The Spiral of Hate
by MBNYC, Sat Apr 19, 2008 at 04:47:04 PM EDT
The Spiral of Silence is a theory from the communications sciences, first articulated by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, useful in understanding the polarization between supporters of the two remaining liberal Democratic Senators running for our party's nomination.
Briefly, the Spiral of Silence theory holds the following:
The phrase "spiral of silence" actually refers to how people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are in the minority. The model is based on three premises: 1) people have a "quasi-statistical organ," a sixth-sense if you will, which allows them to know the prevailing public opinion, even without access to polls, 2) people have a fear of isolation and know what behaviors will increase their likelihood of being socially isolated, and 3) people are reticent to express their minority views, primarily out of fear of being isolated.
The closer a person believes the opinion held is similar to the prevailing public opinion, the more they are willing to openly disclose that opinion in public. Then, if public sentiment changes, the person will recognize that the opinion is less in favor and will be less willing to express that opinion publicly. As the perceived distance between public opinion and a person's personal opinion grows, the more unlikely the person is to express their opinion.
What we're seeing presently playing out on blogs, and there arguably more harshly on those few blogs that support Senator Clinton, is a further elaboration of Noelle-Neumann's theory.
I call it the Spiral of Hate. >>>
In terms of the development of public opinion as expressed on Democratic-leaning blogs, the watershed event of the 2008 campaign was the decision by Senator John Edwards to suspend his campaign. By any objective measure, Edwards had won the support of the blogosphere's most active participants; the Daily Kos reader poll taken the night before the Iowa caucuses gave him 49% of the vote.
When Edwards dropped out, the nomination became a zero-sum game between two historic candidates: Barack Obama, a liberal black Senator running a people-powered grassroots campaign, and Hillary Clinton, a liberal female Senator, wife of a former President, anointed heir to the throne by her husband's circle, including most of the Democratic Party establishment.
What happened after Edwards dropped out was simple and probably unavoidable: stoked on by the heightened passions inflamed by these two historic candidacies, blogs and their readers began to self-segregate into opposing camps. The Spiral of Silence kicked in with a vengeance, as it became increasingly likely to suffer a social penalty for voicing support of one candidate where s/he was not popular.
Conversely, commentary that could justly be described as hateful was not comparably sanctioned, as the bounds of acceptable discourse widened to include hate speech from our political enemies. Quite the contrary: as the primary dragged on, vitriolic arguments against the opponent began to receive positive affirmation regardless of source and sheer offensiveness.
Simply put, for many (and especially newly engaged partisans drawn to blogdom by the primary) the defeat of the respective primary opponent moved to the top of the values hierarchy, displacing long-held maxims about acceptable and unacceptable arguments. This is the Spiral of Hate.
Symptoms are, say, diaries sourced to National Review, Free Republic, No Quarter, Little Green Footballs, and other extreme rightwing outlets; commentary that denigrates gender, religion, or race, and the historical burdens they are linked to; talking points about guns, extremist leftwingers, or conversely about neo-conservatism, culled directly from Free Republic, Pat Buchanan and Counterpunch; cult-like devotion to one's candidate (more noticeable to me amongst some particularly deranged Clintonites than elsewhere, truth be told); and more. As they say about pornography, you'll know it when you see it.
This process and its deplorable symptoms will continue to play out until the nomination is settled. Simply put, there are few undecideds left, and the two camps are too much at odds for this spiral to stop. Escalation breeds further escalation, of course.
Notably, while it's incontestably true that the process I'm describing here has adherents in either camp, I'd argue that Senator Clinton's supporters are more to blame for the devolution of discourse to include outright hate. There is, for example, no site more invested in hatred in the entire blogosphere, short of Stormfront, than Hillaryis44.org, a wretched hellhole of despairing hate mainly given over to racist smears of Senator Obama. Take, for example, just this highlight:
Let's discuss politically Dumb White People and their embarrassing ways, Progressive
Barack ObamaOsama Bin Laden, and flim flam artist and friend to bigots and slumlords - Barack Obama and his latest batch of lies and race baiting.
That's hate speech, pure and simple.
There are structural reasons for the imbalance. To begin with, the Illinois Senator's supporters simply outnumber their opponents; after Edwards dropped out, the Daily Kos reader poll, as good a measure of support as one can find in the Progressive blogosphere, showed his support moving almost wholesale over to Obama, with barely an uptick for Senator Clinton to be registered. This strength in numbers reduces the perceived need to engage in hate speech. It will be interesting to see, now that Senator Obama is experiencing a drop in the national polls in the wake of a less than stellar debate performance, whether his supporters maintain the higher ground.
A further contributing factor is the state of the race. While some continue to believe that Senator Clinton has a chance to win the nomination, this view is not widely held, and contradicted by the respective numbers of pledged delegates, popular vote totals, the fund race, and every other metric one might name. It follows from this that Obama's supporters are acting with a measurably higher amount of restraint, given that they are, presumably, conscious of the need to unite the party. Clintonites seem to be under no such compunction, and small wonder; their hopes for a victory, slim as they are, do not rest on persuasion of voters, merely of party grandees.
It's interesting that what we're seeing playing out among the numerous free agents of the blogosphere also seems to be affecting Clinton's campaign. Up until the people of Iowa voted, cutting short the cherished misapprehension that Clinton was the inevitable nominee, it would have beggared belief had anyone suggested her campaign might run ads accusing an opponent of not being rightwing enough on God and guns, or that she would have trashed MoveOn.org, and organization that the eventual nominee is going to rely on to provide money and boots on the ground. Now, while this is surely not hate, her campaign messaging has validated and continues to validate the usage of tropes drawn directly from the most extremist voices on the right. The fact that the right seems to have made a calculated strategic decision to keep her in the race, so as to be able to engage a nominee Obama already damaged by internecine attacks, merely leeches more poison into the veins.
And here we are, with six weeks to go until the final ballots are cast. The Spiral of Hate continues.