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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

What Does Jewish Thought Have to Say about the Worldwide Epidemic of Political Polarization?

Filed under: World Jewry

Annual Memorial Lecture in honor of Professor Daniel J. Elazar, z”l, Founding President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Thursday, January 9, 2020.

I thought that if we can understand what divides Israel and why Israel is so divided and so polarized that we are politically paralyzed and we’re entering our third elections, maybe we could help somehow to cure Israel’s polarization.

It seems that polarization is not exclusively an Israeli problem. In 1995 Americans were asked to identify themselves politically. Are you right wing, left wing, conservative, liberal, Democratic, Republican. And after they identified themselves politically, they were presented with a set of worldviews about gay marriage and taxation, about national security. They asked, how many right-wingers could say that they identify with at least 20% of the opinions of the left. Roughly 35% of people that identified as leftists could see the light with a part of the ideas of the right. Twenty years later in 2015 this research repeats itself. In 2015 how many right wingers could say, you know, that opinion of the left, that’s true? Or how many left wingers identify themselves as lefties and still could see the light of some of the opinions on the right. The percentage today is less than 10%.

Something happened in 20 years. In 1994 Americans were asked to identify themselves: are you right-wing, leftwing? Now tell us, how do you feel towards the other side? Let’s say you’re a leftist. What do you feel emotionally towards right-wingers? Now let’s say a hundred is I’m head over heels in love with them and zero is I absolutely despise them. In 1994 what was the temperature of the emotions of right-wingers towards left wingers and left wingers towards right wingers? The temperature was 45 – which means   right-wingers didn’t love left wingers but they didn’t hate them. Twenty years later the same question is asked? Today the average temperature is 8; for the left it’s 6%. What happened in twenty years?

In the past 20 years two things were happening, socially and intellectually. Socially, you start hating people for having different views than yourself and intellectually you’re not curious about their worldviews anymore. Before you learn about them, you already know what you think about them. You know they are wrong. Why? Because you know their brands. In 20 years this polarization dropped from 45 to 8. That’s polarization.

America is not the only country polarized. The British are polarized, Brazil is going crazy, Argentina’s polarized, Hungary is polarized, Poland is polarized. Maybe polarization is not an Israeli phenomenon, it’s a global phenomenon, and therefore we can’t explain Israeli polarization using local Israeli explanations. Local narratives cannot explain a problem that is not local, it’s global.

The great Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan Marshall McLuhan challenges the way many thinkers, including myself, think. Many people have a tendency when they’re asked what are the real forces shaping history, the answer is ideas. I always teach my students ideas are the most powerful force in history. Marshall McLuhan says that’s not the real forces shaping history. He argues that the forces changing history are not ideas. It’s not the message. What’s changing history is the medium. It’s not monotheism, humanism, feminism that changes history. It’s the invention of printing, the appearance of radios, television, internet. Those are the moments that change history, not when a new idea is born but when a new medium is born.

His argument is that the medium is never a neutral instrument you use to share the message. The medium always changes and shapes the message. The only thing Brazil, America, Argentina, Poland, Hungary, Israel, and England have in common is a new medium that’s changing politics.

To understand polarization we have to ask, how is it that when a conversation emigrates to cyberspace, the conversation is collapsing. A conversation collapses when a disagreement is not functioning anymore. A functioning disagreement is between two people that are wrong. I think you’re wrong, you think I’m wrong. That’s a great disagreement. But what happens when I don’t think that you’re wrong, I think something’s wrong with you. You’re immoral for having that opinion.

Do our progressive liberal friends in the U.S. think that Trump supporters are wrong or do they think something is deeply wrong with them, that there’s something immoral just for having those views? How is it that a conversation moves to the Internet and the Internet destroys the conversation?

Tim Wu from Columbia University has the best way to explain this new political world we’re living in. He says if you want to understand the new world, we have to understand that there is a new industry in the world that he calls the attention industry. What’s the attention industry? Facebook, Google, other great corporations in Silicon Valley. What’s their business model? They give us Facebook for free, Google is for free, and that’s very nice of them, they’re very generous. But as economists like to say, if you get a product for free, maybe you should suspect that you’re the product. The way Tim Wu describes it, we are the product, our eyeballs are the product, our concentration is the product, our attention is the product, and we’re giving Facebook that product for free.

What are they doing with human attention? They are selling it for money. Tim’s book is called The Attention Merchants. He compares the value of the attention industry companies like Facebook and Google to the value of the great oil companies and guess who has more value today – oil companies or attention companies? The attention merchants have more value, which means that attention, to quote Tim Wu, is the new oil.

If human attention is the new oil, you’re going to develop different techniques to try to hack into human minds. This is what Tristan Harris calls brain hacking. When someone says, and really means it, I’m just going to check something in Facebook, just one thing, how long do they stay on Facebook? They plan to stay there half a minute, but how long are they glued to Facebook? An average of 25 minutes. Some people could spend an entire evening but they didn’t plan to do that and they’re filled with guilt.

We used to have in our lives moments between moments. When you’re waiting for an elevator, or you’re waiting for the water to boil to make coffee, or you’re sitting in a restaurant and someone is late and you’re just sitting there and waiting. Just a few years ago, what would we do in those moments? We would just be there with emotions, thoughts. Now what do all of us do? What happened is the moments between moments are just sucked out of our life. What they do is, they identify human psychological weaknesses and use those weaknesses to glue us to screens.

One of those weaknesses that’s changing our politics is a weakness studied a lot called confirmation bias. Because we’re human we get attached emotionally to our opinions. We have opinions and we have an intimate relationship with our opinions, and you know what we enjoy very much? We enjoy listening to people saying out loud in an eloquent way the opinions that we already have. There is nothing that lefties like to do more than to get together and have a great leftist speaker sharing the great theories of the left. It’s so fun. Right-wingers love watching YouTube clips mocking left wingers, it’s so fun. We love our opinions and we love hearing our opinions. Viscerally, we don’t enjoy listening to ideas that are challenging our ideas. Neurologically speaking, we don’t enjoy that. This is confirmation bias and it’s natural and almost all of us have this problem. We love our opinions for the same reason we love our children. Why? Because they’re ours.

Now at any given moment there are many posts trying to enter your Facebook feed. This is prime real estate. How many will actually enter your newsfeed? Who is the doorman who creates a selection – that post is out, that post is in? The doorman is the algorithm. For the algorithm, there’s only one criteria. It’s not what post has more truth to it, it’s not which post is more ethical. There’s only one criteria and it’s not truth, it’s not beauty, it’s not ethnic. Remember the business model of the attention industry. There’s only one question this calculator is asking of all these posts. What post will draw your attention? How will it know what post will draw your attention? This algorithm studies us and it knows what we think, it knows what we feel. These algorithms decide that the only thing that’s interesting is what post will draw your attention. So with confirmation bias,  the opinions in your newsfeed will reflect your opinions.

Our Facebook feed turns your Facebook page into the ultimate newspaper. It’s the “Daily Me.” You get to hear yourself again and again and again. Now what happens to people that are four hours a day in front of their feed listening to different versions of opinions they already have, repetitively, again and again and again. What happens?

This takes me to the psychology of brainwashing. What’s the most important principle of brainwashing, as we know from Lenin?  Repetition. Brainwashing takes an idea and repeats it again and again and again thousands of times. After a few months it will just be obvious that it’s true. Why is it true? it’s so radically familiar, it’s just obvious it’s the truth. We confuse something being very familiar with being very true and that’s how brainwashing works. Now on Facebook we’re brainwashed. We get the same message again and again. But it’s not some fascist party injecting their messages in through my mind. It’s my mind being trapped inside my opinions.

It’s an image of a person living in a bubble. He has the same messages repeated back to him again and again. And here’s another person in a different bubble. This is polarization. This is when the numbers dropped from 45 to 8.

But this is not a complete description of our reality. There’s a missing piece and that’s a spiritual piece. Western people never valued their attention to begin with. Human attention has no cultural value in Western civilization. Capitalism is based on ideas that are future-oriented. We use our attention to focus and get the job done, to overcome challenges and pave the way for the real thing. The real thing is always in the future.

A different tradition like Buddhism thinks that human attention, paying attention, being aware, being present, is not a means to an end.

Anyone who ever read any Mishnah saw that it’s always about disagreements. The Mishnah is a recording of a disagreement. Around the same time that we canonized the Mishnah, the Romans also canonized their laws. But if you open the Roman law, you don’t see disagreements. When Roman scholars canonized the law, they erased the disagreements. The Jews erased the law and canonized the disagreement. And the canonization of a disagreement always undermines authority.

Judaism is an ongoing argument. You join an argument by disagreeing with it – Jews arguing about the meaning of God’s words. There are two sides of Jewish tradition: there is an intellectual side and a practical side. Intellectually, we’re expected to study Talmud, practically, we’re expected to obey the law. If we put these two pieces together it means that Jewish tradition expects us to study opinions that we’re not allowed to live by. Your intellectual world is wider than your practical world.

This would be like a progressive liberal that is an activist supporting Elizabeth Warren, giving money to the Democratic Party, working hard promoting progressive causes, but reads books written by smart Republicans, listens to talks and YouTube by interesting conservatives, listens to podcasts with a right-wing philosophy. Because his intellectual world transcends his own opinions. Being a right winger practically but being curious about all sides and including the world of the left in your intellectual world, that is the Talmudic model. The Jewish expectation is to have an intellectual world that is wider than your practical world.

What do algorithms do to us? They shrink the size of our curiosity. They shrink the size of our intellectual world to the size of our practical world.

Jewish tradition has a model of a culture of healthy disagreement, an expectation to have curiosity that breaks the boundaries of your opinions, an expectation to have an intellectual world that contains ideas and opinions that you’ll never live by. And then we have the world created by algorithms or an ecosystem that repeats back to you your own views. The Jews understood something very deep: the power of conversation, the power of talk, the power of disagreements.