Sunday, September 22, 2013

On Negative Campaigning

Something I've figured out during my 35 years on this earth and only just now found the words for is this: people seem to identify most strongly in a negative fashion. Go among a group of like minded people and try to say something good about what they all ostensibly like, and usually you'll get a lukewarm reception. Go in their midst and insult their common interest and, of course, they'll rally in defense. But nothing gets quite so much of a reaction as going in and insulting something they collectively hate.

I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about. I am a nerd. As such, I am a devoted fan of a number of different things, Japanese music included, and I mod a Google Group dedicated to this interest. If someone shows up and posts a song, or a picture associated with the subject, they'll get a few +1s, maybe one or two, maybe even eight or ten. Then some kid comes in with a "Justin Bieber sucks" memepic... and the forum goes nuts in agreement. Then I mod it out of existence, since I don't want this group to be about what we hate, but what we like, and Justin Bieber is decidedly off topic.

This is just a juvenile example, but I've seen it everywhere. Tell me the same doesn't happen in political groups. A politician talking about how good his policy will be will maybe get a few yawns and some accolades from a few marginalized intellectuals. Claim that his opponent eats babies and maintains a shrine to Hitler in his basement... now that will get a supportive reaction. Politicians understand this, of course, and the most savvy of them will always make use of this. I pity the poor, principled politician who attempts to campaign in a purely positive manner.

I can guess why this is. In a past world, one in which people were divided into far more, and far smaller, and far more independent groups of people, warfare was pretty much a constant in life. A tribe or clan needs unity most when an enemy threatens from without, and a people who lacks this negative unity is likely a people who will not pass their ways onto the next generation.

But perhaps it is time we become conscious of, and reexamine, this particular impulse. What was once an important adaptation may well now be maladaptive. So next time someone shows up with a post decrying something you agree is a bad thing... stop and think a moment. Is this really necessary? Is it a true threat? Is the self-congratulatory dogpile that is almost guaranteed to ensue worth the psychic damage that hate, even of the best intentioned kind, can cause?

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