This week, a fascinating face-off took place on MSNBC. Politics Nation host Al Sharpton had on Virginia GOP Senate candidate Corey Stewart and proceeded to grill him on his ties to the alt-right. Sharpton asked Stewart if he considered himself “the candidate for white nationalists in the state of Virginia.” Stewart explained that his constituents didn’t want to discuss race; Sharpton demurred and pointed out Stewart’s ardent advocacy for Confederate monuments. Stewart then said, “You’ve made a career out of dividing people by race; you’ve been a race hustler your entire career.” Sharpton responded by stating that he was merely “standing up for racial justice.”
Now, here’s the thing: Both of these people are race hustlers, though not of the same degree. Sharpton has made a career out of racial hoaxes and secondary boycotts and corporate shakedowns, and he continues to be welcomed into the good graces of Democrats; Stewart has opted into racially charged rhetoric for political gain (most recently by speaking warmly of the Confederacy, siding with President Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comments regarding Charlottesville, and hiring former Paul Nehlen employees) and has been largely shunned by the Republican party.
So, why does any of this matter? Because perceived threat from out-groups polarizes our politics — and when you combine that perceived threat with loyalty to particular political institutions, ugly things follow. We become willing to hobnob with heretofore-taboo viewpoints and people; we resonate to conspiracy theories. We make common cause with those who will join us in fighting our enemies. We abandon individual moral responsibility in favor of “winning.”
Now, the most important aspiration for every human being should be the same: to answer for our own individual moral responsibility. Yet every institution has an interest in quashing that aspiration. As Aristotle points out in his Politics, institutional loyalty can be consonant with virtue only so long as the institution itself is good. But few institutions are totally good; virtually none are sinless. That means that institutional loyalty will often be pitted against individual virtue.
How can we overcome that conflict? There are only two possible outcomes: Either institutions change and adapt to better reflect virtue, or individuals change and adapt to reflect the sins of their preferred institutions. Human nature is heavily biased toward the latter.
That’s thanks to our natural tendency toward threat perception. In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif performed an experiment. He took a group of 22 twelve-year-old boys to Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. All the children shared a racial, religious, and socioeconomic background. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups. They were then left to their own devices, unaware of the existence of the other group. The kids created group identities: The Eagles and The Rattlers. The two groups were then placed in competition — and that competition led to a spiral in conflict that ended in stealing, ransacking, and burning of property. The boys were then surveyed about their experiences; their descriptions of their rival groups were consistently placed in a moral context. The study provided empirical support to Sherif’s Realistic Conflict Theory (RCT). RCT is far from the only theory explaining conflict — but all such theories reflect the fact that human beings see out-groups as threats. Just as important, the more threatened groups feel, the more dangerous their behavior.
All of this is part of our survival mechanism: We must band together to fight actual threats to our group. But what happens when our politics divides such that threats become mutually reinforcing? What happens when identity politics on the left drives identity politics on the right, which drives identity politics on the left, and so on?
The cycle can be broken only when we start thinking of ourselves as individuals again — and when we recognize that America is still a safe place for political disagreement. We are not forestalled from thinking for ourselves; we need not side with Antifa on the left or the alt-right on the right in order to beat back our supposed oppressors. We must reject such nonsense. If we don’t, we’re raising the risk of actual evil.
In his book on Rwanda, author Anjan Sundaram describes meeting a bourgmestre, a soldier of the state who took a leading role in the genocide. “In this kind of country we don’t know where the state ends and where we begin. And if I don’t know where I begin, I am worth nothing, I don’t have any rights. Then how to feel that another person has rights? . . . We are not individuals, we are agents of the state.”
We become agents of institutions when we stop thinking of ourselves as individuals. And we stop thinking of ourselves as individuals when we allow fear to overcome realism.
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