Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 5, Sameness and Shouting

As discussed in the book The Big Sort Americans have been sorting themselves into communities of like-mindedness. Red communities are growing redder. And blue communities are growing bluer.

But as mentioned in the last post, the migration patterns of Americans are broader than political affiliation. In The Big Sort Bishop and Cushing discuss how Americans are also sorting along racial, educational, religious and immigration lines. White communities grow whiter. Religious communities grow more religious. And so on.

Why should any of this matter?

To answer this question Bishop and Cushing delve into the psychology of group polarization. Group polarization is a well documented psychological phenomenon. Specifically, group polarization is the tendency of groups to act more extreme than individuals. Basically, groups radicalize. This is particularly the case when groups are homogenous, ideologically speaking. As Bishop and Cushing summarize (p. 68, 69):

"Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes...Like-minded groups create a kind of self-propelled, self-reinforcing loop."

Once the process of group polarization begins gaining momentum within a community the minority group begins to withdraw from public life and discourse. As the voices around the minority group grow more extreme, shrill and radicalized they opt for silence over getting into fights. And this withdrawal fuels more sorting migration. The minority leaves and the majority group, with nary a dissenting voice to be heard, radicalizes ever further. Bishop and Cushing again summarize (p. 77):

"Nearly sixty years of social psychological research confirms that as political majorities grow within communities, minorities retreat from public life. Majorities have their beliefs reinforced by seeing and hearing their inclinations locally repeated and enhanced. Self-reinforcing majorities grow larger, while isolated and dispirited minorities shrink. Majorities gain confidence in their opinions, which grow more extreme over time. As a result, misunderstanding between Republicans and Democrats grows as they seclude themselves."

Living in West Texas, one of the reddest parts of one of the reddest states, I see this all the time. The Democrats here are almost a shadow community. Political ghosts drifting undetected through their workplaces and churches and neighborhoods. They maintain silence because it's just not worth getting into a fight with a boss, co-worker, family member, or church friend. And, thus, the group polarization dynamic rolls on.

The point of all this is that The Big Sort has consequences. Communities of sameness across America are radicalizing due to living in self-selected echo chambers. As a consequence, political discourse is growing more and more extreme. Listening stops and shouting begins. Just watch TV, this is what American civic discourse has been reduced to. Two communities, in self-imposed exile from each other, are finding each other increasingly alien, strange, and hostile. And as the views polarize in our communities of sameness civic discourse gets reduced to one common tactic:

Who can shout the loudest.

Next Post: A Purple State of Mind

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6 thoughts on “Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 5, Sameness and Shouting”

  1. Hey Richard
    This is interesting, though I think a more ideal community could be slightly different in shape...

    Specifically, rather than a bunch of groups of heterogeneity, perhaps an ideal society is crafted more like the 'small world' structures identified by some of the 'new network' sociologists. I am thinking here of Uzzi and Spiro's 2005 American Journal of Sociology paper on the creativity of Broadway teams. Uzzi and Spiro argue that the macro structure that is most conducive to creativity is that of a small world, when there is both homogenous clumping and bridging across those clumps. They argue that many ideas need some ideological and social space to develop, while also being connected across the larger structure to have their contribution heard. The situation of being too connected (full heterogeneity) might not provide such space.

    Though moderation of voices can be a good thing, the opposite fear is that all groups/ ideas/ perspectives become like the shadow community democrats you mention here. They don't have the space to develop their ideas (too heterogenous), or their space is so much that they become too polarized and their contributions are both extreme and not heard outside of their own communities (too homogenous). It seems like you are suggesting the current situation is similar to the latter description, with the ideal situation being the former. I wonder if instead there might be an ideal structure located in the more 'small-worldy' like structure that combine some elements of both sorting and connection across those pockets.


  2. This is why "free speech" is so important. And why I questioned the way the President had already picked out the journalists, who were to question him after last night's press confeence.

    It seemed to me that the "press conference" was a means of re-affirmng his rhetoric. When he called on the journalists, he didn't even know whether they were there or not. Unlike past Presidents, who called on a hand raised, this President holds power to "dismiss" those who have vehenemently criticized him, like the Washington Post, the New Your Times, etc...not one of them was called on. So, political polarization has happened in the President's mind. He called for a unified nation, a oneness, while attacking the Repulicans with "us/them" language.

    I don't know if politics is a place of unity at all, nor should it be, as it is to engage diference in public discourse. John McCain bragged during the campaign about how he never won the "Miss Congniality" contest, as he attempted to cross party lines. In politics, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. And everything nowadays is politically oriented, as we become more and more connected technically, but alienated on a personal level. The relationships we have are business models, to fit a function in a corporate scheme.

    Instead of the average citizen taking a voluntary part in their community and making the relationship through that interaction, the citizen is to be taught how to care for those differenct from them. This is diveristy training, which is presently required by government. A demand of moral "care" is nothing more than a governent mandate of public service, which inposes sanctions upon those who subvert government interests in "moral care" or "concern". Welcome to a communist regime.

  3. As a follow-up to my earlier point... I wonder if the church should be a place where (in an ideal world), diversity of viewpoints are able to interact in a positive way. So, if you start with an ideological sorted community... shouldn't the church be the mechanism by which this 'small world' is created... bridging the gap between diverse ideological pocks, and not necessarily with the end goal of irradiating such disparity? Furthermore, shouldn't the church (in theory) be a place where people are forced to redemptively listen to people with highly different viewpoints as based on their conviction that this person in a 'child of god,' and therefore there must be at least a glimmer of something positive motivating their view?

  4. Peter,
    I'm tracking with you. The goal of this series to to set out all these trends to ask the question: What kind of place does church need to be to foster authentic community?

    I think your comment about being overly heterogeneous is also important and picks up on some of the concerns I think George has raised. Groups based upon similarity are not intrinsically bad. The issue, as you point out, isn't the bonding but the lack of bridging to difference. Very concretely, I think we need to practice the hard art of listening on a daily basis. But if communities are more "alone" and "sorted" we rarely get a chance to practice the disciplines of hospitality.

  5. I can't help but picture the church and the "sorting" that has taken place regarding soteriological views. The group polarization resulting in denominational divisions too numerous to count has probably evolved over centuries. A literal miracle will be needed to reverse that.

    On a personal level, I relate to what you describe about the voice of a "dispirited minority" diminishing to complete silence and withdrawal. The "fighting" no longer is worth the toll. "Not fitting in" at work or in the political market is one thing - alienation from spouse, family, and others of "Christ's body/community" over a most crucial issue is another. That kind of alienation stays with you 24/7.

    In practice, the church seems least open to heterogeneous dialog and exchange. I know that's ultimately what you are trying to tackle and address. The church's dogmatic inertia makes her appear overwhelmingly unmovable at this time.

    Gary Y.

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