We Need More Than Two Buckets for Thought

I saw a really great article called “Blue Feed, Red Feed, See Liberal Facebook and Conservative Facebook, Side by Side” on the Wall Street Journal. It has an important implicit bias that hurts us all.

Just Two Buckets

That Wall Street Journal has just 2 categories in which to lump all American thought (“liberal” or “conservative“). The Facebook study it was built on has only a single axis with the same two poles. This is a symptom of the problem. American media seriously has trouble counting higher than 2. Everything is either Coke or Pepsi, Republican or Democrat, Red or Blue, in favour of something or against it. Humans are prone instinctively to “us/them” thinking. Media is complicit in the problem by making it seem like we must BE in one bucket or the other. And the buckets are complicated. If you are against abortion you have to be in favour of smaller government, minimal restrictions on gun ownership, and low taxes. If you like labour unions you have to want gun restrictions, and oppose the death penalty. None of these things is really linked, but when every issue has to go into a red bucket or a blue bucket, you end up with some strange buckets that nobody quite fits in.

“Not Red” is the Same as “Blue”

The other problem is the possibility of categorising things because they “don’t fit.” That is, sometimes we say “if you believe X, then you’re in the red bucket. Otherwise, you’re in the blue bucket.” But that ends up putting a lot of people who don’t believe X into the same bucket, and they don’t necessarily agree with each other or belong together.

Apparently these researchers are satisfied with a single axis that has just two poles on it. Things that are conservative are, by definition, “not liberal” and things that are liberal are equally “not conservative.”

It’s An International Problem

The other problem is the American domination of the global, English-speaking Internet. In the UK, you would never find a “conservative” opposing gay marriage or abortion. Those issues are firmly settled in this country, and the label “conservative” means something totally different in British politics. But labels like “conservative” and “liberal” get heavily trafficked by American media, and that media has a huge reach across the English-speaking globe. It makes non-American, English-speaking nations react to the American use of the words. It pollutes far beyond its borders. So the duopoly tendency in American media is an international issue, not just an American issue.