Of Outsider Biases and Strawman Attacks

This is part two of the series, “Tips for a Better Informed Public.”


At times when a visible enemy arises, crowds unify and demand more action. This would seem appropriate—to increase desperation as opposition intensified. But while issues exist on a continuous spectrum of intensity, public demand exists in stages, and in rather spaced out ones. Often then, only extreme issues are confronted, while more moderate, insidious issues are paid little attention. In the previous series installment, the deception of an overly emphasized icon was discussed, wherein the icon is made to be the extreme issue inspiring action. That, I said, led to misguided attacks and detracted from real prevalent problems when ordinary figures were seen as unique. In the context of larger groups, a similar issue exists—not about whether they exist uniquely, but about whether they exist at all. Perhaps the biggest problem in interpreting media, and exacerbated by instant and widely available information, is the outsider bias: a lack of understanding which portrays nonexistent uprisings, or more accurately, uprisings not as perverse or organized as they seem.

What easily comes to mind on the topic is the mission of Milo Yiannopoulos. (You can read about his Twitter controversy here.) A self-proclaimed troll, Yiannopoulos sees importance in diminishing what he sees as an oversensitive, overly politically correct society. In this light, his mission is noble, by encouraging free speech and suppressing unconstructive social regulations. Surely, there are a few defining hypersensitive social movements today. But his means, and even his goals, are incorrect in two particular ways. The first reason, not related to outsider bias, is the people he wants to change will most likely not do so from online abuse; abuse and low self-esteem are what lead to extreme social activism. The second reason is these groups may not even exist as he believes they do; there’s not much to say they exist as prevalently as he seems to think, and they may not even take their self-affirmations literally—nor do more civilized third parties that don’t resort to online harassment. That is, it doesn’t take much thought to realize there isn’t much substance to a phrase such as “everyone is beautiful”; such phrases are intended for comfort, and while sometimes taken literally, it’s more typical for one to understand there do exist concepts of beauty and ugliness, and not all are described by the former. By not realizing this, Yiannopoulos suffers from an outsider bias, and in doing so, makes strawman arguments by attacking groups that don’t really exist.

Yiannopoulos is hardly a rare case; his popularity is a testament to the current nature of the modern self-proclaimed realist, brash but self-liberating. Self-proclaimed realists are most prone to outsider bias when considering social activism, because of their competence in observing surface details, and lack of understanding for more complex details—the inverse of the idealist. They don’t stem from pure idiocy or rudeness. In fact, I rather respect their desire for the truth, but their overconfidence in believing a total understanding with little information leads to strawman attacks and gives rise to those like Milo Yiannopoulos. Despite their toxicity when uncorrected, they are perhaps the better crowd, between themselves and idealists, with which to reason. It’s just hard to publicly reason when the whole truth about social issues, as they rightfully believe, often contains shards of offensive content which are not conducive to a healthy society. In short, these truths are opposite of what extreme idealists tend to believe: that everyone is beautiful, that all are equal, etc.

Taking outsider bias to a higher extreme, there is another group of realists, who distinguish themselves from the conventional realist by stupidity alone. From them, fun, ridiculous, meme-worthy conspiracy theories have arisen; they are, of course, the conspiracy theorists. It has dumbfounded me to see the rise of Donald Trump, and Alex Jones, whom Trump supports. The main message between these two that audiences delightfully consume is that there is a higher power somewhere, consisting of corrupt insiders. In the short time I spent watching one of Jones’s rants, he mentioned a society of ultra-intelligent people, The Free Masons, who were plotting to kill the rest of humanity for not being as bright. Trump, similarly, believes there is a higher unified power in media that corrupts the election. Both men fear what they don’t understand, to such extents that the outsider bias is taken from being obnoxious to being bizarre.

It seems apparent in the social climate that when popular ideas arise, they are typically very liberal or very conservative, possibly simply for the sake of being prominent positions to stand behind—or because movements happen primarily out of feelings of necessity and desperation. I believe, however, this is also due to outsider bias, which by caricaturizing groups as their surface criticisms, and not fully understanding their intent or its reason, prompts overreaction as either highly liberal or conservative.

The fix to these problems, in a simplistic summary, is to be more open minded, by realizing opinions are flexible, and not often literally embodied in speech. That is, surface content of social propaganda often intends for not a literal interpretation, but a related message, as with “everyone is beautiful” and providing confidence. From there, we may have conversations and understand opinions are flexible, not recalcitrant extensions of the enemy. Changeable opinions do not require extreme retaliation through online abuse or ridiculous conspiracy theories.

Outsider bias is the toxic, possibly most influential piece in misunderstanding media. It traces its own origins to overconfidence in understanding basic details, which detracts from further inquiry. Verbal garbage has been spewed in its name, albeit nobly for the pursuit of truth. But as sinister as it is, we just need to remember that we face the problem of literalizing convenient figurative segments of social activism, and in doing so, we take extreme sides. We look past the underlying factors that need fixing. And we forget to have conversations.