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In Praise of Similarity - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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January 24th, 2012

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03:21 am - In Praise of Similarity
I've seen a number of recent articles decrying the fact that people are increasingly self-selecting themselves into sub-cultures, communities, and circles of acquaintances where almost everyone has the same beliefs and interests. this Wired article goes on at length about the negative consequences and how dealing with people with different views is a valuable source of new ideas, and this article in Salon Magazine discusses the negative political and social consequences.

It's worth considering that this is largely happening more now because it can, we live in a large mobile society where people can meet others like them faster and more easily than ever before, in short people are doing this because most people want to do this, and I think that's perfectly fine. I also find the idea that this is a bad thing to be intensely privileged. The assumption seems to be that social and political views are external concerns. For some people they are – a liberal person middle-class, heterosexual, cisgendered, in a monogamous marriage, and who doesn't have any one close to anyone who is queer or trans could potentially be friends with someone homophobic. This is an awful lot more difficult for someone who is queer or trans or for anyone that has many close friends who are queer and trans. The same is true for race and religion. Also, refusing to deal with people who oppose various social safety net and social support programs is a very different issue for members of the middle or upper middle class and for people who might need to make use of such services.

Being a poly, pagan, pro-choice, feminist person who is both significantly non-masculine and who has an abundance of trans friends, there is no way I would ever be willing to be close to someone who is socially conservative. I don't just find such views repellent, they are also personally threatening to me and the people I love. My response to the idea that people like me should "broaden our social circles" to include people who loathe us or our loved ones is simply Fuck That Noise.

Similarly, right-libertarians and people with other reactionary economic views support policies that keep people I care about from obtaining healthcare and other necessary services. Once again, I'm not about to deal with such people, because their attitudes are a direct and real threat to people I care about.
The fact that I associate almost exclusively with SF&F fans and gamers obviously is not about avoiding people whose ideas are a threat to me or my loved ones. However, especially for people I spend time with in person, I simply have far less to talk about with someone who doesn't share most of these interests. I find it fascinating if someone who shares these interests has other interests that I do not share, but might be interested to learn about. However, without a firm baseline of shared geek culture, I'm unlikely to be all that interested in spending a lot of time with someone. However, I can also see other people having other views about people who share the same interests.

If these and other similar articles were all about spending more time with people with different interests, I might personally disagree, but I also have no problem with the idea of doing so. However, most such articles seem to focus primarily on the problems with people only spending time with others who share similar values and politics, and I find the alternative to be exceedingly problematic. To me, there is absolutely no virtue in spending time with people who loathe what I or my loved ones are. I welcome the self-selection possible in the modern age and as it has become easier to do so, I have become happier and more comfortable.

(10 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:January 24th, 2012 11:36 am (UTC)
Hear, hear.
[User Picture]
Date:January 24th, 2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
This. I got stalled out reading The Big Sort about 10 pages in, because of the ridiculous tongue clucking. I mentally kept gsr'ing in the terms "Jew" and "Nazi". Eventually I pushed on through, and stalled out again several chapters in. I mean to finish the damned thing, but I want in reward to get to slap someone, preferrably the author.

And to be clear, I don't necessarily contest any of its truth claims of potential negative effects -- just its moronic suggestion that the solution to an emergent systemic problem is individuals simply chosing to act counter to the forces the authors document, construing the issue as a personal moral failing. (As opposed to an unfortunate side effect that needs to be compensated for.)
[User Picture]
Date:January 24th, 2012 05:00 pm (UTC)
Although you give a perfectly reasonable rationale, and I'd never fault anyone who was personally threatened by conservative worldviews for avoiding contact with them, I can't help but be deeply sympathetic to the article. The people who grew up in the socially conservative environment I grew up in have, in general, become more and more liberal, and I know this is because after their kids left the little insular universe of homeschooling, their kids became exposed to people very different from them. It's incredible, for instance, how quickly my parents turned around respecting homosexuality. What happened in their case was a friend of my brother's came out and they were instantly forced to confront homosexuals not as an issue, but as human beings.

I think that there is a base level of humanity that transcends our political views & even our interests and that appealing to that will be more and more important in the days ahead. So while I wouldn't necessarily *judge* anyone who decided against expanding their social circle, I think it should be encouraged.
[User Picture]
Date:January 24th, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC)
Hm. I think that the counterpoint to this is not that one should broaden their social circles. (There might be value in this, but if you don't see the value or see it as minimal then I would concede that it is a rather subjective point.)

Rather, the counterpoint is that if someone has views so repellent that they are a personal threat to you and the people you love that it is IMPERATIVE that you open a dialogue with them. Insular groups without a direct way to communicate with the other side become more dangerous, not less. And if the real worry is minimizing that harm, dialogue is necessary.
[User Picture]
Date:January 25th, 2012 02:52 am (UTC)
As an autistic person, self-selection is very important to me. I would not want to spend time around people who put a premium on being conventional, because that would be a threat to me. It is impossible for me to master the social skills that would enable me to be conventional. It would not be a good idea to associate with people who would find me nothing but an embarrassment.
[User Picture]
Date:January 25th, 2012 06:01 am (UTC)
I also find the idea that this is a bad thing to be intensely privileged. The assumption seems to be that social and political views are external concerns. For some people they are – a liberal person middle-class, heterosexual, cisgendered, in a monogamous marriage, and who doesn't have any one close to anyone who is queer or trans could potentially be friends with someone homophobic. This is an awful lot more difficult for someone who is queer or trans or for anyone that has many close friends who are queer and trans.

I think this is very important. And while I also agree with Syna that insulated people sometimes need broadening, we need to not be operating in this default mode where we assume that people are totally privileged and their issues with conservatives are just abstract. Because that just puts them, again, in a position of having to speak up and request accommodations/better treatment, in a society where they already have to do that way too much.
[User Picture]
Date:January 25th, 2012 06:03 am (UTC)
The article is accurate and reflects some important facts, but makes a flawed argument. The fact that we experience less "personal diversity" is not the failure of affirmative action but its success; a gay black man of a working class background in college doesn't need more personal diversity, that's what he deals with every day. People of similar experiences can, and do, cluster together in order to insualte themselves from hostile group interactions. Yes, this increase conflict. In the absence of this diversity, there is no conflict, because one half of the argument is utterly powerless and must simply submit or rebel.

If, instead, we focus on meeting as many people as possible who share our interests and who have compatible personal beliefes, in them we will discover an incredible diversity. We are not our demographics.
[User Picture]
Date:January 25th, 2012 07:53 am (UTC)
Well said indeed sir, well said indeed.
[User Picture]
Date:January 25th, 2012 08:23 am (UTC)
I mostly agree, but I'm somewhat worried about those dangerous groups becoming stronger because of echo chambers. If people avoid interacting and engaging with e.g. social conservatives, then those conservatives are free to keep telling each other, say, how terrible gay people are, building visions that are increasingly out of touch with reality, and getting more set in their views. If they actually knew some gay people, or even gay-friendly people, they might not become so extreme. It's exactly because their views are threatening to people that I worry about when they aren't engaged with: they might be able to increase their numbers and vote more socially conservative politicians into power.

But of course, it isn't reasonable or fair to demand anyone to associate with people they don't feel comfortable with. And it's not like I'd make an extreme effort to reach out to social conservatives, either.

On a related note, I thought this article, also on the topic of us splitting into several subcultures, made some good points: http://www.gwern.net/The%20Melancholy%20of%20Subculture%20Society . I especially liked the bit about subcultures making it easier for us to feel worthwhile:

Suppose there were only 1 worldwide culture, with no subcultures. The overriding obsession of this culture will be… let’s make it ‘money’. People are absolutely obsessed with money - how it is made, acquired, degraded, etc. More importantly, status is defined just by how much you have earned in your life; in practice, tie-breakers include how fast you made it, what circumstances you made it in (everyone admires a person who became a billionaire in a depression more than a good-times billionaire, in the same way we admire the novelist in the freezing garret more than the comfortable academic), and so on. [...]

But what effect does this have on people? I can tell you: the average person is going to be miserable. If everyone genuinely buys into this culture, then they have to be. Their talents at piano playing, or cooking, or programming, or any form of artistry or scholarly pursuit are denigrated and count for naught. The world is too big. You can’t make a mark on it unless there are almost as many ways to make marks as there are persons. [...]

Steven Pinker: “That’s a profound observation. There are studies showing that violence is more common when people are confined to one pecking order, and all of their social worth depends on where they are in that hierarchy, whereas if they belong to multiple overlapping groups, they can always seek affirmations of worth elsewhere. For example, if I do something stupid when I’m driving, and someone gives me the finger and calls me an asshole, it’s not the end of the world: I think to myself, I’m a tenured professor at Harvard. On the other hand, if status among men in the street was my only source of worth in life, I might have road rage and pull out a gun. Modernity comprises a lot of things, and it’s hard to tease them apart. But I suspect that when you’re not confined to a village or a clan, and you can seek your fortunes in a wide world, that is a pacifying force for exactly that reason.
[User Picture]
Date:January 25th, 2012 10:00 am (UTC)
That's an awesome article. I particularly liked this bit:

The national identity fragments under the assault of burgeoning subcultures. At last, the critic beholds the natural endpoint of this process: the nation is some lines on a map, some laws you follow. No one particularly cares about it. The geek thinks, ‘Meh: here, Canada, London, Japan, Singapore - as long as FedEx can reach me and there’s a good Internet connection, what’s the difference?’

As someone who considers nationalism and patriotism to be bizarre, dangerous, and at best foolish, I'm drastically in favor of this. My fondest hope for the future is that mainstream US culture (and preferably mainstream culture everywhere) fragments to the point that the idea of a dominant culture becomes meaningless and ultimately nonsensical.

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