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Support For “Patriotism” is Falling – BCB #57
Also: A secret club for the cancelled, and the illusion of moral decline.
Americans celebrated Independence Day with parades and fireworks, but they might be celebrating different things. The Wall Street Journal reports a drop in support for “patriotism” (and other classically American values) over time, as well as gaps in support between the old and the young, and between Red and Blue.
Notably, the younger generation is the least concerned about patriotism, with a 36% gap between the youngest and oldest respondents.
Unsurprisingly, views are divided across party lines, with Red assigning greater value to the traditional concept of patriotism.
Yet this doesn’t necessarily mean that the young and the Blue love their country any less (even though this trope has long been a Red criticism). Rather, it may be that the word itself has become poisoned by association. A recent AP article discusses the historical use of “patriotism” by far-right and ethnic nationalist groups like the Klu Klux Klan, and militias like the Patriot movement; today Trump also calls his voters “patriots.”
“Patriot” has become a polarizing word, a Red signifier; but perhaps Blue fights the culture war so intensely because they also care deeply about America.
The New Yorker explores the Gathering of Thought Criminals, a monthly New York City hangout for the canceled.
More than two hundred people from the media, academia, and other intellectual circles are invited to a private hangout…There are two rules. The first is that you have to be willing to break bread with people who have been socially ostracized, or, as the attendees would say, “canceled”—whether they’ve lost a job, lost friends, or simply feel persecuted for holding unpopular opinions. Some people on the guest list are notorious: elite professors who have deviated from campus consensus or who have broken university rules, and journalists who have made a name for themselves amid public backlash (or who have weathered it quietly). Others are relative nobodies, people who for one reason or another have become exasperated with what they see as rampant censorious thinking in our culture.
From controversial comedians to fired university professors, someone with an unproven #MeToo allegation, and the mother of a female swimmer who lost to a transgender athlete; it’s a community built around their shared trauma of being ostracized.
Sarah Rose Siskind, who criticized affirmative action in a student newspaper article a decade ago, describes how cancellation warps your life:
One of the worst parts about her notoriety was the “weird bedfellows and allies” it brought. “A lot of people will be, like, ‘I read your article, and I really thought it was insightful, and the reaction you’re getting is really hard, and, you know, there should be fewer Black people at Harvard,’ ” she said. “And you’re, like, ‘Oh, my God!’ ” She described a spectrum of how people react to backlash. Some people, like her, “utterly believe their detractors”; they see themselves as totally irredeemable. Others double down, defining themselves in opposition to their critics. “There are so many people who trade in cancellation—circles where they wear it like a badge of honor,” she said. “It is good to be brave. But you shouldn’t be an edgelord.”
Nick Gillespie, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, said there’s “a lot of political homelessness” in today’s polarized environment where certain subjects are just hard to talk about. Actor and comedian Tyler Fischer explained that “people who are frightened to read up on something or to dig into a controversy will be, like, ‘Oh, I agree with you, but I just don’t know how to articulate it, or what if I lose my job?’”
We agree that it’s important to have social spaces where unsafe conversations can be had; these are sometimes called brave spaces. Yet not every cancelee is a victim or a martyr; sometimes there is someone who really does deserve to be excluded from something.
There’s a reason why we have a social contract. Whisper networks, social shaming, excommunication—these are all tools that can be abused, but they’re also tools that communities have used for centuries to enforce norms and protect themselves from bad actors. Once you start questioning society’s boundaries, a tricky question quickly arises: Where should the line really be?
See also our issue on a better cancel culture.
People believe others are becoming less moral, according to a Nature study on millions of respondents. In survey responses from 12 million people across 60 countries, people generally perceived that traits like “kindness, honesty and basic human decency” had declined. But it turns out this perception isn’t backed by any real evidence.
Long-running surveys that ask directly about people’s experiences and actions—such as “Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?” and “During the past 12 months, how often have you carried a stranger’s belongings?”—don’t show a negative trend. The perception of decline also disappears when people are asked about someone they know, such as family, friends, and co-workers.
The researchers call this the “illusion of moral decline,” and nothing about it is special to our time—early Roman historians and religious thinkers also complained about this trend. They propose our misconception can be explained by two psychological phenomena:
We tend to seek and focus on negative information about others, which the study mentions is fueled by the media as news headlines have become more depressing and angry.
The “biased exposure and memory” (BEAM) mechanism makes the present appear morally inferior to the past, creating an illusion that society was more moral way back when.
Older participants perceived a larger moral decline when comparing this generation to previous ones, but age doesn’t seem related to the perceived rate of decline.
Younger and older participants did not report different annual rates of moral decline, which is to say that they reported different total amounts of moral decline only because they were reporting on moral decline across different numbers of years.
Conservatives also perceived greater moral decline. In a polarized setting, it's easy to scapegoat the outgroup as an example of declining moral standards. It’s less clear why this effect should be asymmetric, but perhaps this is related to the general conservative preference for the status quo. This research highlights, however, that such claims are cognitive biases—and probably always have been, throughout history.
Quote of the Week
[Following January 6th, 2021] people began to lean less toward a commitment to democracy and more to the notion in the Declaration of Independence that there is a “right of revolt,” and that becomes patriotism.