Attention, opinion dynamics, and crying babies

In a recent article, Adam Elkus argues two points:

1) Drawing attention to an issue doesn’t necessarily solve it.
2) Drawing attention might make things worse.

For these reasons, Elkus argues against what he calls “tragedy hipsterism”: the “endless castigation of the West for sins and imperfections” without offering anything constructive. He says, “Awareness-raising is only useful if it is somehow necessary for the instrumental process of achieving the desired aim. In many cases, it is not and is in fact an obstacle to that aim.”

I think this is completely mistaken, both about the utility of castigation, but more generally about the role of attention in shaping the social dynamics.

Consider, for instance, a crying baby.

Crying doesn’t solve any problem on its own. If an infant is hungry, crying won’t make food magically appear. At best, crying gets an adult to acquire food for the baby– but not necessarily so. The adult could easily ignore the baby, or misinterpret the cry as triggered by something other than hunger. Typically, an adult will feed the baby whether or not it cries, which renders the crying itself completely superfluous.

And crying can be dangerous! In the wild, crying newborns tend to attract predators looking for an easy meal. On a plane, crying newborns create social animosity that might threaten the safety of the newborn and their family in other ways. Crying doesn’t always help, and it often makes things worse.

So on Elkus’ argument, crying is actually an obstacle to the infant’s well being. If babies only understood the futility of crying, perhaps they’d be more effective at realizing their goals!

Of course, this argument is ridiculous. Crying isn’t meant to solve problems directly. In fact, crying is usually issued from a place of helplessness: the inability to realize one’s aims is precisely why crying is needed. Furthermore, crying doesn’t imply any deep understanding of the problem or the conditions required to satisfy it. The crying baby might not even know it is hungry; all it knows is that something is wrong.

And this is the point of crying: to act as a beacon for an ongoing problem. The goal of crying is to generate a widespread recognition that there is a problem in need of solving, lest anyone forget; a failed solution is all the more reason to cry. Not to solve the problem directly, but to create social conditions for recognition of a problem, so that others will feel the pressure to generate solutions, both for their own sake and also to stop the annoyance and danger the crying itself generates. Because yes, beacons can be dangerous; that is partly why it moves others to act. The parents of the crying child on a plane want to alleviate their own shame as much as their child’s suffering.

Humans are hypersensitive to fairness. More than any other creature, we pay attention to the distribution of resources, and we cry foul when they are not distributed evenly. And this works not necessarily to reclaim resources, but rather to turn the social sentiment against the unjust. We cry foul because we assume we’re playing tit-for-tat, and getting everyone on your side to punish defectors is how the game works. Crying foul was never supposed to be an instrument for directly realizing social aims. Like a baby’s cry, crying foul on social injustices is always issued from a position of helplessness, meant to highlight the problem in the hopes that others recognize the need for a solution as well.

Put simply, castigation for social injustices is meant to operate on popular opinion, not policy. It is not an objection to the technique that it is an ineffective political instrument; this is simply a misunderstanding of its political aims to begin with. Elkus thinks crying foul is meant to result in constructive changes in policy and finds it lacking, when in fact it is meant to sway hearts and minds. From this perspective, Elkus is exactly wrong to dismiss “tragedy hipsterism” is ineffective. Our capacity to sway the dynamics of popular opinion through internet “slacktivist” crying has never been greater. And, if I might say so, it is glorious.

To see why, we must first understand how opinion dynamics work. In debates that use terms like “tragedy hipsterism”, the focus is almost always at the extremes: the extremely violent, the extremely annoying, the extremely powerful. But a discussion centered on extremism tends to mask the tedious and boring realities of everyday human life. The truth is that human beings are constitutionally moderate. Our opinions, on everything from politics to food, from the important to the mundane, tends towards the average. We like to find a happy middle ground.

There’s a good reason for this: extremism is expensive. When you adopt an extreme view you also carry the burden of justifying and maintaining that view in the face of popular opposition, since by its very nature most people will reject the extreme view. Extremism takes work, and it isolates you from the crowd. Extremists tend to seek each other out partly because it is easier to hold extremist views in populations where such views are typical. Moderate views are more widely held, and so distribute the work to maintain them among a wider population. Holding moderate views will rarely put you in a position of social opposition. Moderation is the path of least resistance.

But while we’re all seeking moderation, the resulting field of opinions is complex because “moderation” is perspectival.  What you consider “moderate” depends on the range of views to which you’ve been exposed. If you’re in an environment where “extreme” views are common, your sense of the “moderate” will be skewed in that direction relative to the general population. The fact that we’re all exposed to slightly different communities means we’re all seeking out slightly different zones of moderation.  Thus, it appears that there is a wide diversity of beliefs among the people, when in fact we’re arriving at these beliefs by following what is ultimately the same, simple rule.

Of course, we all hold unpopular views about some things, but these tend to be few and far between, and we select them rather carefully. The views on which we deviate most strongly from the average tend to be the ones we also associate most strongly with our personal identities. To take a non-political example, let’s say I like spicy food. I tend to order the hottest items on the menu, to the shock and horror of my friends at the table. I’m a spice-food extremist. My love of the very-spicy distinguishes me from my normal friends, and I wear it like a badge of honor. In fact, my love of spicy food has led me to cultivate a group of friends who share this specific interest, and we go search out spicy-food restaurants, enabling experiences that I wouldn’t have had with my normal, non-extremist friends. I also start exploring the online community of spicy-food connoisseurs, etc. And through this community exposure I see videos of people eating 10 Carolina reapers (NSFW/NSFM), and I recognize that to be a limit of my interests. I like spicy foods, but not enough to subject myself to this torture[1]. And so within this community, my interests register as rather moderate. Here, the simple exploration of my interests results in the cultivation of an identity in which I settle on a position of relative moderation. It may still seem extremist from the perspective of my normal friends who haven’t bothered to explore this niche community, but from my perspective resulting from extensive exposure, I’ve found a comfortable, relatively moderate ground for my identity to stabilize around.


Okay, assume the above story is more or less how we develop all our beliefs. We just want to average out the beliefs of everyone around us. Our interests and a general desire to distinguish ourselves might drive us to seek out niche communities and beliefs, but within these communities we’re generally attracted to the moderate views. Call it the murmuration theory of opinion dynamics. On this view, we’re not looking for convincing arguments or evidence, and we’re really not driven by understanding or deeper purpose. We just want moderation relative to our neighbors.

In a sea of moderates, how do you generate social change? The best arguments and evidence can be swept aside in a popular debate by ad hominems and red herrings, so building a convincing political case won’t do much good. Since you’re also in an oligarchy your effective options for direct political action are minimal. In this environment, your best option is to move the extremes. If you want the flock to bank right, then you need to bank right, hard, and hope that enough follow you to make a difference. If everyone is seeking moderation, then wide exposure to new extremes will indirectly shift the general sense of “the middle”, and thus the popular sentiment creeps towards your ideal. So, for example, we tell the public that 99% of scientists agree on climate change not because it is independently convincing (though it should be), but instead to inform them on where the average view lies. The argument relies on the moderation of the general public, not on their support of science.

In general, we expect others to have moderate opinions; it’s the rule we’re all following. So when another person expresses moral outrage, it is possible that this is an expression of a moderate position, that anyone would be outraged if they paid attention. It is also possible that the person is expressing an extremist position, in which case I might not be outraged. But the only way to be sure is to look, and any looking accomplishes the extremist’s goal, which is simply to expose you to new extremes. It probably won’t convince you directly, but it indirectly influences you to accept the new extreme as the limit of the view, and to re-evaluate your own sense of where the happy middle lies. Enough such re-evaluation will nudge the center slightly in the extremist’s direction.

And this has been the internet’s grand political success. The extremes suddenly made available online blows wide open our sense of the viable field of opinion, in general placing the limits of belief far beyond anyone’s prior sense of where the limits were. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable, because their views have been unsettled from the context against which they appeared reasonable, and so they are forced to reevaluate their positions in light of a new context. This social burden makes people grumpy. But this unsettledness is also an opportunity to redraw the bounds of the moderate, and synchronize our sense of moderation across a much larger community. Extremist views have a huge influence in conditions of ideological uncertainty, so these conditions make the expression of extremist positions super-effective.

And we have been capitalizing on this opportunity in spades. Hipster outrage, social justice warriors, mens rights advocates and everyone else expressing an extreme views online are fighting over the topology of our collective beliefs. Each move in the fight is an expression of another extreme view that tilts the dynamics this way or that. In these conditions, the expression of extreme racism by a political candidate is counted as a political success, not despite the outrage it generates but because of it. It serves as a beacon for like-minded extremists to huddle around in the hopes of normalizing the view. The more attention given to it, the more this normalization works.

Elkus’ criticism targets those who complain about the distribution of attention, but in this case the goal again is normalization of an otherwise extreme view.  The normal view is that journalism in the west operates justly, and the criticism is meant to reinforce the narrative that, in fact, it does not. Beating this drum over and over will not itself directly change the direction of journalism. But indirectly, it’s the only tool we have to put pressure on those who can.

In explaining his view, Elkus draws an analogy to cars: no one really cares about the accidents they cause; nevertheless, a small group of people can solve the problem (with self-driving cars), despite the fact that no one is raising a fuss. But Elkus’ analogy is mistaken; people have been fussing about car accidents for decades. Such fussing is most effective when it is specific: for seat belts and air bags, or against drunk driving. But this is all fussing about the same problem. It is the constant and consistent squeakiness of this wheel (and the vast number of people effected) that have kept the pressure on for a solution to be found. We have pushed for a solution to this problem because we care, not despite it. If we weren’t raising a stink about this issue, then it simply wouldn’t get the attention it deserves. If we weren’t raising a stink, the people in power would deduce (correctly) that we really didn’t care.


[1] The individual willing to subject themselves to torture seems to be violating the push to moderation, but the perspectival nature of moderation makes this difficult to assess. Is there any perspective from which this individual operates, from which this remains a moderate act? Perhaps from the perspective of Youtubers, or gonzo producers, the act is rather tame. To which communities does the individual aspire?

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