Cass Sunstein pumps out an amazing amout of stuff and yesterday I came across this brief blog post. The idea of ideological amplification rings true – though it needn’t be ideological. Language itself and all use of it is an inherently co-operative exercise. Individuals use common property (public goods no less!) – language, ideological and other ‘framing’ ideas – to express themselves and rely on the common property to link ideas in their own mind with those of others.
So it’s not surprising that there is an inherent tribalism in it all, ideological or otherwise. Orwell made it – or its worst excesses – known to us as ‘groupthink’. Here’s Sunstein
A few years ago, I was involved in some studies that uncovered a funny fact: When Republican-appointed judges sit on three-judge panels with other Republican appointees, they show unusually conservative voting patterns. So too, Democratic-appointed judges on three-judge panels show especially liberal voting patterns when sitting with fellow Democratic appointees. In short, like-minded judges show a pattern if “ideological amplification.”
The presence of even one Republican appointee often makes Democratic appointees much more moderate. Republican appointees often become much more moderate when even a single Democratic appointee is there.
We now know that ideological amplification is pervasive on federal courts–that it can be found in numerous areas, including sex discrimination, affirmative action, campaign finance law, disability discrimination, environmental law, labor law, and voting rights.
It turns out that ideological amplification occurs in many domains. It helps to explain “political correctness” on college campuses–and within the Bush administration. In a recent study, we find that liberals in Colorado, after talking to one another, move significantly to the left on affirmative action, global warming, and civil unions for same-sex couples. On those same three issues, conservatives, after talking to each other, move significantly to the right.
It’s unclear whether anything can be done about ideological amplification. But it’s entirely clear that when private organizations and governments blunder, ideological amplification is often the culprit.
Personally I plead guilty to ideological amplification. That is, though at times I try to anchor my discourse on basic values, at other times, I’m swayed by what is regarded as ‘commonsense’ within a group. At least in the context of realising the extreme intellectual punyness of all us mere mortals, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. We are always trading the values of thinking from absolute or very strong foundational premises and ‘standing on the shoulders’ of others. Of course it helps if they are giants, but you can often see further even if you stand on the shoulders of pigmies or groups of them!
To try to make that point more clearly, I’m not a ‘foundationalist’. I don’t think you get to knowledge by working from first principles. I think you get there by talking and thinking about whatever you want and trying to keep your wits and your critical faculties about you for clues as to what makes sense and what doesn’t about what you and what others are saying.