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The Psychological Prerequisites of Punditry

May 3rd, 2012 · 14 Comments

There’s a widespread sense—of debatable historical accuracy, but widespread all the same—that we’re living in an era of especially pronounced political polarization, with a correspondingly poor ratio of tribal slogan slinging to meaningful democratic deliberation.  One possible explanation for this is that the massive explosion of our media ecosystem makes it increasingly possible for us to construct ideologically congenial “filter bubbles” that provide us a rich enough stream of information to occupy all our available media consumption time. There are so many blogs, publications, podcasts, radio programs, Twitter feeds, and radio broadcasts that we can have a superficial impression of great variety, while only ever encountering information tailored to reinforce our preexisting worldview—conditions under which we know the median member of the group tends to adopt more extreme views over time. Our filter algorithms, as Eli Pariser argues at the link above, are increasingly doing this for us automatically, so that we may not even be aware of the echo chambers we’re constructing around ourselves. I assume most readers are reasonably familiar with this story.

But there’s another plausible story I think we can tell grounded in the ways information technology enables disagreement. Plenty has been said about the salutary effects of a more egalitarian media ecosystem, in which it’s far easier for anyone to weigh in on matters of public concern; to “talk back” to politicians, journalists, pundits, and others who once monopolized the microphone; or to become at least part-time pundits themselves.

The upside of this is that it’s much less likely that a smart contribution or novel perspective gets missed because it’s excluded by gatekeepers. The downside is that there’s a lot more crap to ignore. Any commenter on politics or public affairs whose audience reaches a certain size gets a level of feedback—via email, Twitter, blog posts and comments—that would have been unthinkable for any but the few most prominent public intellectuals a generation ago. Much of it is insightful and constructive. A whole lot spans the gamut from rude and ill-informed to semi-literate and vulgar. If the pundit is a woman, multiply that latter category by 10 and add a heaping spoonful of unsolicited sexual fantasies.

If, like me, you’re more wonky than partisan, and not especially well known outside a niche audience of folks who follow your issue space closely, this is a minor irritant. But my sense is that if you’re a little more famous (which is a low bar) and a bit more of a generalist (my issue space tends to work as an education filter), it can become an onslaught. You’d expect this to have an effect on the kind of people who end up being generalist political commentators, both by filtering the pool of people who find that an attractive vocation (or avocation) and inculcating certain habits and dispositions over time.

The nice way to say this is that selects for pundits who have a thick skin—or forces them to quickly develop one. The less nice way to say it is that it forces you to stop giving a shit what other people think. Maybe not universally——you’ll pick out a domain of people whose criticisms are allowed to slip through the armor—but by default.

Probably it always took a healthy ego to presume to hold forth on a wide array of public issues, confident that your thoguhts are relevant and interesting to the general populace, or at least the audience for political commentary. But in a media space this dense, it probably takes a good deal more.

If the type and volume of criticism we find online were experienced in person, we’d probably think we were witnessing some kind of est/Maoist reeducation session designed to break down the psyche so it could be rebuilt from scratch. The only way not to find this overwhelming and demoralized over any protracted period of time is to adopt a reflexive attitude that these are not real people whose opinions matter in any way. Which, indeed, seems to be a pretty widespread attitude. Scan the comments at one of the more partisan political blogs and you get a clear sense that the “other side” consists not so much of people with different ideas, but an inscrutable alien species. I think it’s self-evident that this is an unhealthy development in a democracy, but it may be a coping strategy that our media ecosystem is forcing on us—at least until we find a better one.

Tags: Sociology


       

 

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 K. Chen // May 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    I’ve been whinging about this effect in smaller scale internet fora (and non-internet communities) for a while now. Wikipedia and nerdy internet forums of all sorts create significant selection pressures towards assholes (to be blunt).

    To me, there are a few significant factors: the breadth of reach the internet has, the sudden access of publishing space to many more people who have the ego but not the skill to succeed in a world with gatekeepers, the lack of social cues that push against vulgarity and hostility, and a general degradation of positive social interaction in both mainstream culture and internet culture.

    I was a relatively early adopter of internet fora, in the form of Wikipedia ~2005, AOL in all its chat room and role playing games glory in the mid to late nineties and MU*s during the same period. In those spaces it was a good chance you were relatively socially awkward, an outsider throughout school, introverted, read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi novels, and were relatively intelligent. This core of the internet population was generally positive to each other, if for no other reason than it became in a way their primary community and concepts like “netiquette” and their enforcement flourished. Also, a few trolls were about, but they generally were vastly outnumbered. As the internet became more and more generalized and mainstream, that core experience was gone and the social rules fractured and eventually disintegrated.* Like if the Amish went to California and the gold rush suddenly happened. At the same time, general mainstream culture turns its nose up at liking anything positive. Or really, liking anything except someone else’s dislike.** The whole thing ends in a culture that encourages us to be mean, nasty, partisan, and spiteful. While you seem to worry about that effect on our public intellectuals and our media ecosystem, I see it as part and parcel of a major rot in our overall culture.


    *On the whole, I am glad that more people are on the internet rather than a bunch of self selected nerds. This is just my read of why a positive common culture was possible then with a certain amount of homogeneity and is much harder now, even if the democratization is a great thing overall

    **What I mean by this is that our culture makes it easier to say I *hated* that [popular movie/actor/show/politician/plant/season/weather pattern] and garner praise for that negative statement than going on a limb and saying you liked something, which opens you up to criticism and hipster one-upmanship. The limited exception I’ve seen is in evangelical communities where relentless positive messaging ["I thank God for my wonderful day!"] doesn’t always edge into tribal sniping [" I can't BELIEVE that atheists are so stupid!"].

  • 2 Jesse Walker // May 3, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    Ha just like a LIBERAL to want to shut don free debate. Yeah peopl can be mean sometimes – and this surprises you? dont worry, if you cant handle the internet you can still talk with the cool kids at you’re beltway cocktail parties. Moran

    -Jesse

    P.S. Raaaaaaaacist.

    P.P.S. Its not anti-immigration, its anti-ILLEGAL-immigration. Get it right.

    P.P.P.S. Bieber rules!

  • 3 The Psychology of Punditry | Technoccult // May 4, 2012 at 8:00 am

    [...] Julian Sanchez: The Psychological Prerequisites of Punditry [...]

  • 4 eannie // May 5, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    It seems to me that most people read blogs to ex-and their knowledge on a subject, they assume the blogger actually knows something about. Screening out all the trolls and just keeping people honestly expressing and opinion, or asking a question, would go a long way to making comments informative and positive.

  • 5 Astro // May 5, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    You were linked in Language Log, where the comments are erudite and interesting. Here is my rough ordering of civility/enjoyability for various comment sections:

    Languagehat
    Language Log
    Ars Technica
    Guardian
    New York Times
    Seeking Alpha
    Techdirt
    Telegraph
    Wall Street Journal

  • 6 J. Goard // May 6, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    most people read blogs to ex-and their knowledge

    Great accidental coinage there! “To ex-and” is exactly why people read many blogs — to take a complex personal worldview, eliminate all the pesky conjunctions, and end up with a belief of the form: “I am a(n) X”.

  • 7 Ian Welsh // May 7, 2012 at 8:25 am

    There is a lot of truth to this, and I’ve been an a-list political blogger, so I know. OTOH, one of the basic ideas that my generation of bloggers (the cohort who came in around the Iraq war) had, is that some people are right, and other people are wrong and that the media refused to call people out on their bullshit and lies.

    Morally, as well, we held that some things were right and others wrong. I have nothing but contempt for anyone who apologizes for, let alone argues for, torture. Such people are scum, and I make no apologies for saying so.

    But you would be wrong if you think many bloggers/pundits don’t know what the other side is writing. They do, and they hate it, and that’s the point.

    Some things are anathema, the question is what they are. Is it torture, impoverishing millions and bombing the shit out of a country that was no threat to the US? Or is gay sex, abortion and brown people being equal to right people?

    To have shared culture, we must have agreement on basic mores. We don’t.

  • 8 A comment about readers’ comments | Saint Petersblog // May 7, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    [...] Sanchez notes that any “commenter on politics or public affairs whose audience reaches a certain size gets [...]

  • 9 The Scienceblogging Weekly (May 11, 2012) | The Best Parties Site // May 12, 2012 at 3:35 am

    [...] The Psychological Prerequisites of Punditry by Julian Sanchez (also see response by Andrew Sullivan): ….The nice way to say this is that selects for pundits who have a thick skin—or forces them to quickly develop one. The less nice way to say it is that it forces you to stop giving a shit what other people think. Maybe not universally——you’ll pick out a domain of people whose criticisms are allowed to slip through the armor—but by default…. [...]

  • 10 The Scienceblogging Weekly (May 11, 2012) - Interior Designer // May 12, 2012 at 3:47 am

    [...] The Psychological Prerequisites of Punditry by Julian Sanchez (also see response by Andrew Sullivan): ….The nice way to say this is that selects for pundits who have a thick skin—or forces them to quickly develop one. The less nice way to say it is that it forces you to stop giving a shit what other people think. Maybe not universally——you’ll pick out a domain of people whose criticisms are allowed to slip through the armor—but by default…. [...]

  • 11 Barry // May 14, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Julian: “The nice way to say this is that selects for pundits who have a thick skin—or forces them to quickly develop one. The less nice way to say it is that it forces you to stop giving a shit what other people think. Maybe not universally——you’ll pick out a domain of people whose criticisms are allowed to slip through the armor—but by default. ”

    IMHO it means that pundits themselves have to develop thicker skins. They already had massive filtering and cross-support working for them. Only a select group could get their criticism heard back in the day, and pundits could happily ignore hoi polloi.

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