Bryan Caplan  

The Divisiveness of Cohesion

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Suppose you live in a deeply divided society: 60% of people strongly identify with Group A, and the other 40% strongly identify with Group B.  While you plainly belong to Group A, you're convinced this division is bad: It would be much better if everyone felt like they belonged to Group AB.  You seek a cohesive society, where everyone feels like they're on the same team.

What's the best way to bring this cohesion about?  Your all-too-human impulse is to loudly preach the value of cohesion.  But on reflection, this is probably counter-productive.  When members of Group B hear you, they're going to take "cohesion" as a euphemism for "abandon your identity, and submit to the dominance of Group A."  None too enticing.  And when members of Group A notice Group B's recalcitrance, they're probably going to think, "We offer Group B the olive branch of cohesion, and they spit in our faces.  Typical."  Instead of forging As and Bs into one people, preaching cohesion tears them further apart.

What's the alternative?  Simple.  Instead of preaching cohesion, reach out to Group B.  Unilaterally show them respect.  Unilaterally show them friendliness.  They'll be distrustful at first, but cohesion can't be built in a day.  If respect and friendliness fail, try, try, and try again.  There are no guarantees in life, but human beings are born reciprocators.  If you stubbornly ask to shake a man's hand, odds are he'll eventually offer his in return.  Once enough people walk this path of unilateral respect and friendliness, differences fade away - and cohesion silently takes its place.

A feel-good just-so story?  I think not.  Consider American politics in 2016.  We're basically the same people we were a year or two ago, but preachers of cohesion have achieved a new prominence.  What's happened?  The American public is more divided than ever.  Cohesionist themes have scared out-groups, who understandably feel threatened.  And they've angried up in-groups, who understandably feel spurned.  This is obvious for the Trump movement, but social justice progressives preaching "inclusion" exhibit the same dynamic.  "We demand inclusion" makes outsiders feel threatened and insiders feel spurned - driving them further apart.

There's an ongoing Twitter war between the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter.  If either side really wanted to promote cohesion, they would swap hashtags.  Moderates and conservatives would reach out to African-Americans and progressives with #BlackLivesMatter.  African-Americans and progressives would reach out to moderates and conservatives with #AllLivesMatter.  Why won't it happen?  I'll outsource that to Robin Hanson.

Summing up: The first rule of promoting cohesion is: Don't talk about cohesion.  The second rule of promoting cohesion is: Don't talk about cohesion.  If you really want to build a harmonious, unified society, take one for the team.  Discard your anger, swallow your pride, and show out-groups unilateral respect and friendship.  End of story.

P.S. Next week, I'll post if any of my election bets resolve.  Otherwise, I'm hoarding my words for mid-November when election tempers have cooled.

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Gwen T. writes:

I'm a little dense: who are these preachers of cohesion who "achieved a new prominence" in 2016?

Nebfocus writes:

I don't disagree with this post, but our issues today are around the government dictating people's lives.
Laying out a case for less activist government- allowing people to live the lives they find appropriate- to be a better solution.
Unfortunately, both sides are now pushing their own version of authoritarianism, which is terrible for everyone.

Walter Clark writes:

I think indifference is underappreciated.
Instead of aiming for "AB", let's consider " " for groups beyond Dunbar's Number.

Corporate lawyer writes:

What else is "I'm with her" except pure ingroup signaling, an expression of affiliation with no substance.

You're right on what is necessary to actually build cohesion, but it doesn't work unless the teams have some underlying group they can all claim to belong to in order to subsume their intergroup conflicts. The only group left is "America", but even that has been deemed a signal for allegiance to one particular group.

pyroseed13 writes:

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my roommate fairly recently. We were talking about party leadership and I said that Paul Ryan is in a difficult situation, because if endorses Trump he will damage the reputation of the GOP, but if he rejects him he will anger a not-insignificant portion of GOP voters. My roommate more or less thinks Ryan should stick to his principles, but is in denial about how large the Trump coalition actually is. Sure, you could argue that a "majority" of GOP voters did not want Trump. But their second choice was Cruz, a Republican the establishment hated, who was skeptical of some foreign interventions and not exactly a proponent of "comprehensive immigration reform." In any event, you can run this argument in any direction you want. A majority of Republicans didn't want the neocon Rubio or another Bush, both of whom are well-liked by the establishment.

In reality, the only way to show "cohesion" is to actually take the concerns of you base seriously. This is why the way forward for the GOP is mostly developing a platform that combines some elements of economic populism with traditional GOP positions on say government spending, taxation, and health care. Otherwise we will keep ending up with Trumps.

Effem writes:

I would argue the group that makes concessions first ends up with a less-good deal.

Roger writes:

If a group is thriving on divisiveness, such as political parties and the black lives matter movement, then promoting that movement or group risks promoting divisiveness.

A similar erroneous argument is that we should be tolerant of intolerance. Not so. Promoting or condoning intolerance is itself clearly damaging to tolerance. In the same way, promoting an intrinsically divisive group or movement is counterproductive to cohesiveness.

Instead, I suggest we attack the divisiveness itself. This sounds counterintuitive, but that is only the case if we conflate types of competition. Competition of ideas is a great thing. It is zero sum, win lose types of competition which are harmful and which the BLM and political parties thrive upon. We should stand up proudly against this type of divisiveness.

Hazel Meade writes:

Very good post.
I'm not sure the Trump camp really is like your "Group A" though. Significant parts of the Trump movement are explicitly saying that Group B (i.e. Hispanics) is NOT wanted and that "cohesion" really does mean "only Group A welcome - either submit to the dominance of Group A or leave". I've seen this argued many times on message boards in the past year, wherein (usually) white Americans argue that their culture is being "swamped" or threatened in some way by immigration. Failing to account for the fact that what counts as "American culture" worthy of protection is different for different Americans.

There are definitely many conservatives who have historically argued for social cohesion, but that's just not what the Trump people represent. They're pro-cohesion, but not be inviting group B to join them, but by telling Group B they aren't welcome, and to go away so that Group A can be cohesive by itself.

Hazel Meade writes:

What's so divisive about #BlackLivesMatter?

I honestly don't understand why some conservatives have a problem with this movement. The fact that black people keep getting shot by the police for no reason is real.

Sure, it's not confined solely to blacks, but black people have complained about unfair treatment by police for many years, and so it's hardly surprising that they want to draw attention to specifically the racial aspect of the problem. Is that so horribly wrong of them ?

Moreover, even if you think it's wrong, how is it productive to turn around and start a conflicting movement (#AllLivesMatter) specifically to argue with them? Just focus on the real problem - cops shooting people for no reason, instead of picking a fight with black people and making it about whether black people are being too racially focused (or whatever the point of #AllLivesMatter is supposed to be). From my perspective, it looks like conservatives getting defensive and turning the whole thing into even more of a racial issue by using as an excuse to trot out all the old lines about black people committing more violent crime, which just sounds like "I don't care. Black people have it coming". In short, the only thing making it divisive is the way conservatives have reacted to #BlackLivesMatter. The notion that cops shouldn't shoot people for no reason ought to be totally uncontroversial.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Hazel, I'll take a stab at explaining from my perspective.

"The notion that cops shouldn't shoot people for no reason ought to be totally uncontroversial." is the point of #AllLivesMatter. The conservative perception (after years of priming based on similar/the same people working to carve out special privileges for race, gender identities, whatever) is that #BlackLivesMatter is about promoting a single group yet again.

When a young black male criminal who attacks a police officer during a stop is shot+killed and #BlackLivesMatter protestors are all over it, but when a white man is shot+killed when not doing anything wrong and there are crickets in the media, that impression is reinforced.

If the issue is police are shooting too many innocent people who don't deserve it, then let's make that the issue. No one thinks police should shoot innocents... so it's something easy to agree on. We can then get into the specifics of individual cases and ways (like always-on body cameras) to enhance police work while reducing police abuses.

By turning it into a racial question, #BlackLivesMatter comes across to others as blaming everyone and only being concerned for their own in-group. When they jump to conclusions in case after case while ignoring much worse situations, they then seriously damage their credibility.

If you want to make the case that wrongful police shootings are out of control and suggest solutions for that, then make that case. If the solutions happen to help more young blacks because they're more likely to be a victim of police abuse, no one in #AllLivesMatter can argue that's a bad thing.

Do you care more about stopping people from getting shot by the police for no reason, or for complaining about levels of perceived racism by black and white police officers? The reason I ask is that you can get virtually 100% of the country on board for fixing the first one, but the second one is going to just get you into an argument about if it's true or not. What's your actual objective here?

Picture the difference between suggesting the solution "We're going to invest in body cameras so that all police contacts with everyone are fully recorded." versus "We're going to invest in body cameras and make a rule that they must be turned on during all police interactions with minorities." Can you see the different attitudes presented by those policy suggestions?

Hazel Meade writes:

@Thomas Sewell,
I understand that point. And I think it's correct that unjustified police shootings are a general problem, not a race specific one.

However, I also understand why black people are especially sensitive to it and wish to focus on police shooting of blacks in particular. It's not a mystery. They have complained of unfair treatment by police for many decades.

Complaining about blacks being overly sensitive and race-focused is unfair to black people given that they do, in fact, experience significant amounts of racial discrimination. It's easy for white people to declare that nobody should care about race, because they aren't the subjects of discrimination. Whites should understand that the black community has reasons to feel a race-based sense of identity and should respect that.

What #AllLivesMatter has done is distract attention from the real issue - police shootings, to make a big stink about how supposedly terrible it is that black people care about black lives. They're the ones turning it into a racially divisive issue. And they're actually the ones being hypersensitive.

If they were really just interested in police reforms, they would just drop it and focus on the issue, but instead they've run with it and really turned it into a fight about race.

Roger writes:

Hi Hazel, thanks for the conversation.

First, I am not sure why you assume I am a conservative (not guilty), or what about my post implied that I support AllLivesMatter reverse badgering (again, I don't, I was arguing against divisiveness not for it).

As Thomas clarifies, the divisive issue with BLM is that it takes a problem with police abuse and converts it into an in group out group issue of divisiveness. I am against abuse of police power (shooting someone who is walking away with a knife a dozen times) regardless of the race of the intended target. If someone started a white lives Matter movement I would be similarly appalled. Wouldn't you?

The underlying reality of the situation is that there is abuse of police power, combined with disturbing and uncomfortable differences in crime rates between races.

This leads to patterns of differential rates of interaction with police and is further amplified by selective biases in media propagation (abuses meeting the racist narrative are broadcast, tweeted and social media'd endlessly). I am absolutely sure that there is racism too, but it is easily dwarfed by the above issues and even absent any racism at all, the problem would still look like racism due to the underlying dynamic of incomparably varying crime rates and broadcasting and social media bias.

I do believe police abuse and racism are problems. But just because we want to pretend that variances in crime rates (8X higher in homicide) don't exist, doesn't make it so. The problem will not go away until both issues improve. Indeed, it is possible that the result of BLM is to reduce police interaction in the high crime areas where it is needed and thus contribute to more crime and more black murders. And that would be a terrible thing, wouldn't it?

This is an issue which promotes poor framing. It is easy to commit the reverse naturalistic fallacy (ought implies is). We would all love it if blacks males didn't have substantially higher crime rates in the US than every other group, so we pretend they don't. But they do, and until this uncomfortable truth changes, a disproportionate share of police interaction (appropriate or not) is going to be with black males. This is no way excuses any police abuse, and anyone who thinks it does is (as you suggest) worthy of disdain.

Thomas Sewell writes:


Let me try one more time with a comparison to Charter schools.

Charter schools are popular with right-wing conservatives, left-wing hippies and inner city blacks, among other groups.

There is a great case to be made that the worst geographically-based public schools in the country are usually found in inner-city majority-minority areas. Some are schools where parents are desperate to get their kids out of them in the hopes they can be successful in life. It's not as dramatic as police shootings, but it's pretty important to those involved.

As a result, Charter school and school choice issues disproportionately impact inner city minorities.

However, there's no #BlackKidsMatter nor #AllKidsMatter movement. Instead, groups of parents who want better options for their kids, regardless of race, work together to push to create those options.

Most people don't think lousy district schools are a racism problem. They're a problem for children in general. (Some people in some areas think they are a poor vs. rich thing, but that's a tangent.) In the same way, most people don't think police abuse is a racism problem. Abusive cops abuse all races and have many different skin colors. Due to crime levels, poverty statistics and geographic locations the problem may disproportionately impact young black males, but it's not really a racism problem, it's a police problem across the board. If it was _just_ a racism problem, then black females would be just as likely to be impacted as black males, right? And if it's a racism problem, then whites wouldn't also suffer police abuse and murder.

So instead of the divisive #BlackLivesMatter, try #MurderByPoliceMatters or something like that and when it's no longer perceived to be a racial grievance thing, then the non-racists (i.e. people who don't judge other people based on the color of their skin) will be much more willing to participate.

Hazel Meade writes:

@Roger and Thomas Sewell,

Again, I'm not disagreeing with either of you that police abuse is a general problem, not a race specific problem.

However, my point is that the fact that black people have reacted in a way that focuses on the impact on the black community is not "divisive". Black people have a sense of group identity that has been forced by centuries of slavery and decades of racial discrimination, which continues to this day. (Indeed, unduly harsh police treatment of black people is a long standing aspect of the problem, and is strongly percieved within the black community.)

Focusing on the problems in one's community is not an attack on other communities. It's a natural response to the reality that people do, in fact, live in different communities, and care more about the people in their community. Black people caring about black lives doesn't mean they think white lives don't matter.

For (certain) white people to react to this in a way that suggests there's something wrong with black people caring about other black people sends a message that they don't accept the legitimacy of black people's sense of identity, which is a kind of denial of black people's experiences as a group. That is far more "divisive" than black people simply saying "Black Lives Matter".

Andrew_FL writes:

One of the things that national BLM groups have as a policy priority is reinstating Glass-Steagall so you can perhaps see why people think the movement has nothing to do with "BL" at all.

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