The “Look At This Asshole” Effect

When strawmen enter the echo chamber, nothing good can happen

A lot has already been said about the informational “echo chamber” in which most of us now live, and which social media has only served to reinforce and amplify. But in case you haven’t been paying attention to the world for the last several years – well, first of all, I envy you well beyond my capacity to express it, but second: in brief, the “echo chamber” is what happens when a large group of people only pay attention to others – whether people they know, or media outlets – whose ideological views already align with their own. This creates for them a false perception that their belief system or political perspective is not only the dominant view, but the “common sense” or logically normative view of society as a whole.

What hasn’t yet been as closely scrutinized is what I’m going to call the “Look At This Asshole” Effect. Essentially it consists in bringing into the echo chamber a strawman version of someone who is meant to represent the opposing ideology – not for the purpose of genuine intellectual engagement with the opposing ideology but purely to reassure the echo chamber that its views must be the right ones because the opposition are a pack of lunatics.

A member of the in-group will cite certain extremely selective quotations from members of the out-group for the exclusive purpose of stirring up hostility against that figure in particular and the out-group that he or she represents (or is purported to represent) in general. Sometimes this takes the form of an accurate quotation from someone who is genuinely antithetical to everything that the in-group stands for, but at least as often it relies on misquotes, out of context quotes, or outright fabrications. The figure then becomes inextricably associated with this statement or set of statements, and the statement(s) and/or person is transformed into a shorthand among the in-group for a certain reprehensible attitude or as representing an affiliation that the person may or may not actually subscribe to in real life. Eventually this person or his/her “type” will become so caricaturized through mockery that members of the in-group no longer remember that their exaggerations ad absurdum don’t actually represent the views of any real person. This is how you get Christians who say “atheists believe that our great-grandparents were monkeys” and atheists who say “Christians believe in a giant bearded old man who lives in the clouds.” Nobody actually believes either of those things, but there are plenty of people who don’t understand that those statements were meant to be derisive hyperbole and not descriptive of anyone’s genuine beliefs. Even when a particularly extreme member of the out-group’s views are represented accurately, that person and their view tends to be treated not as a fringe view but as the common, normative, elementary view of the majority of the group.

Asshole-ception

Asshole-ception

The most obvious example of the “Look At This Asshole” Effect comes from George Orwell’s 1984. The “Two Minutes Hate,” which evolves into an annual “Hate Week,” requires all citizens to spend a certain amount of time in a state of mindless fury against the figure of Emmanuel Goldstein, a likely-fictitious rebel leader who symbolizes any and all opposition to Big Brother and The Party.

In the 2014 movie “God’s Not Dead,” which Wikipedia describes as an “American Christian drama,” a liberal elite college professor requires that all his students declare that God is dead in order to pass the class. One student, a Christian, refuses. Much of the rest of the movie is devoted to the student debating the professor on the existence of God, eventually culminating in the atheist professor unwittingly admitting that it isn’t that he doesn’t believe in God, it’s just that he hates Him. The student manages to convince the whole class that God is not, in fact, dead, and then later the professor is fatally struck by a car and converts to Christianity as he lays dying.

This is a movie made by a particular type of Christian, for a particular type of Christian. Its audience is already convinced that latte-sipping atheists are really just God-hating rebels with no actual evidence or arguments on their side, and the strawman professor is here nothing but a figure representing that attitude to point at and go, “Look at this asshole.”

On the other side of the equation we have Bill Maher’s 2008 documentary “Religulous.” Maher interviews a number of figures from different religious traditions and makes them look like nutcases and/or idiots. It’s a parade of “Look at this asshole; now look at this asshole,” with the moral, of course, as if it were ever in doubt, is that believers are dangerous morons. He doesn’t engage with moderates, and he doesn’t present any particularly nuanced commentary. But he doesn’t have to, because he isn’t trying to convince anybody. Not really. He’s just making his audience – people like himself, who believe that religion is so self-evidently false that only the stupid or the brainwashed or the deluded could possibly believe it – feel superior and good about themselves by laughing at their ideological opposites.

These are only two examples, but our media is rife with this kind of thing. Nothing strengthens a group more effectively than teaming up against a common enemy, and the best way to turn a mere out-group into a true foe is by dehumanizing them. Thanks to the echo chamber and the “Look At This Asshole” Effect, we’ve transformed practically our whole media apparatus into a perpetual Two Minutes Hate, 140 characters at a time.

The exponential proliferation of media outlets and platforms has, ironically, made it easier than ever to avoid opposing viewpoints and the people who espouse them. We only read the newspapers and websites or watch the TV programs or channels that agree with our perspective – and our perspective can now be as concentrated and singular as possible, and we’ll still be able to find some website out there to enable us, transforming the majority of humanity into our anathematized out-group. We only follow people on Twitter who will reinforce our belief that we are right and everybody else is wrong – and now it’s even possible to filter out specific keywords from your Twitter feed so you never have to accidentally come across the wrong kind of opinions. If you voted for the other candidate, you can just go ahead and unfriend me right now. The Venn Diagram depicting the overlap of people who both watch Fox News and listen to NPR must be thinner than the Slender Man’s necktie. That’s the echo chamber. So practically the only time we ever come across a member of the opposition is when they’ve said something really egregious (or someone has invented something really egregious that sounds like the kind of thing that we feel a member of the opposition would say) and we want to make ourselves feel extra righteous by burning them in effigy. Or making fun of their stupid hair or the way that they dress. In other words, whenever we feel the need to reinforce our own ideology by pointing at someone who symbolizes a different one and going, “Look at this asshole.”

That’s why the number one question that’s asked when an opposing ideological group gets their way is “how could this have happened?” Because proceeding from the premises that 1) you are a reasonable person, and 2) the only opposing viewpoints that you’ve ever heard have been totally batshit insane, you are incapable of comprehending how the majority of the world has evidently lost their minds. Cognitive bias is a tough nut to crack; the human mind is extremely reluctant to reevaluate its own beliefs, particularly when it hasn’t come into contact with any particularly convincing counterexamples, but only the naked fact that more people disagree with them than agree. Truth isn’t decided by majority rule, of course, and so it is absolutely possible for most or all other people to be wrong about something, and make bad decisions based on faulty logic. But admitting that must also entail admitting that you might be the one who’s wrong. We can’t have that. Instead we diagnose the opposing group with some contrived, pseudopsychiatric condition that explains their aberrant beliefs: the diabolical capitalist system has struck them with false consciousness (i.e. those poor, unlettered blue-collars are just too stupid to know what’s best for them); maybe they believe that they deserve to be punished and humiliated and so they derive some kind of bizarre, quasi-sexual satisfaction from seeing the identity group to which they belong be disempowered in society to the benefit of some other (perhaps historically oppressed or disadvantaged) group; or it could simply be that they’re secretly working for The Corporations, The Commies, The Jihadists or the Zionists or Big Pharma or Kanye or whoever else has pissed you off most recently.

You tell 'em, Homer!

You tell ’em, Homer!

The “Look at This Asshole” Effect strengthens the echo chamber in two main ways.

One, it creates tighter solidarity among the in-group by providing an enemy for everyone to take shots at in an environment wherein the target or group to which the target belongs is incapable of defending themselves, either simply because the target is not themselves present among the group that’s engaging in the pillorying, or because anyone expressing sympathy with the target or the target’s beliefs, even if only to point out that the quote being used may be out of context or straight-up false, is themselves attacked by the in-group (rather than engaging the dissenter rationally), or by censoring dissenting views entirely – for instance, removing message board posts for so-called “brigading” a topic or forum. The dissenter is essentially bullied into submission. When someone attacks a dissenter by calling them a “shill” or a “cuck,” by accusing them of any of the various flavors of “splaining,” or using any other of the thought-terminating clichés of which our culture is so fond, what’s really happening is that the members of the in-group, rather than engaging with the dissenter’s argument, are using their preferred version of “Look At This Asshole,” instantly turning the dissenter into an object of ridicule rather than a fellow human being with a different perspective.

Lucy, you've got some whitesplaining to do.

Lucy, you’ve got some whitesplaining to do.

The second way that the “Look At This Asshole” Effect intensifies the echo chamber is by progressively tightening the boundary for acceptable opinions, so that a once-cherished member of the in-group can find him or herself mercilessly abandoned for saying something that would have been perfectly within the sphere of acceptable rhetoric a week earlier. In other words, it fosters extremism. It foments conspiracy-thinking. Because when someone who was known their whole life as a staunch Patriot / Feminist / Whatever goes off the rails, it can only mean that they’ve either “sold out” or that someone “got to” them. Taken to its logical conclusion, this will lead your echo chamber, your in-group, eventually to consist of you and maybe a dozen other like minds huddled together somewhere on the Dark Web, discussing how everybody else in the world is spending all their time and effort trying to destroy you.

That sounds severe – and it is – but it is happening and it’s happening more and more. We’re increasingly losing the capacity to honestly evaluate information that challenges our cognitive biases (a capacity which is already notoriously weak in the human mind), not only because we surround ourselves with people who think like us and ostracize those who don’t, but because the only representatives of “the other” that we regularly encounter in our mercilessly curated Friend Feeds and opinion shows are caricatures, trolls, and fanatics; because we exclusively invite strawmen into our echo chamber so our only encounter with dissent is – by design – the fringiest of the fringe. The craziest thing that the craziest person has ever said is presented and repeated as if it were the standard, conventional party line. Our own view, of course, is more nuanced. But the other guys? Well, I mean, come on.

Just look at this asshole.

12 Comments on “The “Look At This Asshole” Effect”

  1. An Inside Joke #

    Pfft. Look at this transparent apologetic, trying to claim those psychos on the other side are “just as bad” as we rational folks over here…

    OK, just kidding. I know you’re a pop culture site rather than a political site, but I’ve been seeing similar arguments made elsewhere on the Internet, but there’s a next step that doesn’t appear to be anywhere: how to solve the echo-chamber/”look at this asshole” effect. The obvious solution would be “consume moderate entertainment,” but that leaves the obvious question of “what is this moderate entertainment, and is anyone even making it when more polarizing content gets more clicks/views/whatever?”

    I’d imagine that watching the opposing side’s content would be just as potentially harmful as only watching your own. If you’re a liberal watching liberals getting strawmanned on Fox News (or a conservative watching conservatives getting strawmanned on MSNBC), aren’t you just going to have your own stereotypes reaffirmed? “Oh, these idiots aren’t even going to engage with our actual arguments because they’re so obviously wrong and can’t bear to make a logically coherent point?” Is there a point-of-no return where two sides can’t even communicate with one another because they’ve ceased to speak one another’s language? (I’ve noticed that my liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning friends tend to have vastly different understandings of what constitutes racism and sexism, as two examples.)

    Reply

    • Richard Rosenbaum OTI Staff #

      Oh, there is no solution. This is just the way things are now. We’re way past that point of no return.

      Reply

    • mezdef Well Actually #

      This line of argument (or at least reasoning and inquiry) has been on my mind a lot recently as I take fairly seriously how I consume news and information. As context, I refuse to watch broadcast news since I feel it wastes more of my time with what I consider superfluous with regards to why I read news: to become informed on ‘substantive’ domestic and international issues, events, and debates. Instead, I select carefully from online news sources that I perceive have a higher ‘signal to noise ratio’ for the type of news I want.

      I’d like to talk practicalities since that’s what I think about a lot and it has a substantial effect on how I form ideas about current events as well as critique the ideas of those I regularly talk to.

      So: I like to think I’m fairly good at listening to opposing opinions; wether or not the extent to which that’s ‘true’ is up for debate, but let’s at least make the assumption that I’m trying my best in good faith and would like to increase my base of views I consume from from which to form opinions, regardless of my current success or failure at that goal.

      Which leads me to my question: do opposing view points—or at least ‘dissenting opinions’—*have* to be inherently ‘painful’ to someone that sits on one end or the other of the political spectrum for them to be worthwhile as being outside the echo chamber and avoiding the Look At That Asshole Trap, or can they be consumed in a non ‘painful’ way that still allows current beliefs and opinions to be subject to modification or outright replacement given substantive arguments for or against?

      Reply

      • jmasoncooper #

        @mezdef, thank you for posting. You sound like the type of news consumer I aspire to be. As an aside, I would love to know which select sources you personally find to give the clearest info. I struggle to wade through the noise.
        To your point about pain, I don’t think knowledge has to be painful to be useful, but sometimes it turns out it is. I will use my own experience as an illustration, because I think it is relevant to your question. I was raised in a religious conservative household and I adopted those values and had little reason to question them until I was about 25. By then I was studying history at the university and could not reconcile what I believed with what I was being taught. That transition was painful. That knowledge was painful. It changed my most important relationships with my family and friends. Then some of my close friends left my church and I began to question my most fundamental existential beliefs. Around this time I swung hard left. I mean “The Young Turks” left. I was getting in to arguments with my family defending the honor of marginalized groups I knew next to nothing about. Now over the course of the last year I have learned many things about both the left and the right. I have friends who advocate for both those sides, and I believe I have developed the critical thinking skills to see the arguments and evidence on both sides for what they are and to cut through the hyperbole.
        Now to your point, the second transition, from left to center, was not nearly as difficult as the first one. I think the pain subsides when you get to a place where you can let go of anger and pain and try and see the arguments on both sides on their own terms. It is way less painful to be empathetic with your opposition when you are not ideologically commited to the premise that they are Hitler/Stalin/the devil incarnate.

        Reply

  2. Natural1 #

    But what about when one party picks a living, breathing strawman for its presidential candidate, and he wins? This essay would have made more sense the last election cycle.

    Reply

  3. Confanity #

    “We’re increasingly losing the capacity to honestly evaluate information that challenges our cognitive biases”

    This caught my attention because it seems to belong to another widespread human trait – the belief that the failings of the current age are The Worst Evar. Do you have any sort of data backing up the belief that we’re *increasingly losing* the capacity for rigorous self-questioning? Or is it just a feeling you have?

    Reply

  4. jmasoncooper #

    Thank you till the ends of the Earth, Richard Rosenbaum! Amazing work!

    Reply

  5. cat The Full Harvey #

    “Nobody actually believes either of those things, but there are plenty of people who don’t understand that those statements were meant to be derisive hyperbole and not descriptive of anyone’s genuine beliefs. Even when a particularly extreme member of the out-group’s views are represented accurately, that person and their view tends to be treated not as a fringe view but as the common, normative, elementary view of the majority of the group.”

    Sorry, I had to stop. I absorb a lot of content on both ends of the political spectrum. We’re not talking about Alex Jones or alt-right conspiracy blogs. But there are plenty of people who mean exactly what a soundbyte would imply or at least they’re comfortable arguing it in a public forum. The fringe views are not the only ones we have to be concerned about. These are not strawmen, caricatures, and fanatics (though they are trolls). I am very much listening to the “standard, conventional party line” and it doesn’t change much whether you’re listening to the politicians, pundits, or regular people.

    Reply

    • jmasoncooper #

      I agree wit you @cat, that the mainstream views on both sides take positions that are nearly irreconcilable. In my opinion, this is because they argue from a completely different place. As an example I just witnesses a 50+ posts war on facebook about gay-marriage where two of my friends argued from the normative center of their opposing sides. And they couldn’t agree. And the conversation eventually devolved.
      I would say that a major problem is an unwillingness to meet the other side on their own terms. It seems like this is what @Richard is arguing against. That we can only have conversations with people who agree with us, because when we talk about an issues, we don’t meet the other side on their own terms. To make it a grounded example, if you want to debate the legality of gay marriage with a conservative, you have to put the equality rhetoric to the side. You have to make arguments on the basis of government over-reach and religious freedom because that is the crux of the conservative side (in the baking/photography for a gay wedding debate). The same thing is true for arguing against abortion. Conservatives need to meet the pro-choice crowd on their own terms, and let go of all the ‘baby-killer’ hyperbole. If they see it as a woman’s right to choose, make arguments about how far choice extends. When do we give up our choices?
      As an aside, I think this article is timely, and here are two other videos making similar arguments:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvk2PQNcg8w
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rE3j_RHkqJc

      Reply

  6. Craig #

    I knew I liked you, Rosenbaum. I feel the exact same way. It drives me nuts seeing people getting fully outraged by Trump’s shenanigans every single day. I mean, he’s clearly a human dumpster fire and a joke of a president, but there’s no way this many people objectively disagree with every single appointment he’s made/action he’s taken.

    And of course Obama got it from the Right, in turn. As hilarious as it was to see Neocons posture about the evils of government surveillance and interventionism in the Middle East… the hypocrisy stinks too much.

    Reply

  7. Jordan Pond #

    “he doesn’t present any particularly nuanced commentary. But he doesn’t have to, because he isn’t trying to convince anybody…. He’s just making his audience… feel superior and good about themselves”

    That’s a hell of a paragraph to read as a followup to the last OTI article I read, “Donald Trump: The Human Laser Show”, which uses Photoshop to lump Trump in with what the article calls “traitorous white supremacists”. The second-last OTI article I read used the thought-terminating cliche of calling police killings “extrajudicial murder” in order to turn a complciated and controversial subject into an easy, maximally malicious villain.

    It kills me to see OTI criticize echo chambers with the site’s right hand, then reinforce them with the left.

    Reply

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