if at all. For liberals, the lack of awareness of how fast and far their attitudes have shifted fosters an illusion of conservative extremism. In reality, the conservatives of today are not all that different from the conservatives of years past. And it’s the frustration with white conservatives’ inability or reluctance to keep pace with liberals on the path to enlightenment that is intensifying our political divide. But conservatives tend toward normative and structural stability. They don’t take well to rapid social change. The perceived imposition and spread of progressive norms naturally elicits psychological reactance—a visceral desire to resist and affirm one’s agency in the face of perceived social pressure. This is the very process that is at least partly responsible for the election of Trump.
We can argue over whether this helps explain the election of Trump but this leads me to another video making what I think is a related case about the danger of progressive activists becoming hyper-critical of conservatives with accusations of racism as their touchstone. As Bret Weinstein argues in this clip, the danger is that you wind up creating a cultural mindset that makes people on the receiving end feel threatened.
“People who are the object of ire from the intersectionalists are going to be backed against the wall together. Who are they going to be? Well primarily they are going to be straight and white and male,” Weinstein said. He predicts that if this happens those groups are then likely to fall into their own identity-based cooperation, i.e. something like white nationalism (which is obviously not a desirable outcome). So the progressive effort to aggressively attack “the enemy” winds up creating conditions that help foster the thing they oppose.
To be clear, Goldberg isn’t endorsing this view and, so far as I know, Weinstein hasn’t connected his thoughts here to Goldberg’s research. But I think you can see this as an additional danger that results from the moral outrage feedback loop that has been radicalizing white liberals for the past several years.