We saw it coming—the polarization that has led bitter and bloody divisions. Well, a few saw it coming, many should have, and others just ignored it. An article in the current Smithsonian on public intellectuals made me curious about a 1968 debate between Canadian media analyst Marshall McLuhan and macho novelist Norman Mailer.
Mailer says, “Look Marshall, we’re both agreed that man is accelerating at an extraordinary rate into a super-technological world, if you will. And that the modes and methods by which men instruct themselves and are instructed are shifting in extraordinary . . . [interrupted]
Later McLuhan replies, “An electronic world retribalizes man, yes.” And even later McLuhan, leaving Mailer out of his depth, explains how the retribalization has begun and will proceed. “When you give people too much information, they resort to pattern recognition.”
What patterns stand out for us a half century later? The patterns that reinforce the goodness of our ideas and of the groups that want these ideas to govern the world. And we see patterns that confirm the existence of our enemies – people who want to run the world differently. In a world where so much is changing, and change is accelerating, these patterns are reassuring. At best they create cooperative communities energized for good causes. They also divide us into warring tribes.
Accelerating and radical change is very unsettling to anyone who wants to settle down with a comfortable perspective, a loyal family, a stable set of friends, a nurturing tribe, and a defensible faith. The threat of losing these cherished human comforts means that each group or tribe defends or asserts its identity with increasing ferocity. Discipline and peer pressure within a group become more and more important and dissent becomes more dangerous. The vilification and dehumanizing of outsiders also intensifies. The proof is everywhere.
It’s here in America and in the violence of the Middle East. At home Liberals demonize conservatives and Trump supporters as greedy, coldhearted, selfish, ignorant, and bigoted. Conservatives and Trump supporters demonize liberals as elitists, naïve ideologues, extortionists, big spenders of other people’s money, hypocrites, and bigots.
In the Middle East and Afghanistan enforced tribalism and demonizing outsiders has displaced millions as it fuels suicide bombers, slavery, and mass murder.
Both the good and the bad consequences of technology, of course, come in degrees. European and American divisions are not even close to civil war though people have been bloodied and bruised, and a few have been murdered.
Across the Atlantic the European Union is even more divided and close to falling apart after its first secession. America’s Brexit was the election of Donald Trump, though less of a Brexit than a Break-It.
The mainstream media gets a large share of the blame for the bitterness of our divisions. Politicized college faculties and curricula also bear a big burden. Fortunately, the Internet that serves the very social media and independent web sites that fuel divisive tribalism is also overflowing with new ideas, new patterns. We will get what we look for.