A Divided America: the Role of Intellectual Conformity

One of the world’s most stable, advanced, and forward-thinking societies is more divided than ever.  When people around the world think of the United States today, one of the first things that comes to mind is how divided the population is. In American society, people with different political views are more distrusting of one another than in even the oldest of people’s lifetimes.  Pundits often speak of an inability for people to engage in basic dialogue.

What’s really going on here?  The discussion of this issue usually doesn’t go too far beyond “it’s the triumph of tribalism”.

While a complex issue, it seems to me that one of the biggest factors in creating these divisions is widespread intellectual conformity.   By intellectual conformity, I simply mean adopting the views of others (presumably people that are similar to you) and not forming your own opinion.  This is about taking an opinion rather than forming an opinion.  This is about people accepting ideas they hear and calling them their own, rather than forming their own views that naturally develop when you question things and reason through them.

So how might this create divisions in society? Intellectual conformity will help to create large, relatively unified groups.  But of course, some people have such different values and inclinations from others that not everyone in a society can converge around the same view, obviously.  Thus, different poles will form.

Of course, even without this intellectual conformity, there will be groups that form around people with similar views.  However, it is this intellectual conformity that, in my view, creates this harsh divisiveness and opposition. The problem arises because people have committed to their side, not to the logic, reasoning, and ideas of their own. This intellectual conformity fundamentally means a commitment to sides rather than ideas and reason. Victims of this unfortunate culture might speak about ideas and reason, but that is fundamentally secondary to the sides they have chosen. For the intellectual conformist, ideas and reason are far more disposable than “sides”. Whereas, an independently minded individual will insist that sides are far more disposable than ideas and reason.

For those with an internal compass and an independent mind, it is much easier to have respect for the fact that different people have different beliefs and different views. You can realize that, though the ideas and reasoning that resonates with you are extremely important, you do not fool yourself into thinking that the whole cosmos depends on your views. Respect for your own beliefs and internal compass can bring a kind of flexibility that sheeple do not enjoy.

If self-cultivation and respect for human variation gradually replaced the rampant culture of intellectual conformity, you probably would see more people listening to each other and seek common ground.  But when you expect obsequious conformity to the views that you just swallowed without thinking deeply about, those that are different from you will feel deep resentment and the divisions will only get wider. Thus, it seems to me that people are missing the underpinning of these social and political divisions. They talk about an “amicable divorce” between the red and blue states.   But it is not politics causing these divisions. It’s a deeply flawed culture. A culture that values sides and expects people to adopt opinions wholesale – a culture where an individual is never really encouraged to develop an internal compass, have principles, and value reason over sides.