This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

October 28, 2010 - accidental extremism on the rise

Years ago, I lived in a small Arizona town. A guy at the local watering hole told me that radio played a big role in his life. "We get both kinds of music now," he said proudly. "... country AND western."

That old joke captures a lot of what I heard in a recent talk by John Creighton (johncr8on.com). He was speaking to a group of librarians about various trends in our society. One of those trends was something he called "accidental extremism."

According to Creighton, people tend to put themselves in the middle of groups. Few of us set out to live on the fringe. But in the age of talk radio, in the age of niche television programming, in the age of the Internet, it's much easier to find people who share the same general mindset.

For instance, conservatives listen to Rush, and watch Fox News. (Incidentally, I was just reading about FOX News. Back in February 2003, they appealed a previous court decision awarding damages to reporters Fox fired because they refused to run false reports. According to a report by one Mike Gaddy, Fox lawyers "asserted that there are no written rules against distorting news in the media. They argued that, under the First Amendment, broadcasters have the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on public airwaves." The Florida Court of Appeals agreed with them: it's legal to lie. I guess that's true, too. But it's hardly "fair and balanced.")

Of course, the trend of selective media consumption, and of overt political bias, is not unique to conservatives. It applies to liberals and libertarians, to Green Party and Tea Party activists.

The point is that, over time, we stop hearing from people who don't already agree with us. And in the narrow world we inhabit, opinions that might have looked pretty "out there" a few years ago suddenly seem perfectly normal. We might still be in the middle of our group, but that group has itself strayed from the ever-elusive "mainstream America."

And there we are: accidental extremists.

I think Creighton is right. Speaking as a librarian, I can tell you that very few people seek out perspectives that challenge their fundamental beliefs. Rather, we read things that reinforce them. It feels good to be right.

And boy, can we get mad when we run across something that reinforces another group's beliefs!

But one of the most fundamental mistakes of predicting the future is the notion that a trend will continue forever. One might look at the trend of accidental extremism and say, "this leads to anarchy." We will inevitably splinter into ever smaller and weirder groups, which themselves will get ever more righteous and angry and insular.

But everything changes. At some point, the forces that drive those trends, whether welcome or worrisome, just give out. There is a rhythm to social forces. Some push us apart. Others pull us together.

To every trend there is a counter-trend. I'd be interested to hear from people about trends that actually bring people together across lines that previously divided them. If you know of any, send them to me at jlarue at jlarue.com. I'll summarize them in this column.

Hint: it ISN'T country western music. Not to those of us raised on Motown.

LaRue's Views are his own.


  1. NPR just fired principled liberal Juan Williams for saying something he sincerely felt. What he said was much more tame than the comments of many other NPR talking heads. Are those who listen/watch only to NPR news reports likely to become accidental extremists? If all they hear is the left-leaning politically correct NPR view of the world, they will prove your point.

  2. Yeah, I think NPR was wrong to do that. His comments - that seeing people in Arab dress on a plane made him nervous - were hardly a firing offense.

    I have a much higher opinion of NPR's news credibility than I do of Fox's, to be honest. But yes, listening to one news source only, whether on the left or right, leads to the same thing.

  3. I've been reading Bill Bishop's "The Big Sort" (available at DC Libraries...er, when I check it back in!), which describes the big picture of what you've addressed here: America (and the world) has been self-sorting folks into like-minded groups, neighborhoods and communities, even entire cities, since the mid-1960s. We'd rather live with, vote with and talk with folks who are "more like us" in terms of politics, philosophy, religion, hobbies, economic status, family values and more...

    And, although some dimensions of this self-sorting can lead to more-or-less racially homogeneous communities, race no longer seems to be a predominant sort-driving factor, even among so-called "red-necked conservatives."

    There's been a lot of research on how we've been sorting ourselves out over the past 1/2-century, by folks like Richard Florida, Robert Cushing, Bishop, and many more... Understanding this rather recent human phenomenon, and how it's driven by fundamentals of economics, jobs, education, religion/beliefs/values and more, is actually rather important to comprehending, and even contributing effectively, to what's going on in our communities today.