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Morality Salience and Our Mass Psychosis
Existential dread underpins "political polarisation".
Euphemisms like “political polarisation” do not quite capture with sufficient granularity the level to which we are increasingly unmoored from reality, entrenched in the bunkers of the alternate realities of the internet. We are gripped by a form of mass psychosis, buffered by the virality of groupthink. Our fractured societies have further fragmented in the polluted ecosystem of social media, where each atomised tribal grouping sees nothing but mortal threats to their existence, imaginary or real, all around it. Society is gripped by a disturbing pathology where almost every issue, no matter how big or small, is contested with frenzied desperation and doubling-down on whatever the groups’ prevailing ideology holds.
There are various theories and models that we could draw on to explain this state, whether related to mistrust, misinformation, conspiratorial beliefs, or political propaganda. But one characteristic that seems unifying across the socio-cultural-political spectrum is fear. The hysterical rhetoric that accompanies the politicisation of every issue lays this fear bare; words like “fascism”, “violence”, or “genocide”, plastered on to almost any scenario with such careless application that they have been rendered meaningless. Intolerance of pluralist viewpoints is the status quo. Yet beyond the intolerance, the striking characteristic of how such fear and neurosis presents is the extent to which various tribal atoms defend their ideological tenets as sacred values. Healthy societies do not function in this way.
This widespread fear and feverish rhetoric is a manifestation of a deep sense of existential threat, which suggests there is one particular framework that, at least for me, may provide unifying explanatory power: Terror Management Theory (TMT). TMT is a theory in social and psychological science developed from Ernest Becker’s theories of the human need for self-esteem by several social psychology researchers: Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. TMT posits that human consciousness of death - known as “mortality salience” - creates an existential dread that humans manage through engaging with various socio-cultural belief systems. Solomon has described responses to mortality salience as follows:
“Humans ‘manage’ this terror by embracing cultural worldviews - beliefs about reality - shared with other group members to convey to each of us a sense that we are valuable individuals in a meaningful universe, and hence eligible for literal and/or symbolic immortality. Accordingly, people are highly motivated (albeit quite unconsciously) to maintain faith in their cultural worldviews and a confidence in their self-worth (i.e. self-esteem); and, threats to cherished beliefs and/or self-esteem instigate defensive efforts to bolster their worldviews and self-esteem.”
TMT has demonstrated two distinct differences in response to death anxiety: proximal and distal defences. Proximal defences are activated when death is a conscious, current focus of attention, e.g., promising to make dietary and lifestyle changes after a diagnosis of heart disease. Distal defences are activated when death is on the periphery of conscious thought. However, the effect of distal defences is to activate a need to maintain faith in cultural worldviews. TMT research has demonstrated that distal defences emerge immediately when mortality salience is subliminal and bypasses conscious attention. Crucially for explaining socio-political polarisation, threats to worldview of an individual or group may result in irrational or maladaptive behaviours to defend that worldview.
Consider how masking during Covid-19 metamorphosed from a basic recommendation to constrain transmission of a virus into symbolic political gestures for both Left and Right; the latter bolstering their worldview of suspicion of authorities and government, the former revelling in another opportunity to ostentatiously display personal virtue. TMT holds explanatory power in such a context, as one of the most consistently demonstrated effects of mortality salience is an increase in politically-motivated worldviews. In managing death anxiety, the need to feel like a valued individual component part of a group who share similar cultural values becomes reinforced, and paramount for an individual to maintain. To quote:
“...people are motivated to conceive of themselves as valued participants in a cosmically significant cultural scheme rather than physical creatures subject to decay and death.”
The cultural significance may be critical to our understanding of how crises, which lay our mortality and propensity to decay and die in front of us, play out politically. Why was the reaction to George Floyd, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, more intense than the response to any previous killing of a Black American by police? In a paper led by Pyszczynski, the researchers behind TMT argued that the background of the Covid death toll and related mortality salience underpinned the response. To quote:
“Fueled by a greater need for terror management, many people jumped fervently onto this cause as a way to feel that they are doing something of value in their lives, when in reality their ability to feel that way has been so hampered by loss of jobs and income, social isolation, and difficulties in making sense of the tragedy and divisiveness that has emerged in the wake of the virus.”
Why does mortality salience result in intensified identification with an individual’s prevalent ideology? The evidence from experimental studies on TMT suggests that, because an individual’s cultural worldview is symbolic of their reality, and is culture-specific, any perceived threat of another worldview implies that ones own is incorrect. Additionally, ideologies that depict ones group as special and uniquely valuable are particularly effective at activating cherished worldviews. The resulting reaction is two-fold: a strengthening of positive emotions towards others who share their worldview and, conversely, an increase in hostility toward those who do not hold the same worldview, or are deemed different. This is perhaps the most attractive aspect of TMT, insofar as its explanatory power is essentially apolitical; the effects of mortality salience are demonstrably the characteristics of both liberal and conservative, Left and Right, hysteria in our contemporary cultural moment.
That said, there is some evidence of effect modification by political alignment; although not a consistent outcome in this research, some experiments demonstrated that support for more extreme actions following exposure to mortality salience increased in conservatives, but not liberals. Conversely, it may simply reflect the direction of effect, i.e., conservatives increase support for more right-wing attitudes, while liberals increase support in the opposite direction. This would suggest that mortality salience increases polarisation independent of political orientation. However, given that intolerance of other worldviews is a core characteristics of our polarised times, one finding to emerge from this research seems particularly important. In a 1992 study, both politically conservative and liberal participants were primed with materials to enhance the value of tolerance, prior to exposure to mortality salience; negative attitudes towards a threat to the worldview of the participants were attenuated from priming tolerance. Although as a 1992 study, bear in mind that the effect of tolerance:
“depends on the assumption that people do value tolerance to some extent, an assumption that, given the emphasis on freedom and democracy in the American educational system, is likely to be correct for most Americans.”
This assumption for Americans, and indeed for the Anglophone world that is now gripped to various degrees by the American “culture war”, may be fairly untenable as of 2023. Nevertheless, the main finding that tolerance salience may attenuate the adverse effects of mortality salience still holds a promising lesson; that valuing tolerance may decrease bias and hostility against those who hold different worldviews. But this itself holds somewhat pessimistic implications, given the stifling effects of cancel culture on viewpoint diversity in academia and institutions, and the unrestrained witch-hunting and showcased public eviscerations of social media. Our capacities to incubate the value of tolerance have been shredded, ironically, by the empty BigTech lies of “bringing the world together”.
The authors optimistically concluded in that 1992 paper that their results suggested:
“...a hopeful exception: the possibility of cultural worldviews sufficiently broad and tolerant that different, even contradictory, views would not be threatening or necessitate a defensive response.”
That has come to be a hopeful exception that proved the hopeless rule in our current societies. Think of the characteristics of this contemporary culture; the apocalyptic language, the book-banning, the language-policing, the attacks on individual rights, all of which reflect desperate attempts to control the expression of one worldview while hostilely attacking another. This is precisely the kind of behaviour that TMT predicts. Any slight difference of opinion is received as an existential threat, a different cultural worldview is seen as “literal violence”, and social media has provided the forum for the atomisation and alienation of society into disparate groups all desperately defending their sacred beliefs.
Our collective human existential dread has been mobilised by technology into a constant sense of existential threat; a landscape of metaphorical trenches populated by people with culturally-shared worldviews to whom the most dangerous thing in their life is a different idea, perspective, or belief. What a tragic state of affairs.
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