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Tracking Dehumanizing Speech Like We Track Fake News - BCB #38
Also: the French worry about le wokisme; and a great list of books on depolarization
In the last ten years, an industry of journalistic fact checkers has sprung up to challenge falsehoods in political speech. What if we also demanded that politicians not dehumanize the outgroup? That’s the interesting theory behind The Dignity Index, created by a former Republican policy advisor and Mormon grandmother of ten, Tami Pyfer.
Her organization scores political speech on an eight-point scale from “contempt” to “dignity.” In the pilot, a bipartisan group of trained coders rated political messages in Utah’s federal congressional race. They assigned scores to candidate speeches, debates, social media posts, and ad campaigns. Their scale is progresses from dehumanization and violence on one end, to the sentiment that one's political opponents are just as worthy as us at the other end.
Pyfer is concerned not just with civility but with the relationship between speech and violence. Support for political violence is no longer a fringe position in Red politics, and is being normalized on the Blue side too. For example, threats towards members of Congress increased tenfold in the past five years.
Importantly, the project was started in a Red state by a former Red politician, and employs a balanced group of Red and Blue raters who must agree on the scoring of each statement. If fact checkers operated this way, they might not be so distrusted by Red.
Sometimes the best way to see yourself is through the eyes of others. That’s the message of this story of an American in France, watching how U.S. culture war ideas are playing out in French society.
The French have historically prided themselves on having a system of government that does not consider racial and ethnic designation as a key part of political or institutional decisions – while quite the opposite has developed in the US. This is the fundamental tension around le wokisme in France.
We understand that some readers will be turned off by a discussion framed in terms of “wokeness,” but this piece is worth reading. It illuminates social justice ideas both by showing how poorly the most dogmatic parts translate to a new culture, and through the author’s transformation to appreciate its better tenets. The piece is at its best when it grapples with this balance:
As Mathieu Lefevre of More in Common, a nonprofit working in France and elsewhere to reunite divided societies, explained to me, wokeness “rearranges [all] the chairs at the ideological dinner party.” On the one side, it fosters a kind of leftist illiberalism that is almost religious in nature, in that it brooks no dissent—the sort of ideology that center-left liberals have historically opposed. And on the other side, “being anti-woke allows a proximity between the center and the far right. You start with a [colloquium] about le wokisme, and you end up questioning foundational liberal principles like freedom of expression.” You end up banning terms such as institutional racism.
In the process of doing research for his new book Defusing American Anger, Zachary Elwood has compiled a great list of books to help us understand the American “us versus them” dynamic. The list is organized from most accessible at the top to most academic last. We’ve mentioned several of these books and authors before, including an article by Peter Coleman, and our podcast with High Conflict author Amanda Ripley.
Bonus: a great list of podcast episodes on polarization.
Quote of the Week
Woke impulses are irrepressible today, and they will likely remain so as the grand global project of building multicultural democracies continues. The question, then, is not how to stamp out these impulses, but how to channel them responsibly, while refusing to succumb to the myopia of group identity. A riff on the apocryphal Winston Churchill quip about liberal ideology describes the challenge aptly: You have no head if you wholly embrace it, but if you categorically reject it, you have no heart.
- Thomas Chatterton Williams