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December 03, 2005


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for "case studies," you cite only fictional works.

can you cite an actual example of a student group or great figure from history who deliberately employed polarization as a means to drive a group to greater extremes?


Seems like Hitler's an obvious choice. SDS in the 60's. Arguably, Martin Luther King used something like this strategy. The contemporary American religious right seems to do something along these lines, too, using the church community as the nexus for concerted morally conservative political action.


The Klan, as well, seems to use something very much like this strategy.


sorry for all the posts. perhaps an even better example: the Rwandan Hutus, in events leading up to and during the genocide.


What do you think is the cause of the polarization phenomenon? Polarization might reflect the natural way in which humans come to believe or know that something is true. Humans often come to "know" or believe something first by perceiving it and then by having that perception confirmed by external checks, like by other people's independent observations. Without external checks, humans are often less confident of the truth of their convictions and perceptions of the world, and thus less likely to act upon them. Insofar as lack of confidence in our convictions leads to lack of expressing our convictions "extremely" in our actions, polarization might be evidence of the natural increase in confidence that comes with acquiring knowledge or belief that something is true.


still not convinced that planned polarization isn't just spontaneous poloraization writ large and "successful" beyond imagination at the time.


ziemer - not sure the positions are irreconcilable. it seems like people who would take advantage of this phenomenon are most likely to succeed not by starting from scratch but rather by amplifying the effects of already present, spontaneous polarization. so: hutu leaders detect anti-tutsi sentiment among the population; (probably) shoot down the president's plane and accuse the tutsi to stoke the flames; and then take advantage through media, rallies, etc. It's "spontaneous" in some sense, but "planned" (ie amplified). That's what you mean, no? Or do you think no one has ever recognized the potential of the idea?

Seth Ayarza

Well, while anyone can admit polarization is a fact of life... I would suggest that the phenomena is in fact part of a process of finding truth. It occurs whenever there are two interested parties trying to discover some technical fact.

Nonetheless, I'm unsure that polarization can in fact be planned. Saying that it can implies a humanity that lacks free will. That polarization occurs is one thing, saying that a single individual can create it is another.

Perhaps taken to its logical terminus, your argument would actually undermine freedom of speech.

No one would deny social peer pressure but I challenge the idea that in fact we can actually create polarization enterpreneurs.



i definitely don't go so far as seth, as to say that to recognize planned polarizaation undermines free will. the fact that people can be manipulated does not do so. we all manipulate eachother every day in smaller ways, after all.

and obviously, every cult leader has recognized that isolation will increase his power over the group.

at the same time, i'm still suspect of a theory suggesting that -- suppose i form a group to advance the repeal of all tariffs -- it's part of the plan that the people who join will not just be anti-tariff, but that by joining the group, the membership will be move to even harder free-trade positions.


ok - do you mind if I ask the root of the suspicion? it seems like both the scientific evidence and at least some of the real world examples i offered support the hypothesis. i'm sure sunstein has more. do you have a counterexample or theory in mind?


Sorry, ziemer, should rephrase: are you questioning the polarization mechanism itself (that is, arguing that people won't move to more extreme positions)? Or are you questioning that there are leaders or entrepeneurs or whatever who are cognizant of this phenomenon and exploit it? I'm not sure Sunstein is making the 2nd claim in a strong form; it may be that heroes, villians, etc. take advantage of the phenomenon without even realizing it. I suspect this is much more frequent than someone consciously planning this sort of thing out (but I suspect that happens too, as noted above).

Seth Ayarza

I left some important clarifications out of my first post.
I think its important not to confuse polarization of ideology, with ideological consistency. The former is subjective and I believe can only exist for long periods of time in dictatorial environments,(thus the reason why SDS did not survive) while the latter is objective and occurs naturally to thinkers as they make analogies and employ logic in their arguments.

Furthermore, one could make the argument that Hitler and Stalin did not as much 'plan polarization' as they did to refine the basic principles of socialism into a consistent ideology. Thus the third Reich and Stalinist Russia (as Hayek would probably argue) were not subjective realizations of self-interested 'polarization entrepreneurs', but in fact inevitable termini of socialist world outlook.

Prof Sunstein probably concieves of Rush Limbaugh as the 'polarization entrepreneur' par excellance, but I think anyone who listens to him has to recognize a developing libertarian consistency to his rants. He does not simply pick up arguments out of thin air, or simply say the opposite of what the New York Times editorial page says. If he did so, he would lose alot of listeners. In the general sense, his process is similar (as much as it pains some to admit it,) to that of a philosophy professor.


I have to say, Seth, your post sounds bizarre and intriguing, I would like to read more. How can a socialist outlook (I assume you are lumping all the competing strands of socialism into one mass of 'classical Marxism') which has as its explicitly stated endpoint a classless, Stateless society, be described as necessarily leading to totalitarian states that as a policy practice mass murder?
Do you really not think it has more to do with psychotic personalities such as Hitler's and Stalin's?

Plenty of socialists have been dedicated pacifists and great humanitarians, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi to trot out a few classics. (I know this is an aside but I was piqued).

The Law Fairy

The Rush Limbaugh point is an interesting one, but I have to disagree -- and not just because my philosophy professors in college were far more enlightened and rigorous (on both sides of the political aisle, btw).

I actually think Rush demonstrates the polarization process pretty well. You can see the polarizing effect he has on people on both extremes. Left-wing liberals call in to yell at him and they both call each other names. Both leave the conversation feeling as though they've won the argument, and steaming over the fact that the idiot on the other side didn't learn from them. When right-wing conservatives call in, it's a liberal-bashing back-patting conversation. That's not to say Rush agrees with everything some of his right-wing callers say, but rather that an environment that's ideologically welcoming encourages people to go a bit farther in their thinking where they might otherwise be guarded about what they say (in front of bosses, for instance). So we see polarization occurring (it becomes very "us" versus "them") and we see a movement farther from the center for those of the accepted belief system.

I say Rush isn't a philosopher because I have yet to see any evidence that he tries to temper his ideology with patience or reason. This isn't to fault him; reasonableness doesn't sell, and he has a lucrative radio show to worry about. But I don't think it's fair to say that because he's becoming more libertarian means he's a philosopher; I suspect it has more to do with the general trend in the country toward libertarianism (interestingly, this is beginning to cause a polarizing split within the Republican base).

I heard a great example of entrepreneuring on the radio in Chicago earlier this year. A talk show host who regularly conducts crank calls phoned a right-wing gun store owner and pretended he was someone the man knew. He eased him into the setup with a few relatively non-controversial remarks (for that side of the political aisle, at least). Before long, however, he was urging the man to repeat racist slogans with him. At first the man seemed hesitant, but by the end of the phone call he was laughing and chanting right along with him.

I don't recall the date, but the radio show was Mancow's Morning Madhouse, for anyone who's interested in checking up on the call, which I did not make up.

Seth Ayarza

In response to Eric,
It's not that I want to lump all brands of socialism into one mass, its simply that I find them all to share a heavy emphasis on intrinsic group identity, something that is a neccessary component to the polarization Sunstein speaks of.

Further, in order to ENACT that utopian socialist society you need the state(w/guns) to enforce some sort of collective group, probably with trade barriers. (alternatively, maybe socialists can turn to technology and bio-engineer a 'new man' without the self-interest flaw?)

I dont' see a distinguishing feature between the socialism of yesterday which defined and railed against 'groups' for their purported self-interest(jews etc.) with that of today which instead takes aim at the individual self interest.(in the form of Capitalists international)

Lastly, I don't challenge MLK's intentions, nor Gandhi, as long as they keep to preaching charity and refrain from enforcing their heaven on earth hypothesis with guns. (same goes for British or Southern white racial empire)

To Law Fairy: What I am trying to say is that if there is a general turn towards libertarianism as an ideology(as you say), then that is a result of exactly the kind of phenomena I previously described, individuals seeking consistency in their belief patterns. Therefore, Rush is similarly an example of that...
Lastly, just to throw an example out there, I can hardly imagine anything more politically popular at the moment than bashing BIG oil(even for conservatives), but Rush has been defending the perspective. To do so is a complicated point with subtle nuances difficult to communicate on radio, but he did so. Not exactly the kind of chanting you refer to.
Finally, let me just say that the call you refer to seems to me more an example of peer pressured entrapment rather than 'planned polarization'. (then again maybe that social phenomena is related.)


i certainly agree with seth that any attempt to create a socialist society has only two options: failure; or mass murder.

if you try to do the impossible, there are really no other options.

i wouldn't consider it planned polarization. if you are going to criminalize normal human commerce, those who disagree with the plan must be eliminated.


"I have to say, Seth, your post sounds bizarre and intriguing, I would like to read more. How can a socialist outlook (I assume you are lumping all the competing strands of socialism into one mass of 'classical Marxism') which has as its explicitly stated endpoint a classless, Stateless society, be described as necessarily leading to totalitarian states that as a policy practice mass murder?
Do you really not think it has more to do with psychotic personalities such as Hitler's and Stalin's?

Plenty of socialists have been dedicated pacifists and great humanitarians, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi to trot out a few classics. (I know this is an aside but I was piqued). "


I think someone already pointed this out, but I want to re-enforce the problem with socialistic homogenized society where all is equalized by application of law or money or some sort of social justice. The idea of utopia imagines that free will and individual thought is subjugated to the greater good of society. However, the nature of man indicates that, while there are always those who surrender their individuality to an idea or a leader, there will also be those who do not and those that will always act in their own self interest. Further, the nature of these constructs of utopia requires that someone or even a group of people must be the arbiters of whatever is good for society or a group.

Polarized associations inevitably contain all three types of people: followers, individuals who may agree but still act on their own ideas and those that always act in their self interest.

As for the inevitability of socialist movements always turning to mass murder and cult type leadership, it may be, as already noted, simply a matter of socio-paths who by nature require adulation and re-enforcement of their power or self esteem, naturally gravitate towards these types of groupings where the victims are, through self selection, already in a mindset and physical condition to accept the socio-path in that position. A vehicle, if you will.

Eventually, these types who are already convinced of their rightness and righteousness, able to transfer the guilt for their harmful actions to a separate idea or entity (socialism or the state or group as the "other") and thus able to continue to appear confident in their actions and decisions about what is "good" regardless of whether they act heinously towards outsiders or even the group he portends to lead; instilling through abuse of power or dent of personality the idea that they ARE the arbiters of good, rise to positions of leadership while the others in utopia are still struggling with questions about what IS good for the whole, constantly evaluating or judging their behavior instead of setting the limits decively (unlike the socio-path leader who renders decisively, absolutes).

Thus, the sociopathic leader always seems to emerge from these polarized groups more often than organizations that DO emphasize individuality and free will.

Jeff Engstrom

I don't think the danger of polarization is real in American politics. The extremes of both political parties get alot of ink and there is no doubt that they have some effect on the discourse. But are they of practical importance in the outcomes? It seems to me that decisionmaking is still driven by moderates in this country. In some cases, this is to the detriment of real solutions to problems in education, health care, and fiscal policy. In others, like rights issues, it works as a welcome roadblock to impetuous failures. I think the polarization that we witness in regards to blogs and other news orgs is a much needed route to further polarization and ultimately fragmentation. Every social movement seems to start with a bipolar identity that eventually splinters. I, for one, look forward to the splintering.

Jay Yoo

While I appreciate your insights on polarization, as an entreprenuer I must admit that I am really turned off by your use of the words for the sake of sloganism. In my experience, entrepreneurs draw people to a new center rather than extremes. Furthermore, they generally would like the world to use their creation, no matter what their political views might be. Optimism surrounds the entrepreneur, which at this point is this country’s greatest asset. On the other hand, polarization, as you are describing, involves considerable cynicism.

The above URL link (click on my name above) is a blog entry I made that further expresses my opinion on the subject matter. It provides other words that might be more appropriate to describe the character of your polarization theory (e.g. evangelist).


Law School Blog

A recent Ontario study confirmed that concerns over impartiality should be further considered. See: http://lawiscool.com/2007/07/19/bias-in-the-judiciary/

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