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The Politicization of Reality: Tribal Identities and Everyone’s Pet ‘Facts’

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Crises happen periodically in both domestic and international politics. Except in America, where crises always happen in twos. I don’t mean that a crisis at home (say, Ferguson, MO) is always matched by a different crisis abroad (the Islamic State in Iraq). What happens instead is that any one crisis is immediately divided down the middle, much as King Solomon proposed dividing the baby, the result in both cases being a bloody mess. And unlike the real mother in Solomon’s time, both sides seem intent on having their half of the baby in each new crisis.

The “sides” in this case are the Screaming Tribalists who have come to define public¬†American political discourse. The Ferguson, Missouri case is the latest tragedy to be thus divided in two. At root, the story is defined by two things which ought to be universally agreed-upon:

– A young man was shot and killed by a policeman, which is a tragedy.

– There is much we don’t yet know about the encounter between the victim and the officer.

Of course, this took place in a context of pre-existing problematic relationships between the local black population and the largely white police force. So the conflict on the local level – with its demonstrations and escalations of force and violence – is easy to understand at that level. Since I don’t live there, I am content to let the locals sort that out, hopefully in a democratic and peaceful way.

But as the story rattles around the “news” cycle every day, facts are slow to emerge but opinions grow exponentially. And since opinions dominate the public discussion, they take over the interpretation of facts. Thus every new bit of information becomes contested – did the victim rob a convenience store? Who called the police and when? Did the officer who did the shooting have a clean disciplinary record or not? Was somebody carrying an “ISIS is here” sign during a protest?

For the most die-hard conservatives this crisis looks like a black underclass, bred on government dependency and the politics of victimhood, lashing out in barbaric ways against civil society. Yes, there are some libertarian conservatives who are disturbed at the militarization of the police. But the libertarians have always been drowned out by the much louder, shriller voices of the race-baiters and the “us vs. them” crowd. Libertarianism is suspect because it offers an inclusive ideology – anybody can be part of “us”. The darker parts of conservatism have never accepted this, and probably never will.

On the other side, the crisis looks very different. It’s a story of an out-of-control, racist police force abusing the power of the state to harass, beat, and kill with impunity. Whatever the history and justification of this view, the shrillest of this side now refuse to believe anything that the police, or indeed any white official, says. Their minds are made up; they know what happened, and in their rage they will not only protest but loot and burn (or look with some approval thereon).

There are, of course, LOTS of people in the middle. Senator Claire McCaskill spoke eloquently of churches in Ferguson filled beyond capacity with people, black and white together, mourning the death and trying to find a common ground on which to rebuild their community. Such gatherings, of course, make for both lousy TV and terrible Twitter material and so tend to be largely invisible.

The release of facts in small bits and pieces feeds this frenzy on both sides. Small, isolated facts cry out for interpretation and can be easily dismissed. Bob Jervis, nearly 40 years ago, showed us how it takes a massive influx of information to actually change a mind. Truth delivered a drop at a time is too easily distorted by tribalists on both sides.

Ferguson is hardly an exception here, although the tribalists have an easier time dividing domestic crises to suit their own purposes. International ones, like the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, pose more of a challenge. Not an insurmountable one, though – there is no shortage of rabid conservative voices “explaining” how the rise of the Islamic State is all Obama’s fault, evidence yet again of his secret Muslimness and his plot to destroy America. The guy’s been in office for over 5 years; you’d think he would have been able to destroy America by now. The same charge has been leveled with regard to Russia and Ukraine, and there’s probably somebody somewhere convinced that Ebola is an Obama plot.

None of this is new, but it does make our jobs as analysts of politics and conflict harder. CNN and many of its sister organizations have become almost useless as sources of data, so clogged are they with the noise of the Shrieking Tribes. Journalists (or their editors) now feel compelled to render problematic any information that anyone contests, in the name of “covering the controversy”. If good empirical social science is dependent on verifiable information, all this screaming is definitely muddying the waters.

For my part, I’m much less interested in Liberals vs. Conservatives than I am in the divide between Tribalists and Reason. The former starts with an identity, rigidly defined, and reinterprets the world on that basis – everything from climate change to medical science to the facts of a shooting in a US suburb. The latter starts with the information, however incomplete, and gropes its way towards an explanation. The former is exclusive, the latter inclusive. Which would you rather be?