Group size and tolerating those with whom we disagree

by Chris Bertram on October 3, 2021

The other day I tweeted what I took to be a fairly banal sociological observation and one that took no normative position, as such. I observed that people in families or smaller communities are, as a condition of participating in many everyday social activities, under some pressure to be more tolerant of people with divergent moral, religious or political views to their own than are people in large communities or networks such as cities or the internet. People in larger networks typically have more choice about who they interact with and so can restrict themselves more easily to others who think like they do. Notice that there aren’t necessarily two distinct groups of people here. People interact both in small family groups for some of their time but also in wider networks. In the first, there’s pressure to put up with the disagreeing other, to some extent, in the latter there’s much less pressure since you don’t have to engage.

Some people reacted a little negatively, or so I took it, to my observation. It was suggested that I was “lauding small towns” over cities, though I was not. Others, more supportive, chimed in to say that growing up in small places they’d been under more pressure to justify themselves and their views to others with whom they disagreed, whereas in cities they’d not had to bother. And some people notices that the working-age population did indeed have to tolerate people with different opinions to their own since they had no choice but to be in the workplace, while perhaps retirees could select co-thinkers and screen out unwelcome opinions.

My banal observation didn’t just come out of nowhere. On the contrary it arose from the comparatively privileged experience of living in two quite different places. In the one, I can have a social life where I end up hanging out with people who are pretty similar to myself; in the other, if I am to have any social life at all, it has to be with relatively small numbers of people who just happen to be in the town and know one another. That can be enriching, since I end up having conversations with people different to myself and learning about points of view quite other to my own. But there’s also a pressure to self-censorship, to avoiding certain topics in case they cause ill-feeling and to letting remarks go when they are possibly but not obviously freighted with racism and sexism. Generally, I think exhortations to people to get out of their bubble and to speak across divides are a waste of breath. But put people in different circumstances with others with whom they disagree and they will find ways to rub along and communicate, with a mix of challenge and restraint.

{ 33 comments }

1

J, not that one 10.03.21 at 1:02 pm

It used to be an accepted fact that in small communities there were invariably some who were excluded, and who left for the city and a more flexkd social situation. The fear that those people “think they’re better than us” has recently snowballed into a general acceptance that their primary ethical obligation is to go home and make themselves acceptable to their original associations.

Moreover, those small towns had internal exclusions of their own. Literature is full of examples of stories from the point of view of the poor kid all too aware of the local class decides. The story that became the movie “Meet the Abbots” is a good example. We romanticize the community-mindedness of the poor and assume they don’t exclude their own (and also are too boring to generate anyone different enough to be rejected. There’s a mini-literature of middle class writers claiming they socialize with all classes in their hometown, but I take that as seriously as Southern whites who claimed they were “friendly” with Blacks their hometown in Jim Crow times.

I don’t disagree with the OP, exactly. There are situations where we pride ourselves on getting along with everyone but only certain hours of the day. But on the other hand, I suspect that people who are “forced” to get along with “everybody” actually are doing something different from what those words, taken literally, should mean. The “small community” that produced social harmony in a manner both road and ethical has never existed, and even less in the past 100 years.

TL;DR Perhaps people on Twitter were taking you to be making a rhetorical contribution to an ongoing debate and we’re responding to the position in that debate you appeared to have taken (as I have).

After reading this over again, I think the that families tolerate internal differences may be a misreading of a situation where families come to have the same opinions. In the US, at any rate, the idealized situation of actively embracing those who are “ours, even though they’re strange,” may be less valued.

2

J, not that one 10.03.21 at 1:06 pm

Sorry for the typos in the above, typing on a phone is annoying.

The important one seems to be “road” for “reliable.” Also “flexkd” should be “flexible.

3

hix 10.04.21 at 2:48 am

Nevermind such luxury proplems like avoiding racist remarks. My efforts to avoid unvaccinated people so far had little sucess both in village and town.
Still got to find any issue where village culture puts pressure on people to do anything usefull, like ah right getting vaccinated.
Or as die Antilopen put it, vilages are the center of evil: https://genius.com/Antilopen-gang-zentrum-des-bosen-lyrics

4

John Quiggin 10.04.21 at 3:24 am

Your original observation is consistent with my experience and doesn’t seem obviously controversial. In the past, the standard convention for gatherings larger than the nuclear family (where agreement on politics and religion was assumed, not always correctly) was “don’t discuss politics or religion at the dinner table”. That rule wasn’t always followed, though.

5

nastywoman 10.04.21 at 5:32 am

CB ‘observed that people in families or smaller communities are, as a condition of participating in many everyday social activities, under some pressure to be more tolerant of people with divergent moral, religious or political views to their own than are people in large communities or networks such as cities or the internet’.

But I observed that people in families or smaller communities (in the UK – Germany and the US) are, as a condition of participating in many everyday social activities, under some pressure to be less tolerant of people with divergent moral, religious or political views to their own than are people in large communities or networks such as cities but NOT the internet.

As some parts of the Internet have become even more narrow-minded as even the utmost narrow-minded ‘Zentren des Bösen’ as quoted by @3 Hix.

On the other hand I have observed small Italian Hilltowns where so to say – ‘society works in the most magical non social media way’ BUT on the other way London is really a tremendously diverse and open-minded huge city – with all it’s multi cultural and multi-national people – BUT enjoyful family dinners in small Italian Hilltowns could be far more enjoyful.

6

Michael Newsham 10.04.21 at 5:55 am

They are only “more tolerant of people with divergent moral, religious or political views to their own” when those people keep such opinions to themselves and don’t try to upset the social apple-cart. Christians and Hindus in Pakistan, Muslims, Christians and Untouchables in India, Baptists in Russia, atheists in small town America, Christians and Muslims in China, African-Americans in the segegationist South -tolerated?

7

Chetan Murthy 10.04.21 at 6:04 am

Chris, John,

Idunno. First, “J” has it right: small towns (at least, in the US) were cesspits of crushing enforcement of conformity, and hence exclusion of those who did not. They were also pretty feudal: you’d better know your place in the hierarchy. Families ….. ugh. Sure, I’ll go so far as “everybody tried to fit into the norm.” But once upon a time extended families did their utmost to prevent their female members from divorcing no matter the circumstances, to prevent their non-gender-conforming children from coming out, using whatever means they thought appropriate. And hell, forget about miscegenation! They were the norm-enforcement mechanisms of those same small towns.

If, today, that’s starting to change, if there is dispute over “politics”, it’s because finally those women, those non-conforming children, are able to live somewhat more freely, and racist Uncle Hank is being shushed. He never was shushed before: he was the patriarch and his word was law.

How anybody can see this history as “under some pressure to be more tolerant of people with divergent moral, religious or political views to their own” [until the very recent past], I can’t see. Maybe what you mean is that within families, the changing of times and social mores is happening without the strife we see in larger groupings (like cities and states). I might believe that: that Crazy Uncle Hank is willing to wave his Gestation Slaver flag and picket the local abortion clinic, but when it comes to his own family, he’ll keep his mouth shut when they live their lives. Sure, I guess I can see that. That change is pretty fricken’ recent.

But those freedoms were hard-fought, and that fight goes on every day. I know a gay friend whose father never accepted him as gay. Not in his whole adult life, and even now as his father declines into senility.

8

Chris Bertram 10.04.21 at 6:29 am

Curious fact about comments so far: the concentration on how smaller communities are often oppressive to minorities – a fact I don’t deny – and a lack of attention to how the dynamics of small or large groups affect how you as an individual behave. Where exit is costly or hard, we you to use voice, but, as everywhere, it is sometimes costly to do so, so you make accommodations to the fact you have to rub along with others for practical purposes. Some of that accommodation is good, some of it not. But you all do it, don’t you?

9

Chetan Murthy 10.04.21 at 6:42 am

Chris, throughout American history up until maybe a decade or two ago, “you make accommodations to the fact you have to rub along with others for practical purposes” was something that only women, minorities, gender non-conforming people did. The ones that fit the norm never did it: they brutally enforced their norms on everybody else.

Maybe you’re saying that when you can’t escape, you learn how to blend in, you become a chameleon? I mean,that’s true, but also pretty anodyne. I know two gay men who each found girlfriends as beards in HS and college: so much, so banal, really. I adopted a thick, thick Texas accent that lasted until 4yr into grad school (in upstate NY).

Lots of us do things to not be noticed by the bigots: that’s not news. And we find that moving to more-accepting areas, where bigotry is less-tolerated, allows us to breathe free and not have to do those things. So on the streets and trains and buses of San Francisco, I see gay couples canoodling like in any Doisneau portrait. Again, that’s not news, is it?

10

Chris Bertram 10.04.21 at 7:19 am

@chetan Not everything has to be related to US experience and US history, as if the US were a scale-model of universal human experience. And although the dynamics I’m talking about can be extremely pernicious for minorities, given inequalities in power, I rather doubt that the phenomenon of adaptation is limited only to them. There are no really significant costs I would bear from refusing to engage with some of the people I do in fact engage with. The only costs involve a loss of a few pleasant opportunities to hang out. And yet, given that there are fewer human beings that I could hang out with, I find myself hanging out with people with whom I wouldn’t hang out in a big city.

11

nastywoman 10.04.21 at 10:02 am

and about:
‘And yet, given that there are fewer human beings that I could hang out with, I find myself hanging out with people with whom I wouldn’t hang out in a big city’.

So to come up with ‘a fairly banal sociological observation’ – I (ME) hang out mainly with ‘multiracial openminded people being in big cities or even in small Italian Hilltowns with the exception that in small Italian Hilltown there tend to be no ‘multiracial’ people but sometimes ‘pretty joyful tolerant’ if you speak Italian – and only if you speak their language…

12

nastywoman 10.04.21 at 10:07 am

ON THE OTHER HAND
there is!!!
‘Every posh person’s nightmare…

https://youtu.be/bHszbIHfkGM

13

nastywoman 10.04.21 at 10:13 am

WAIT!

I meant to post how Humans in a small UK town react to northern nanny’s –

https://youtu.be/g-BVgPeZR-Y

14

oldster 10.04.21 at 10:47 am

Chris, I get the sense from your responses that you do not dispute the oppressive effects of some small group environments. And those who bring them up are missing your point rather than disagreeing with you.
But I’m not yet sure what it would look like to agree with you.
Would agreement look like, “yes, some people do in fact do what you describe, in some situations some of the time”? If that counts as agreement, then I agree with you.

It seems a little odd to make a purely empirical observation, stringently non-normative, and then look for confirmation of it, but I suppose it’s not unparalleled (e.g. field notes: “I witnessed a Harris Hawk the other day eating a fish instead of its normal diet of rodents. Has anyone else seen fish-eating in the Harris hawk?”) You might want to find out how widespread the behavior is, or what circumstances trigger it.

On the other hand, people who say, “I do this. Don’t you?” are sometimes looking for justification of their conduct, rather than empirical confirmation, Perhaps that’s why so many of your readers are misunderstanding you?

15

hix 10.04.21 at 11:57 am

My choices are limited either way. Political disagreement is hardly an exclusion criteria, or at least it tends to overlap with other factors if the level is unbearable. The religious people tend to keep their religion sufficiently private (the odd extreme vegan left wing concpiracy theorist also falls into that category for me). The inequality lovers wont enter my world in the first place. That leaves the non outspoken (likely) racist. Yes, i do keep up with it up to a point. The no-vax are another issue, since they are also a genuine personal risk for me.

16

Chris Bertram 10.04.21 at 12:05 pm

@oldster, I suppose I’m curious that some people seem threatened or offended by what seems to be a banal observation. I suppose it is because for many liberals who grew up in small places, “I couldn’t wait to get away from those people” is a powerful sentiment and they took my banal observation to be critical of their exit, which it wasn’t.

17

J-D 10.04.21 at 12:34 pm

Where exit is costly or hard, we you to use voice, but, as everywhere, it is sometimes costly to do so, so you make accommodations to the fact you have to rub along with others for practical purposes. Some of that accommodation is good, some of it not. But you all do it, don’t you?

Do I? I’m not sure that I do. What tests might I apply to my remembered experiences?

18

J, not that one 10.04.21 at 12:39 pm

Chris, your observation does not strike me as obviously true. It wouldn’t have been true in England in 1800. Has something changed between then and now? Has it changed universally, or in only a few places?

The only way I can make sense of it, taken literally, is that people in small towns are more accepting of hierarchy and of identity that’s imposed by the community instead of the individual. So unless they tend to be the more powerful one in most social interactions, they know how to perform a subordinate social role and agree to do it in order to participate.

Or it’s an ideological stance based on ideal types of small town and city life, and it would not be surprising for Twitter to push back and say “my experience does not match that.”

19

oldster 10.04.21 at 1:42 pm

“…they took my banal observation to be critical…”

Ah, right. I assumed that the animus behind responses came from the suspicion that you were trying to justify your own behavior, but it could equally well come, as you say, from the suspicion that you are trying to criticize the behavior of others.

You have mentioned that one source of dudgeon is a confusion between descriptive and normative claims. Looks like another source is inattention to the difference between “some” and “all”? As in, “some people do this” vs. “all people do this”?

20

Derek Bowman 10.04.21 at 4:18 pm

I’m surprised that you were surprised, and I’m even more surprised that you continue to be surprised. You say this was a purely descriptive claim, but of course ‘tolerance’ is often thought to be an important value, so it’s natural to think that descriptions of one environment being more conducive to tolerance as at least pointing to a normative desirable feature of such situations.

But I think you’ve fundamentally missed the ways in which the counternarratives of those who were alienated from and/or left such families and communities presents a fundamental challenge to even the purely descriptive content of your claim. You claim that families and small communities are characterized by increased pressure towards tolerance. But the marginalized people who didn’t experience tolerance in those environments are presenting counter-evidence. It rather seems the pressure you’ve identified is disjunctive: such communities pressure one to choose among (a) tolerance, (b) suppression of difference, or (c) exclusion.

You experience this disjunction only as pressure for the first disjunct because, presumably, you don’t have enough social power for (b) are are not in a sufficiently large majority/plurality that would allow (c). But members of political, religious, or other identitarian majorities often are in a position to enact some combination of (b) and (c), thus exempting them from any pressure toward tolerance, which explains the experience of those who didn’t find themselves tolerated in such communities. But yes, they certainly felt a lot of pressure to tolerate those who were oppressing, marginalizing, or excluding them. What a banal observation indeed.

21

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.04.21 at 6:35 pm

“…the concentration on how smaller communities are often oppressive to minorities – a fact I don’t deny…”

What’s the meaning of “oppressive” here? Is it some newspeak meaning, or do they, villagers, actually oppress people? Like cannibal hillbillies in horror movies. And if I’ve been oppressed but failed to notice it, I’d like to know.

22

Chetan Murthy 10.04.21 at 6:43 pm

Chris,

OK, as a purely descriptive statement, it’s certainly true. But also, people have known this, and been talking about it, for decades. There are a legion of books written by people who grew up in oppressive small towns and then escaped to more accepting environments. There’s even a movement (in the US) with the catch-phrase “It Gets Better”, telling kids that, well, what it says on the can.

I guess I don’t see wherein lies the newness of this observation? Yeah, if I were forced to live in a small town I’d probably have to swallow my bile a lot, too. And I fully expect that the local patriarch would not. So much, so banal.

23

Tm 10.04.21 at 7:44 pm

« I observed that people in families or smaller communities are, as a condition of participating in many everyday social activities, under some pressure to be more tolerant of people with divergent moral, religious or political views to their own than are people in large communities or networks such as cities or the internet. »

I grew up in a small village. Not 1000-5000 “small town”, but 150 people small village. I think your observation is empirically totally false, and it’s obvious to anybody with intimate knowledge of small communities that it is false. I could give details if you’re really interested.

Perhaps, though, the issue is with how you define “tolerance “. Tolerance literally just means “we shall suffer your presence, we’ll leave you alone and won’t hurt you as long as you follow the rules we set up”; in the original sense, it emphatically doesn’t imply accepting the other as equal. In modern parlance, though, we usually understand tolerance more in the latter sense. So there is some ambiguity there. But even if tolerance is understood in a weak sense, I doubt that large communities are less tolerant of difference than small ones. It seems that what you perceive as intolerance in large cities is simply the tendency to not interact with people perceived as different. But that is totally different from intolerance.

24

Tm 10.04.21 at 8:12 pm

Lest my last paragraph is misunderstood: the avoidance of interaction happens in small communities as well. One may not be able to avoid a neighbor altogether but one doesn’t have to talk to them. And the avoidance doesn’t even have to be intentional. In a community where religion is very important, people automatically interact mainly with their coreligionists. I understand that CB doesn’t have much experience with that kind of community, but this is how they work.

The most important aspect I think is that diversity tends to be very small to begin with in a small, traditional community, and the pressure to conform is very high. Think of a rural community that votes 95% Trump and talk about tolerance for diversity.

25

KT2 10.05.21 at 2:53 am

I’m hopeful Chris, you are going to apply for a whopping grant to test “Group size and tolerating those with whom we disagree” and its many potential quirks, such as Kahneman and Tversky TomW studies –  base rate vs  similarlity group probability uses in decisions. And common vs rare event / symptom. To convince ‘us’ to, as you said Chris; “put people in different circumstances with others with whom they disagree and they will find ways to rub along and communicate, with a mix of challenge and restraint.”
*

“Representativeness Heuristic”, under the “Biases attributed to the representativeness heuristic” tab. As it says, a new model is needed.

…” Groups have been found to neglect base rate more than individuals do.[19] Use of base rates differs based on context.[20] Research on use of base rates has been inconsistent, with some authors suggesting a new model is necessary.[21]”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Representativeness_heuristic

“Individual versus group use of base-rate and individuating information

Linda Argote
Linda Dyer

Abstract
“This study compared individual and group use of base-rate and individuating information. Individuals and five-person groups were presented with base-rate information and with individuating information and were asked to judge probabilities. Results indicate that groups report relying on the individuating information significantly more and on the base rate significantly less than individuals. The probability judgments of groups are more sensitive to subjects’ beliefs about what the individuating information sounds like than the judgments of individuals. There is some evidence that the probability judgments of groups are more extreme than those of individuals. Group discussion appears to amplify the tendency of individuals to judge by representativeness when assessing category membership.”

Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
Volume 38, Issue 1, August 1986, Pages 65-75
https://doi.org/10.1016/0749-5978(86)90026-9

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0749597886900269?via%3Dihub

[21]
“Problem structure and the use of base-rate information from experience

Abstract
“This article is concerned with the use of base-rate information that is derived from experience in classifying examples of a category. … For example, a symptom might be presented that had appeared with both a relatively common and a relatively rare disease. If participants are using base-rate information appropriately (according to Bayes’ theorem), then they should be more likely to predict that the common disease is present than that the rare disease is present on such ambiguous tests.

“Current classification models differ in their predictions concerning the use of base-rate information. For example, most prototype models imply an insensitivity to base-rate information, whereas many exemplar-based classification models predict appropriate use of base-rate information. The results reveal a consistent but complex pattern. Depending on the category structure and the nature of the ambiguous tests, participants use base-rate information appropriately, ignore base-rate information, or use base-rate information inappropriately (predict that the rare disease is more likely to be present). To our knowledge, no current categorization model predicts this pattern of results. To account for these results, a new model is described incorporating the ideas of property or symptom competition and context-sensitive retrieval.”

D L Medin et al. J Exp Psychol Gen. 1988 Mar.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2966231/

26

Sebastian H 10.06.21 at 7:55 am

I don’t remember who told me that in every family there is a favorite child, and if you don’t know it is, its you.

This seems to be relevant both to people who are ‘in the majority’ and never see the pressure others are under, but also people who think they have restricted themselves to ‘better’ circles. In whatever circle you’re travelling in, if you don’t think you need to censor yourself, its more likely that its because you’re in the group that’s causing the censorship than it is that the enforcement of censorship isn’t happening.

27

Saurs 10.07.21 at 7:44 am

Tolerant, nondenominational bless the commentariat here for giving more fair play and good faith than they’re getting from OP. Good to give him his rope and let him do with it what he may.

28

J-D 10.07.21 at 11:08 pm

I don’t remember who told me that in every family there is a favorite child, and if you don’t know it is, its you.

The important question isn’t who told you this, but rather whether it’s true. The fact that somebody told you so doesn’t automatically make it true.

29

J-D 10.07.21 at 11:10 pm

Tolerant, nondenominational bless the commentariat here for giving more fair play and good faith than they’re getting from OP. Good to give him his rope and let him do with it what he may.

I have no idea what this is a reference to, but it makes me want to put on record that I have no sense of (a) being denied fair play or good faith by Chris Bertram (b) giving Chris Bertram rope.

30

Sebastian H 10.08.21 at 3:20 am

JD it’s an insight into the fact that judging privilege is more difficult if you’re one of the privileged . Speaking of standpoint, it feels like even when I make a bog standard leftist observation you disagree because of my name.

31

J-D 10.08.21 at 11:48 am

JD it’s an insight into the fact that judging privilege is more difficult if you’re one of the privileged . Speaking of standpoint, it feels like even when I make a bog standard leftist observation you disagree because of my name.

Maybe the way it felt to you was that all you had done was make the observation that judging privilege is more difficult if you’re one of the privileged. If that’s the way you wanted it to feel to me, what you should have written was:

Judging privilege is more difficult if you’re one of the privileged.

I don’t know what effect you were trying to achieve by writing something else, but now you know what effect you actually did have on me with your technique. If you don’t want to have that kind of effect on me, change your technique! (If you don’t want to know what effect you have on me, you can just stop reading my comments. There’s a large fraction of comments here that I don’t read because I’ve found there’s no value for me in reading what those commenters write, and judging by results I recommend the practice. So long as you’re reading my comments, either you’re getting something out of the experience or you’re not, and if you’re reading my comments and getting nothing from the experience, I’m not sure that’s my fault.)

32

Kiwanda 10.08.21 at 5:23 pm

Sebastian H:

I don’t remember who told me that in every family there is a favorite child, and if you don’t know it is, its you.

J-D:

The important question isn’t who told you this, but rather whether it’s true. The fact that somebody told you so doesn’t automatically make it true.

Sorry, Sebastian, I’m 100% with J-D on this: it could be true, but then again, it might not be. I’ll be bold, and make the stronger general claim: some statements are true, but then again, some are false.

33

Sebastian H 10.08.21 at 10:09 pm

It isn’t like I left you with no clue as to what I meant.

“In whatever circle you’re travelling in, if you don’t think you need to censor yourself, its more likely that its because you’re in the group that’s causing the censorship than it is that the enforcement of censorship isn’t happening.”

My anecdote was offered for color and amusement, not as if it were a peer reviewed study. Disagree with my point. Or agree with my point. Or whatever you want. But don’t pretend you don’t know how to read. Sheesh.

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