Thursday, June 11, 2009

More about crawling out of the woodwork

Video h/t BLCKDGRD.

I'm sure there are some explanations for what Shepard Smith is observing, and he has good reason to be concerned with what he's seen in recent months. The main phenomenon seems to be one of group polarization. Basically, what happens is that hanging out in groups of like-minded individuals leads individual members to take more extreme attitudes on whatever topic is discussed than they would have otherwise. There is a ton of research on group polarization, and it suffices to say that the phenomenon can be observed regardless of topic, context, etc. Of course, to the extent that attitudes do influence behavior, we can expect that more extreme attitudes will lead to more extreme behavioral outcomes.

Group polarization can be a problem to the extent that members of a group are isolated (be it by circumstance or by choice) from contrary sources of information and from other people and groups that hold divergent attitudes or opinions. There's also a normative influence that seems to reinforce expression of opinions that are consistent with the group and to punish or otherwise exclude opinions that are inconsistent. Someone says something that is consistent with the group's norms, gets positive reinforcement, and they'll keep on doing that. Similarly, expressing something a little more extreme, but still consistent with the group's norms, will also get reinforced, leading to a cycle of increasingly extreme statements and potential for those statements to become actual deeds rather than just words.

I've probably noted before, at least in passing, that acts of terrorism don't just come out of nowhere, but are usually developed over time, within a particular social context that involves a great deal of exposure to eliminationist rhetoric. One thing that the Internet has done is made it easier to find some like-minded individuals, to find some camaraderie, and in spite of the vast expansion in available information, to isolate oneself from any information that might be attitude-inconsistent, and for someone who happens to be like either of the two assassins whom we've encountered on the news this month, that means an intellectual diet of hatred 24/7. Selective exposure to ideas and information is an on-going human problem - it's just easier now than ever before. And the rhetoric that at least a subset of our population is almost exclusively exposed to is blood curdling, to say the least, and has been blood curdling for quite some time. The line between saying "we know where you are and we're not going to let you fuck with this country again" after being exposed to such statements for years, and opening fire, or setting off explosives in order to eliminate those perceived enemies is a rather thin one.

In the meantime, be safe and be vigilant.

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