Listening to at least two sides of an argument is usually a good thing. But when it comes to sustaining mass public action, this may not be the case. For most people, the willingness to take a stand in the public arena, despite the risk of injury or death, requires clarity, courage, and the dogged pursuit of a vision shared with like-minded others. If saddled with the weight of competing considerations, people might just decide to stay home.
It’s common human experience to try and mediate in a fight between two friends or lovers. As in most disagreements, it’s usually the case that both are right about some things and wrong about others. But persuading one party that the other has a point is often extremely difficult. Telling your friend that she or he is on the right side of things is a lot easier. And if a critical mass of third parties takes sides, the fight grows and persists.
Applying these dynamics to larger populations, we can say that starting and sustaining mass public action partly depends on the ways in which people choose information sources. For example, we know from research in the United States that Americans, on a whole, select news offerings that reinforce what they already believe to be true (also known in psychology and media studies as selective exposure). Even when they come across contradictory evidence, they tend to remember what supports, and forget what contradicts, their own position (selective retention). And the same piece of information can be interpreted in diametrically opposed fashion (selective perception).
We can see selective exposure, perception, and retention playing out in various parts of the world. In the United States, it has become common knowledge that Fox News caters to conservatives and Tea Partiers alike, while MSNBC targets more liberal audiences. In Egypt, the anti-government protesters and their allies are likely to prefer Al Jazeera to both state TV and Al Arabiya, which is known to be more conservative. Lawrence Pintak, expert on communication and journalism in the Arab World, observed in Foreign Policy that “… Al Jazeera has captured the hopes of the crowds gathering on the streets of Cairo.”
Scale up these cognitive processes – selective exposure, perception, and retention -- to any large population, add organized interest groups to the mix, and we might argue that these phenomena could very well lead to the polarization of constituencies. And we can reasonably contend that polarization is a key driver, among others, of sustained public action. If we think sustained public action is a good thing in a particular context (e.g., for demanding accountability), perhaps it’s also good for people to avoid crossing enemy lines. Perhaps they should maintain close contact with like-minded others. They can then reinforce each other’s beliefs, attitudes, and opinions -- telling each other that they’re right and insisting that the other side is wrong.
Many scholars have argued that selective exposure, perception, and retention, as well as polarization, are dangerous for democratic processes. I think they are mostly right. However, should one be on the side of sustained public action, for whatever reason, whether in Texas or Tahrir Square, insisting that people listen to at least two sides of an argument may end up in an unintended consequence: people might just drop their resolve, pick up their stuff, and go home.
Call me a hopeless romantic, but I won't ever be surprised to see polarization and accountability walking hand in hand in the public square.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Photo credit: Flickr user monasosh