When Belief Makes Reality

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, both philosophers at Vanderbilt, recently published a piece about “Our Polarization Problem”. They distinguish between political polarization — a measure of distance between political groups, whether in terms of policy or groups’ attitudes toward each other — and belief polarization, wherein members of a group of shared belief talk mainly with other members of that group and thereby come to embrace more extreme versions of those beliefs. Political polarization waxes or wanes as rival political groups move further apart or closer to one another in their views, whereas belief polarization waxes or wanes within a group. I have some misgivings about their categorization, but the phenomena in question are familiar and well studied. Aikin and Talisse think that what we less often fail to appreciate is how belief polarization not only changes us, but changes our views of others:

One feature of belief polarization that is not frequently commented on is that as we become more extreme versions of ourselves, our beliefs about those with whom we disagree also shift. Again, repeated interactions with our fellow partisans transforms us into more extreme advocates of our partisan views, but it in addition makes nonpartisans look more alien to us. As we belief-polarize, we begin to regard those with whom we disagree as increasingly inscrutable, irrational, ignorant, and unreliable. We also lose the capacity to recognize nuance in their views; that is, belief polarization leads us to regard our opponents’ views as monolithic, brute, and extreme. We moreover come to regard larger and larger portions of their behavior as explicable by their political commitments; in other words, as belief polarization takes effect, we come to see more and more of what our opponents do – their shopping habits, what they eat, their profession, where they live, how they spend their weekends – as expressing their misguided political beliefs.

This other-regarding dimension of the belief polarization phenomenon provides the connection between belief and political polarization. As belief polarization leads us to regard our political rivals as increasingly benighted, irrational, and unreasonable, we become more and more inclined to distrust, dislike, and resent those who we regard as our opponents. We thus isolate ourselves increasingly among our political allies, and this in turn contributes further to belief polarization. Our political alliances thereby become more tightly knit and exclusionary; and consequently political parties and their leaders are incentivized to punctuate (and overstate) their policy and platform differences. All of this occurs within a self-perpetuating, spiraling dynamic that intensifies civic divisions and inter-partisan animosity. That is, belief polarization sets in motion a broader dynamic that not only codifies political polarization, but also erodes our capacity for proper democracy.

The main worry that Aikin and Talisse emphasize is that belief polarization yields ‘civic enmity,’ “the condition that prevails when democratic citizens lose the capacity to regard those with whom they disagree as entitled to an equal share of political power.” The connection they see between belief polarization and civic enmity certainly fits the anecdotal evidence I could offer from my own life, and I think we’re on pretty safe ground supposing that civic enmity is at least usually going to be a bad thing — most of those with whom we disagree are not in fact less deserving than we are of an equal share of political power (though I suppose Brennan might beg to differ). What worries me quite a bit more, though, is that belief polarization might in fact make other groups’ views and attitudes toward a highly belief-polarized group more justified, maybe even…true.

Aikin and Talisse’s description of the belief polarized person fits a good many progressive academics I know. Progressives who spend some time reading conservative intellectual commentary will quickly discover that its descriptions of ‘the left’ often bear only a tenuous connection to reality. But the same tends to be true of progressive descriptions of conservatives. I am not conservative by any sane standard of measurement, but I regularly fail to recognize conservative thought or sentiment — whether high-brow intellectual stuff or more ordinary stuff — in progressive caricatures. The right tends to be no better, of course, but the progressives are supposed to be the smart ones, right? At the risk of appealing to what is perhaps by now a cliché, I doubt that most people could pass an ideological Turing test.

I’ve been complaining about something like this for about a decade. In the past few years, though, I’ve found it harder to resist succumbing to it myself. My working hypothesis for why it’s become harder is that the rise of Trumpism has given greater prominence to a different set of voices, voices that I find easier to regard as the voices of the willfully ignorant and vicious. I think it goes without saying that most MAGA types are heavily belief-polarized. At the same time, many progressives appear to be becoming even more belief-polarized than in the past, and in some cases more narrowly belief-polarized, contracting the range of views that minimally decent and respectable people can hold. As their belief-polarization increases, both groups see their opponents as “monolithic, brute, and extreme,” as Aikin and Talisse say. But by the same token, both groups’ own views become more monolithic and extreme, if not always exactly brute. There’s not what I would regard as anything like a moral equivalence, but there’s certainly a moral analogy.

Aikin and Talisse’s discussion of political and belief polarization seems to presuppose that belief polarization’s effects on how we view other groups are not reasonable. In the past, I would certainly have agreed that they aren’t. What I now worry is that, as those effects increase on all sides, they become more reasonable, or at least more plausible to outsiders. To be sure, these beliefs are rarely arrived at by rationally respectable means. But as partisans succumb to belief polarization, their opponents’ view of them as extreme and implacably hostile turns out to be true, and the amount of available countervailing evidence shrinks.

16 thoughts on “When Belief Makes Reality

    • In a way it’s something of an embarrassingly obvious thought: hey, if we irrationally become more extreme, we will be more irrational and more extreme. To be fair to Aikin and Tailsse, they don’t quite ignore the issue — particularly not in the longer piece they link to — but their focus on civic enmity seems to obscure the possibility that various groups really are what their belief-polarized enemies think they are, and that they became that way via belief polarization, itself encouraged by other groups’ belief polarization.

      One thing I think (or maybe hope) is that we still haven’t reached the point at which the belief-polarized notion that this-or-that group’s views are monolithic and uniformly extreme is actually true. There are such groups, but ‘conservatives,’ ‘Republicans,’ ‘leftists,’ ‘progressives,’ ‘liberals,’ and ‘neoliberals’ do not accurately identify any such groups. To the extent that such groups really exist, they’re very far from monolithic or uniformly extreme. For me, appreciating that point was crucial to escaping from the caricatured view of conservatives that I had acquired in my early 20s. When I discovered how much variety there is within ‘conservative’ thought, I was able to identify various points on which I agreed or could sympathize with this or that sort of conservative thinking. That helped me to see conservatives as, well, people — people whose beliefs and attitudes, however confused, short-sighted, or whatever, still usually come from a set of concerns that I can make sense of even when I have to ascribe pretty serious intellectual and moral flaws to them. By contrast, I have friends on Facebook today posting about how ‘Republicans’ want poor people to die. I think it’s safe to say that they don’t understand their opponents.

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  1. I think the last paragraph of your post understates the problem with the Talisse-Aiken thesis. The thesis only has significance in contexts in which it can be demonstrated that belief polarization doesn’t track the truth. But there’s nothing about the characterization of belief polarization here that precludes that possibility. Where it tracks the truth, and whether it does, are both matters left open by the statement of the thesis in the post.

    If you’re a left-wing Centrist in the Weimar Republic, talking to people to your left about the German Right, belief polarization about the Right will be a truth-tracking/discovery procedure: it will induce you to re-examine the complacently Centrist part of your beliefs, and facilitate your realization that the world around you is absolutely not the normal place that centrism likes to pretend that it is. If you then find yourself rapidly moving left, discarding your comfortable Centrist beliefs for supposedly “extreme” Social Democratic positions, you’ll have moved precisely in the direction of the moral and political truth. If it occurs to you in advance of the 1932 elections that it’s now or never, you will be far more correct than the complacent people who say, “Let’s not go to extremes! We have to live with our nationalist friends, do we not? They are our neighbors, our fellow citizens, our civic friends….” If after January 1933, you realize that it’s time either to fight or flee, you will also be absolutely right. And if by 1939, you realize that if you can’t leave Germany or leave Europe, you must find a way to commit treason, you’d be right again.

    Suppose that you come to these beliefs more or less by shunning right-wing people and talking exclusively to people on your left? So what? It may be that it doesn’t take much effort to grasp what the German Right is about. It may also be that one can’t expect them to discuss things in good faith. They’re not normal discursive partners, somehow deserving of a sympathetic hearing, a la Mill’s On Liberty. They’re psychopaths in the making. Give them a few years, and they’ll put you in a concentration camp. The only thing you can learn from them is what can be learned from a case study in psycho-pathology. That’s interesting (I’m a psych grad student after all), but it’s secondary to survival.

    Suppose that in 1933, you reflect on your erstwhile Centrist colleagues–the idiots who still think that Hitler can still be bargained with or kept in his place. You

    begin to regard those with whom we disagree as increasingly inscrutable, irrational, ignorant, and unreliable. [You] also lose the capacity to recognize nuance in their views; that is, belief polarization leads [you] to regard [your] opponents’ views as monolithic, brute, and extreme. [You] moreover come to regard larger and larger portions of their behavior as explicable by their political commitments; in other words, as belief polarization takes effect, [you] come to see more and more of what [your] opponents do – their shopping habits, what they eat, their profession, where they live, how they spend their weekends – as expressing their misguided political beliefs.

    How is that a criticism? Ex hypothesi, all of it would be true.

    I get that Talisse and Aiken don’t take themselves to be talking about Weimar Germany. But many leftists (including some experts on Weimar Germany and some experts on totalitarianism) see parallels between our contemporary milieu and proto-totalitarian regimes. To the extent that they’re right, the Talisse-Aiken thesis seems uninformative. Yes, belief polarization can in some contexts intensify distortions in people’s beliefs, but it can in other contexts track the truth better than a lot of discovery procedures. It depends what context you’re in, and how or why exactly your beliefs are being polarized.

    In my own political life, it was a moment of personal transformation and discovery to grasp that when it came to thinking about the Israel/Palestine dispute, it was naive of me to have regarded “both sides” as equally committed to convincing me of the truth (or in equal possession of significant parts of the truth), hence that I ought to be open to what they said in roughly the same way. It hadn’t really occurred to me that Zionists, whether liberal or right-wing, were systematically operating in bad faith–that half of what I’d “learned” from them over decades of armchair study was just a series of carefully engineered lies. My beliefs had to undergo systematic polarization in order to escape that web of lies.

    Put another way: I had, over decades, internalized so many false equations, engendered mostly by liberal Zionism, that I had to immerse myself in a Palestinian context in order to break free of them. And if that meant gravitating toward or sympathizing with fellow travelers of Hamas or Hezbullah, so be it. Had I not done that, I would indefinitely have ping-ponged between different poles of a basically false centrist position. Once I allowed myself to undergo belief polarization, I got a much clearer picture of the moral and political landscape as a whole–one that eventually allowed me to get some critical distance on the more extreme positions on the left (or among Islamists) while still being able to see where they were coming from.

    Even if you reject this particular application of my view–to Zionism–you’d have to grant that the general phenomenon I’m describing is possible.

    It seems to me that the Tallisse-Aiken thesis has application to a few, somewhat cherry-picked contexts. Outside of those contexts, it’s pretty unhelpful. The danger about it is that it’s far too easy to wield it as a weapon against radicals of any kind, regardless of context, and regardless of any attempt to show that in a given context, the radicals might be exactly right.


    • I think I might have a more favorable view of their thesis than that, though you’re right that I share your concerns to some degree.

      First, A&T acknowledge that belief polarization might lead us to the truth: “Observe also that belief polarization need not be obviously politically problematic. The phenomenon entails that we are less in control of our beliefs and related attitudes than we would like. This might be bad news for us as cognitive creatures, but it is not clearly troubling for us in our roles as citizens. After all, moving towards more extreme versions of our political beliefs might in the end place us closer to the truth.”

      They put the thought in terms of our more extreme views about politics being closer to the truth than our less extreme views prior to undergoing belief polarization. But the same thought naturally extends to the effects that they think belief polarization tends to have on our views of those who disagree with us: perhaps that likewise will move us closer to the truth. I don’t think this should lead us not to be worried about belief polarization, though, for two reasons.

      First, we know that in many instances belief polarization does not lead to more accurate views of opponents, even when, ex hypothesi, it leads to better positive views. We know this because it’s right out there for us to see: very often, people who hold strong views do not really understand much about what their opponents think, and they tend to lump their opponents together into an undifferentiated mass — “leftists,” “neoliberals,” “secularists,” “multiculturalists,” “conservatives,” “libertarians” — as though each group consists of people who think pretty much the same thing for transparently dumb reasons or out of transparently wicked motives. This happens frequently, and it does not track truth. Even if the positive views that such belief-polarized people hold are true, their attitudes and beliefs about their opponents are false. Unless the right way forward is to abandon discourse with everyone who doesn’t already hold the true view, the belief-polarized attitudes toward others will not lead in a fruitful direction, because what they actually lead people to do is to treat their opponents with contempt and to refuse to engage them in ways that have much chance of changing their minds. There are, of course, people with whom we should not bother to engage, and some views may be such that we should not bother to engage with anyone who holds them. But we do not in fact find ourselves in a situation where the vast majority of people beyond of our narrow ideological team are such people or hold such views. We are instead in a situation where increasingly many people treat their opponents as though they were, even though they aren’t, or don’t need to be.

      Second, and more fundamentally, even if we were to discover belief-polarization tracking the truth in some significant range of cases, it is an inherently irrational and unreliable procedure for forming beliefs, and we should be wary of it for that reason. The way to know what libertarians think and what they’re like is not to talk about libertarianism exclusively with a bunch of sub-Marxist grad students in English; it’s to read serious libertarian writing and to talk to actual libertarians. It may be that Marx’s critique of capitalism is profoundly correct and that libertarian thought, in most or all of its guises, is equally profoundly mistaken, little more than a rationalization for greed driven by delusional aspirations for independence; even so, there is no question that many loud critics of ‘capitalism’ do not know much at all about libertarian thought or libertarians, and that’s because they mostly do not read or talk to libertarians, and if they do, do not do so in an intellectually honest way. Of course most belief-polarized people could, if they wanted to, escape from their belief polarization, so they do not fail to be responsible for their errors and their vices. But often it’s hard to escape from belief polarization in many of the same ways it’s hard to escape from a cult — all the people around you whom you respect and care about think this way, and you’ve developed an almost instinctive tendency to interpret alternatives through the lens of belief-polarized caricatures, so that you can feel like you must be doing something wrong if you read Nozick or Rand or Brennan as anything other than evil fools. The mechanisms of belief polarization aren’t reliably truth-tracking, they’re reliably distorting.

      Nor, I think, do concerns like this apply only in relatively rare contexts. I’m not sure they fail to apply even in the Weimar Republic context: could Nazism or anti-Semitism really have flourished without the mechanisms of belief polarization? No doubt there’s more to those ideological pathologies than mere belief polarization, but I’m not sure I can see Nazism without belief polarization. I can, by contrast, see Marxism or democratic socialist thinking operating without belief polarization — not that they did or do, but that I don’t see them as simply unable to survive without it, whereas I do think Nazism would be unable to survive without it.

      That brings me to the final point. I don’t think there’s any grounds to worry that concerns about belief polarization will turn into a weapon to beat radicals with, if only for the simple reason that one doesn’t have to be highly belief polarized in order to be radical. Alasdair MacIntyre would be a case in point. Perhaps some would quibble with the idea that his thought is ‘radical,’ but many of his views are definitely extreme — too extreme for me, at least. But I’m not sure I can think of a less belief polarized thinker. I’ve never met him, whereas you knew him, but if he’s anything like his work, he displays almost superhuman virtue in avoiding belief polarization. I’m not sure he’s always entirely fair to his opponents even when I think he’s right, but he does not (at least not normally) caricature them or see them all as monolithic, extreme, or brute. It’s of course true that from his perspective, many differences that strike the proponents of certain views as important look trivial: hence Rawls and Nozick are, for MacIntyre, both to be rejected for mostly the same reasons. But as a Catholic and a Thomist — both groups whose membership includes many strongly belief polarized individuals — he’s remarkably open to learning from, and understands deeply, such fundamental opponents as Rorty and Derrida (in fact, his summary of Derrida’s deconstructionist critique of metaphysics in ‘First Principles, Final Ends, and Contemporary Philosophical Issues’ presents the critique more clearly and helpfully than the dozens of pro-Derrida sources that I tried to understand before giving up as an undergraduate). Yet MacIntyre is also more radical than many Thomists, particularly in politics, where many have somehow convinced themselves that the pre-Trump Republican party was pretty congenial. MacIntyre’s distance from belief polarization comes out best in his attitude towards his opponents: while he thinks that American politics, indeed nation-state politics in general, is hopeless and not really worth engaging in, he addresses himself to his opponents in ways that they can take rationally seriously — he does not think it worth engaging in argument with secular liberals about, say, abortion or sexuality, but he does not simply dismiss secular liberals as not worth his time. You’re proof of that.

      Of course some might try to use the notion of belief polarization as a cudgel to beat even radicals like MacIntyre. But people will misuse ideas whenever they find it useful. The important point is that A&T are not encouraging us not to have extreme views — it’s not even political polarization as such that they’re worried about. They’re worried about coming to see those who do not share our extreme views as nothing more than our enemies, as people with whom we cannot meaningfully co-operate.

      My own initial worry was that belief polarization contributes to making people such that we cannot meaningfully co-operate with them. That’s a different worry from yours, I take it; your thought is that our belief polarized views and our belief polarized attitudes towards others might be true. My thought is: people who become highly belief polarized and take on highly belief polarized views towards others might thereby make other people’s civic enmity toward them justified. Your worry is that A&T are being too critical of belief polarization; mine is that they aren’t being critical enough or for all the right reasons.

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      • I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying, and I’m glad to hear that Talisse and Aiken acknowledge that belief polarization might track the truth. I don’t dispute that belief polarization is something to worry about, at least sometimes (where “sometimes” could well be “often” or even “most of the time”). But I think it needs to be acknowledged that there are contexts in which belief polarization, characterized exactly as it is in your post, is entirely unproblematic. Yes, Nazism and German nationalism arose through belief polarization, but that doesn’t alter the fact that left-wing belief polarization might well be an entirely appropriate response to it. If that pattern generalizes, then belief polarization can (to that extent) be an appropriate response to problematic phenomena that arise by belief polarization.

        I don’t think it follows from the characterization of belief polarization in your post that belief polarization involves unfairness to anyone. (I’m responding here to the mention of fairness in the paragraph on MacIntyre.) Sometimes it does, but it need not. If you’re dealing with people who operate in bad faith, there comes a point at which you have to realize that what they’re saying in defense of their politics is not a good faith attempt at discourse, but a bad faith attempt to distract you by inducing you to engage with moral corruption. To insist in the interests of “fairness” on open-minded engagement becomes self-defeating at that point.

        Let’s stipulate ex hypothesi that your picture of MacIntyre is accurate: he’s a radical and eminently fair to his interlocutors, willing to learn from them.* It doesn’t follow that there are no interlocutors such that a fair-minded person (including Macintyre) would draw the line there, and regard those persons as enemies/adversaries with whom he wouldn’t engage. If there is such a line, and drawing it is justifiable, then belief polarization is justifiable. It arises from drawing a line between those deserving of a response, and those not. Even if the latter involve ideological positions that need refutation, it doesn’t follow that the persons advocating them deserve personal engagement. They might deserve to be refuted, then shot. It depends on who they are, and what they believe.

        As it happens, I’m confident that MacIntyre would agree with me on this one, because he repeatedly said that he drew the line at…libertarians! We had a colleague, Jim Sterba, whose life’s project was the earnest, respectful refutation of libertarianism.


        Jim once asked MacIntyre why Mac didn’t engage with libertarians. Citing Anscombe on corruption of conscience, MacIntyre said that he regarded libertarians as too morally corrupt to engage with. I guess I didn’t count as “too corrupt to engage with,” but then, I wasn’t a real libertarian. MacIntyre never named names, but I imagine his view applied to hard-boiled libertarians like Narveson or Nozick. I actually knew someone who tortured MacIntyre with long conversations about Ayn Rand, but to quote Shaggy, it wasn’t me. (It was far too awkward to ask MacIntyre why he made an exception in that particular case, and in some ways, I don’t really think it was an exception.)

        Your way of coming at the issue strikes me as more appropriate to a blog or seminar room than it does to practical politics. Consider some examples.

        1. Suppose you live in an HOA 99% of whose membership is opposed to the construction of affordable housing on a plot of land adjacent to that owned by the HOA. You go to the HOA’s meeting to give the members a fair hearing. After awhile, it becomes apparent that their opposition to the new housing development is an expression of sheer class bias and NIMBY attitudes. You engage with them a bit, but every attempt at engagement yields the same half-baked set of rationalizations–feeble objections that have obvious answers, and that too obviously represent the petulant insistence that affordable housing is a great thing as long as it’s built somewhere else. You find this exasperating, so you complain about it to your friends in the affordable housing community. They say: “You’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg of the problem.” So you immerse yourself in the affordable housing advocates’ version of the problem, and become convinced that their class analysis of your fellow HOA members explains a lot more than you ever realized. Notice that what’s doing the trick here is precisely belief polarization: you’re discovering something through immersion in a relatively one-sided dialogue with the affordable housing activists while shutting out the thinly veiled rationalizations of your neighbors.

        Bear in mind that you’re still a member of the HOA, hence a member of that group with (some of) its interests at heart (you own property in the HOA just like everyone else there, and you have a stake in property values, externalities, etc. just like every other property owner). But the next time you go to an HOA meeting, you’ve internalized the affordable housing activists’ account of things, and you’re not going to put up with the kind of classist crap you heard last time. When people complain about the Nelson Street Development Project, you get up, and let rip with a quasi-Marxist analysis of their bourgeois classist bullshit. Now you’ve become the pariah of your HOA. Indeed, every aspect of Talisse-Aiken’s analysis will now apply to you. You “begin to regard those with whom we disagree as increasingly inscrutable, irrational, ignorant, and unreliable,” etc., all the way to the end of the passage. But suppose ex hypothesi that what you’re saying is on the mark. Your neighbors really are irrational, ignorant, and unreliable. And there really is a connection between their classist attitudes, their views on land use planning, and, say, their shopping habits. That’s what classism is. Upshot: even if we grant that belief polarization can be problematic, I don’t see that it’s problematic here. And I think this sort of case generalizes.

        2. Suppose that you have no strong view on BDS except that you think people should have the right to engage in it. But wherever you go, the predominant view is that BDS should be criminalized because it is an anti-Semitic assault on Jews’ right to self-determination. Indeed, all of your supposedly progressive political representatives believe this. When you ask to meet with them, they meet with you, and make conciliatory noises about how they fundamentally agree with you. The minute you leave their offices, they turn around and do their best to turn you into a criminal. You call them up and ask for an explanation. You get a run-around. You ask again. You get a run-around. You ask for a third time. You get the same run-around. You write letters. They’re not answered. Now the legislation passes, making you a criminal. You try to enter Israel, and you’re detained incommunicado for a week, then deported at your own expense. On entry into the United States, you’re sharply questioned by CBP, which refers you to law enforcement for violating the anti-BDS legislation. You receive a summons, lose the case, and are fined. You miss work, and a hue and cry arises at work about whether an anti-Semite like you should be employed by a reputable institution. You lose your job.

        In response, you confer with your political allies within the BDS movement. You “close ranks” in anticipation for action against your adversaries. After some deliberation about strategy and tactics, you gather a group of 500 activists to protest in front of the relevant Senator’s office demanding the repeal of the legislation. Near riot conditions prevail. The news media show up. The cops order you to disperse. You’re filmed being handcuffed and being thrown into a squad car….

        Example (2) is a pastiche not intended to reflect the way anti-BDS legislation actually works as currently proposed or written. My point is that it’s an eminently possible scenario.

        Both (1) and (2) are illustrations of both belief and political polarization. I see nothing wrong with either kind of polarization in either sort of case. They’re cases where of course polarization makes it impossible to “cooperate” with someone: they’re cases where one faces not interlocutors or civic friends, but avowed adversaries–or worse, adversaries masquerading as civic friends (aka, “civic fiends”). What both your account and Talisse-Aiken’s account are missing is an acknowledgement of the frankly adversarial character of politics–not political discourse, but politics. Polarization makes perfect sense in contexts where engaging in cooperative engagement is like walking directly into a trap.

        There’s a place for civic engagement, and a place for adversarially-driven polarization. I’d need to read more of them, but my problem is that Talisse and Aiken do not take the latter seriously enough.

        *It would take us too far afield to discuss what MacIntyre was really like on this, but while I don’t disagree with your characterization, MacIntyre-the-Person strikes me as more complicated than that characterization on its own. But instead of offering biographical reflections, I’d offer a bibliographical one:


        Another Vanderbilt contribution, ironically. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it, but that paper strikes me as acknowledging what I’m calling the adversarial character of politics, and (if I remember correctly) is compatible with what I’m saying about polarization.

        Fun fact: Rob Talisse is a member of the Board of Directors of the Felician Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs, and used to teach at Felician. I’ll email him and see if he’s interested in responding to any of this.


        • I wonder whether you and I are understanding belief polarization differently (perhaps neither of us in quite the way A&T do). You’re focusing here on (i) refusing to engage with certain individuals, concrete groups of individuals, or views and on (ii) judging that some individuals, concrete groups of individuals, or views are irrational, ignorant, and unreliable. I don’t have any interest in denying that either (i) or (ii) is sometimes, perhaps even often, justified. But I don’t think either needs to be closely correlated with belief polarization; belief polarization produces (i) and (ii), but (i) and (ii) need not be rooted in belief polarization. In the cases you describe of the HOA, the anti-BDS politicians, and MacIntyre, not everybody who is refusing to engage or who is judging that their opponents are irrational, ignorant, and unreliable is belief-polarized, because not everyone involved has failed to give a fair hearing to their opponents, to actually figure out what they think and say. MacIntyre hasn’t just passed judgment on libertarians because all of his Marxist buddies talk shit about libertarians all the time; your judgment of the classist snobs in the HOA of the anti-BDS politicians is not primarily a product of internalizing your friends’ beliefs without informing yourself of the opposition’s. By contrast, most anti-BDS folks do seem to me to have determined that anyone who supports BDS is a horrendous anti-Semite and possibly a terrorist, and to have come to this conclusion primarily on the basis of what other anti-BDS people have said (I’m not informed enough on the issue to have strong views, as usual, but while the thinking I’ve done on the issue leads me not to support BDS, I’m firmly with you in thinking that people should have a right to engage in it). At any rate, if you or MacIntyre or some hypothetical supporter of the right to engage in BDS were to hold that libertarians as such, or HOA members opposed to this or that development as such, or anti-BDS folks as such, were all just obviously irrational, ignorant, and unreliable without having actually paid intellectually honest attention to what such people say and think, then I would not commend you.

          Perhaps I’m working with too narrow a conception of belief polarization. It strikes me, though, that you’re working with an overly broad one — you’re effectively describing cases in which someone who has a well-informed understanding of some group or view formed by first-hand, intellectually honest encounters with it quite reasonably judges that the group or view is not worth engaging with because it or its members are irrational, ignorant, and unreliable. As I understand the concept of belief polarization, the well-informed understanding formed by first-hand intellectually honest encounters part effectively disqualifies the cases you’re describing from being cases of belief polarization.

          As usual, I’m not inclined to insist that there’s one right way to use the term ‘belief polarization.’ We could consider whether my narrow understanding of it fits better with A&T’s use of it, but even if it does, there might be good reasons to prefer your use of the term. I’ve got no fundamental objections to what you’re describing, except that our tendency to epistemic overconfidence should make us cautious in judging that we are in fact sufficiently well informed about our opponents. You and I might judge particular cases differently, but we might not — if anything, I might be more inclined to judge certain groups and views not worth engaging with. But my complaint is not about such judgments when they are justified, nor do I imagine that such judgments are rarely justified. On the contrary, part of my worry about A&T’s picture is that it understates the frequency with which such judgments are justified. My complaint is about belief polarization narrowly conceived — the pattern in which talking primarily or exclusively with members of our own ideological team tends to lead us to see people who aren’t on that team as monolithic, extreme, and unavailable for meaningful co-operation even when they’re not, or at least wouldn’t be if we weren’t so damn hostile to them.

          Three years ago I might have been singing a tune more at odds with yours, but in the past few years I have come to find more people irrational, ignorant, and unreliable, and so not worth even trying to engage with. What troubles me, though, is that belief polarization seems to have played a role in making more people like that.

          It would indeed be interesting to hear from Talisse on these points. After all, we’re just riffing on a very small part of a few short pieces. But I’m especially curious about how he and Aikin would respond to the sorts of concerns you raise. I suppose I’m interested in how they’d respond to the sorts I raise, too, but since I see mine as mostly consistent with theirs and yours as more critical of them, their response to yours might be more interesting.

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          • We definitely are using the term differently, and I’m using it more broadly than you are. I didn’t take “refusal to give a fair hearing” to be a necessary condition or essential to the process of belief polarization. If anything, then, we may need two different conceptions of belief polarization, one that involves refusal to give the other side a fair hearing, and one that involves giving them one.

            I didn’t get a chance to email Talisse yesterday, but will do it sometime today. I don’t know Aiken personally, so don’t feel comfortable popping in his email and saying, “What do you think about this thing on my blog?” I probably shouldn’t feel comfortable doing that with Rob either, but I do.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. A real-life version of my scenario 2.


    Why would or should there be a “basis for compromise or even productive communication” with the supporters of this loyalty oath, any more than there was one with Joseph McCarthy? What is there to say to people who so cynically seek to upend the Constitution, violate people’s rights, and destroy people’s livelihoods? There’s no modus vivendi possible here. The advocates of the oath have to be treated as the adversaries that they are, and defeated. And the problem here is not polarization but the lack of it. If more people were more outraged, the battle lines would become clearer, and advocates of loyalty oaths, most likely outnumbered, would have to back down. It’s precisely because there is so little polarization–because people are willing to let such things wash over them and normalize them–that injustice prevails.

    Maybe there are individual people in favor of such loyalty oaths who happen not to be culpable of any malfeasance. But it’s difficult if not impossible to believe that of the anti-BDS movement as a whole. This is not an ambiguous case: loyalty oaths have an odious place in our history, and are flatly, obviously unconstitutional. The motivation for advocating them seems to be some version of, “Let’s see if we can disrupt people’s lives and chill their speech for as long as possible–and who knows, maybe we can get away with more than that?” There’s no slack left to cut such people.

    Maybe this is a very special case, limited only to this one narrow issue, but that’s the case I’d like to see Talisse and Aiken make.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I dunno. We’d have to talk to some of them to find out. In my experience, people often endorse outrageous things because they seem intuitively right to them, and they seem intuitively right to them because they haven’t thought about them, and if they’re presented with a coherent and plausible case working from premises that they don’t already reject, they’ll come around and at least moderate their views. Of course, much of my experience with people who hold views like this is with fairly young people who hold views like this, and young people are more likely to change or moderate their views. They’re not likely to change them at all, though, and if psychologists like Haidt’s findings are reliable, they are in fact more likely to retrench, if we attack them as ignorant, irrational, wicked people.

      But what I have primarily in mind there is how one views and treats individual people in individual encounters. You’re focused, I take it, more on what kind of political action we should take. There’s some overlap there — part of effective political action might involve persuasion, and you’re not going to persuade anyone who isn’t already pretty much on your side by demonizing the other.

      But of course — and this fact has been at the bottom of my worries and complaints throughout this thread — there are many people who are in fact just irrational, ignorant, and wicked and aren’t going to be persuaded no matter what. Many of those people are the people we’d be up against in any concrete political conflict. I am temperamentally inclined to avoid that sort of conflict, but I do appreciate that it is inevitable in pretty much any realistic cultural circumstances, and particularly at the level of legislative and policy conflicts like these.

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      • Right. Another way of putting my point is that the concept of “belief polarization” is multiply ambiguous and has lots of different applications. The one Aiken and Talisse were focusing on in their post is just one of conception of many, applied to one context among many. But use a slightly different conception of belief polarization, and apply it to a different context, and the claims they make in that post (I haven’t read their other stuff on this) cease to have application.

        As I said, Rob used to teach at Felician, and is on the Institute’s Advisory Board; I think he’s given four or five talks on this stuff since I started there. Back in 2012, we did a symposium on his book Democracy and Moral Conflict (which I should have recommended for our reading group), published in Reason Papers in 2014:


        For your leisure time. I’m sure you have plenty of leisure time nowadays.

        The thing that always occurs to me when reading Anglophone political philosophy (especially in Depts of Philosophy) is its resolutely non- or even anti-comparative perspective on politics. The focus is on “the Western democracies,” understood primarily as the democratic republics of North America, Western Europe, and Oceania. Most political philosophers make sure to do an end-run around Israel. But I thought Israel was the only Western democracy in the Near East? Didn’t you? Doesn’t everyone?

        Were political philosophers to focus on Israel, or even just include it within their evidence base, they’d see that it up-ends a lot of what they want to say about “democracy.” It’s telling, for instance, that Brennan doesn’t include a single Israeli study in his books on democracy–and there’s an abundance of studies to draw on, many of them in English. He claims in one of his papers that assassinations don’t lead to major or radical political change in “stable democracies,” ignoring the fact that the assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Britain led to the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982–an occupation that went on for decades and altered Near East politics in a permanent way. Easy enough to do if you can ignore Israel in an ad hoc way.

        If theorists on democracy took the Israeli case seriously, they’d have to face some hard choices that don’t seem addressed in the literature: either they’d have to conclude that Israel is not a democracy, or they’d have to modify the generalizations they make about democracy to fit the Israeli case. They’d have to ask the question whether a sectarian-apartheid democracy is a perfectly cogent idea, or a totally incoherent idea. They’d have to ask whether 51+ years of militarized repression represents a mere aberrant blot on an otherwise clean canvas, or represents the ideological essence of the state engaged in it? The answers to those questions would, I predict, have ramifications beyond the Israeli case.

        The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to belief polarization. Yes, if you ignore Israel, and also ignore the influence of Israeli politics in non-Israeli politics, belief polarization looks like a merely intransigent, counter-productive attitude fostered by the extreme right and extreme left. But if you’re a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, a permanent non-citizen in “the only democracy in the Near East,” living in a city whose borders keep changing every day, and where house demolitions are the order of the day, it looks–and is–a lot different.

        But the point I want to make is not limited to Israel and Palestine. Once you come back from a place like that, you begin to see things you hadn’t seen or noticed before. Maybe the people who describe our inner cities as “occupation zones” have a point. And maybe Indian reservations are eerily similar to Palestinian refugee camps?

        From that perspective, it seems to me that Aiken and Talisse have to carve out a special category of belief polarization involving a refusal to hear the other side out of an excusable alienation produced by systematically oppressive conditions. Knowing Rob, I suspect he’d be sympathetic to that rider, but my point is that it explicitly needs to be said. There is belief polarization between liberal elites and the people who live in inner city Camden, in Appalachia, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and in Al Rowwad Refugee Camp. I can assure you that the latter have not given the former a fair hearing. Indeed, much of what the denizens of Camden, Appalachia, etc. believe about liberal elites, or just about the workings of the world, is flatly false, even nonsensical. But it’s excusably nonsensical. If you took members of the liberal elite, and plunked them into the same conditions for the same duration, they’d get a little wacky, too. That doesn’t justify belief polarization, but it puts it in a very different light than when we’re talking about belief polarization among groups that are roughly on par in terms of wealth and power. Just a belaboring of the fact that the phenomenon operates in different ways in different contexts, and the differences matter.


  3. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  4. Speaking of Emerson, MacIntyre, and comparative perspectives on politics, have you ever read the work of Roxanne Euben at Penn?


    When she was at Wellesley, she was the Ralph Waldo Emerson Professor of Political Science. Her first book, Enemy in the Mirror, is a comparative study of Western and Near Eastern political philosophy, which compares “communitarian” theorizing like MacIntyre’s with “fundamentalist” Islamic theorizing like that of Sayyid Qutb, and finds fundamental similarities among them.

    I don’t mean to get into a long discussion about the particulars of her claims, which I mostly disagree with. What I agree with is the overall spirit of the project, which seems to me conspicuously missing from political philosophy as practiced in Departments of Philosophy:

    Roxanne L. Euben is a political theorist whose research has helped pioneer a new area of inquiry often referred to as “comparative political theory.” This is an understanding of political theory not as coextensive with Euro-American canonical texts ‘from Plato to NATO,’ but rather as inclusive of intellectual traditions and practices of the “non-West” and global South, as well as of indigenous traditions in, but not of, “the West.”

    The thing is, Roxanne writes in a style that is much closer to Continental than to Anglophone analytic philosophy, so that many analytically-trained philosophers would find her book an exercise in frustration or exasperation. But that seems to me a case of missing the forest for the trees. If analytic philosophers don’t like the way comparative political theory is being done in Depts of Politics, what they should be doing is coming up with their own brand of it, not rejecting the Politics Dept brand, and then intensifying the parochiality of what they’re doing right now. But I have a table-full of books right next to me as I write, most by analytic philosophers, all of whom proceed as though all the world is America. After awhile, one gets tired of it, and simply wants to say: but it isn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mentioned this post to Talisse, but he’s traveling and probably doesn’t have the time to wade through the mess we’ve made here. But he passes this along:

    But you might be interested in the TEDx talk I did on topics related to the polarization stuff:

    Here’s an episode I did of Philosophy Bites:

    Also, Aikin and I have a few YouTube videos about polarization that might be of interest (note the most recent three episodes): https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCJ5c5bdspqpeYSUJ6vZpezA

    And for what’s its worth, I have a book coming out — titled Overdoing Democracy — that’s largely about these themes.

    Reflecting on all this, I’m very tempted to invite Rob Talisse, Jason Brennan, and David Estlund to Felician to do a panel discussion or book session or something on/against democracy/epistocracy.

    Of course, this is the kind of thing I say, or dream I dream, when I’m grading. The grass is always greener on the other side of one’s current academic duties.

    Liked by 2 people

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