Examining reactions to the Rittenhouse verdict through the lens of political polarization

The following is a transcript of the audio from this podcast episode.

Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. This is a podcast about better understanding people and why they behave they way they do. You can learn more about it at www.behavior-podcast.com.

There’s no guest on this episode; it’ll just be me talking about the immense anger I see from some liberals on the Rittenhouse verdict and how I see that relating to the topic of us-vs-them political polarization.

To give you an example of the kinds of emotional and extreme responses I see, I’ll share a couple.

Someone I know shared this take:

White America is sick to its core. I want to believe we can do better, but then a murderous white boy with an assault weapon is set free (and celebrated) (again) and I can’t imagine where we go from here but further down down down. Kyle Rittenhouse is a cold blooded murderer. And our “justice” system let him go free and congratulated him.

This person also shared what I’m pretty sure is fake, distorted news that the judge had hugged Rittenhouse and called him “a good boy.” I think that originated from a The Daily Show bit, from what I can tell from a quick search.

Colin Kaepernick tweeted the following:

We just witnessed a system built on white supremacy validate the terroristic acts of a white supremacist. This only further validates the need to abolish our current system. White supremacy cannot be reformed.

I’ll talk more about that take later in the episode, but those two examples should give you an idea of the kinds of outrage I’m talking about and why I wanted to make this episode.

If you’ve listened to this podcast, you know I focus a good amount on polarization and the psychology behind it. I’ve interviewed a lot of researchers and experts on polarization-related topics; if that interests you, check out my site for a compilation of all the politics-related episodes. If you’re someone who hears about polarization and thinks “why do people always talk about that; clearly one side is horrible, so it makes sense that we’re polarized”; if you think that, there’s an episode with a well known polarization researcher explaining why polarization is a big problem, and how it’s happened in many other countries, and how the U.S. is not unique at all.

Why do I think talking about this is important?

I wanted to do this episode because I thought the high emotions around the Rittenhouse verdict might be useful for examining how us-vs-them polarization plays a role in what people are feeling, how they’re reacting. This episode is focused on what I see as unreasonable emotions and beliefs that liberals had about the verdict. This is not because I am giving conservatives a pass or think that there’s nothing to talk about on that side; clearly there is. It’s simply because my audience is primarily on the liberal side politically, and one of my main goals in talking about polarization is to help more people see how us-vs-them feelings affect their thinking and reactions; That unreasonable us-vs-them filtering is not only something the “other side” does, but something many people are doing, even if you believe the other side is way worse. Put another way: if I had a mainly conservative audience, I’d be talking about bad us-vs-them framing on the conservative side.

Our political anger is not nearly as much about the issues as we seem to think it is; that it is much more about our emotions, our us-vs-them framings. As Anne Applebaum put it in an Atlantic article of hers: “America’s left and right are radicalizing each other.” The rest of us are mainly along for this ride, trying our best to make sense of things. Along the way, we filter out or give a pass to the bad ideas and behavior of people on our side, while we view the bad ideas and bad behavior of people on the other side through the worst possible lens. We view the other side as a monolithic mass, mostly all as bad as the worst people in their group, while we view our side as full of individuals with a spectrum of diverse ideas and opinions, some right and some wrong. We increasingly view all hot button topics as being very simple to understand, with right and wrong stances clearly defined; we ignore the truth that most topics are very complex with a lot of gray area.

So I feel compelled to try to do my best to draw attention to the problem. In the hopes that more people start to understand what the core problems are. In the hopes that more people will decide to work against simplistic, divisive narratives and aim for more nuance. Because that is how we will avoid worst-case outcomes in this country: by more people aiming for nuance. To quote Carey Callahan, who I interviewed on this podcast about trans issues and the polarization around that: “The complexity of the truth is inconvenient for both sides.”

To be clear; examining polarization as our core problem doesn’t mean you have to think both sides are equally bad, or equally at fault. I think this is a common misperception that people have that prevents them from being willing to think about polarization problems. Seeing polarization as the core problem is not a “both-sides” argument. It certainly doesn’t require you to stop fighting for what you believe in or criticizing bad behavior of people on the other side.

Examining polarization as the core problem is simply about noticing how we are all humans reacting to things around us; we are all humans being affected by the us-vs-them narratives around us; it is about realizing how these us-vs-them dynamics get amplified and spread by many people from across the political spectrum. It’s seeing things at an individual human level and not at a tribal, group level. It’s about recognizing the role that we ourselves may be playing in these dynamics and finding things we can do to help reduce our role in adding fuel to the fire and instead looking for opportunities to bring people together. It is about recognizing that people on the so-called “the other side” are responding to the bad, divisive ideas of some people on your side in the same way that you’re responding to the bad, divisive ideas of people on the other side.

It is about recognizing that perhaps instead of traveling in the same path-of-least-resistance us-vs-them ruts we’ve been in, which may lead us to destruction, maybe we need to start criticizing and pushing back on the divisive people around us who promote us-vs-them narratives, whether they’re on our side or not, and maybe we need to start rewarding and honoring the people who speak in more humane, persuasive, and bridge-building ways. Because anyone who’s spent time looking into polarization in a serious way will tell you: we all have much more in common than we think, and our anger is often based on distorted illusions.

Before we start

In this episode, we’ll be examining the outrage that many liberals have about this, and examine how some of that anger may be due not to the case itself, or to Rittenhouse himself, but to the perception that this is the current arena where our us-vs-them battles are being fought. This is not to say that there are no valid reasons to be upset about the Rittenhouse verdict, but I do want to examine exactly why there is so much emotion and anger about it.

I predict if you’re someone who’s outraged about the Rittenhouse verdict, you’ll have an urge to turn off this episode fairly quickly. You may be so upset that you’ll never listen to me again. But if you do want this country to heal, if you do want us to avoid worst case scenarios, I’d ask you to please give it a listen, to see if you find a few tidbits of useful perspective in it. I’ve damaged relationships with liberal friends and family by talking about these topics. I lose some Twitter followers and podcast listeners when I talk about these topics. I may even be hurting my ability to make money in the future, time will tell. All of these outcomes are entirely common and expected results of attempts at bridge building and empathy in very polarized societies like ours. And that’s why so few people do it; the costs are simply too high. I’ve suffered to work on these things not because I enjoy any of this drama or alienation, but because I think these topics are really the most important things we could be talking about right now. So Id’ just ask that even if you do find some of my thoughts stupid or out of touch, please give it a listen. And hopefully you can cut me a little slack along the way because I wrote this in just a few hours, and it’s nearly impossible to talk about such tough, controversial topics accurately and persuasively 100% of the time. I wish I had more hours in the day to devote to this stuff.

If you’re listening to this and you’re politically conservative, hopefully you’re willing to examine similar divisive dynamics on the conservative side. Hopefully you won’t just enjoy this episode as fun liberal-bashing but will try to self-examine how similar things are true of your side. I hope you’ll end up agreeing with me that pushing back against bad, us-vs-them thinking within one’s own political group is one of the most important things we could be doing right now.

The legal aspects

So let’s start with asking: why are so many liberal people so angry about this case?

Is it the verdict itself? Do liberals believe that Rittenhouse should have been found guilty? Do they believe the verdict was unjust? Let’s leave aside Rittenhouse’s character or motivations, let’s leave aside gun laws you may think are bad and idiotic. Let’s just focus on the verdict and if it made sense from a legal perspective.

There are many pieces online you can find talking about how legal experts found the verdict unsurprising and expected. In short: Rittenhouse was able to have those guns, and he had a strong self-defense case. To quote from a recent NPR article:

I think that anyone who saw the evidence could see that the jury might have a difficult time coming to a unanimous decision that Kyle Rittenhouse wasn’t defending himself,” said Julius Kim, a defense attorney and former prosecutor based in the Milwaukee area.

Another quote from that:

Some of the video footage, some of the still frame shots appeared to support the self-defense claim,” said Chris Zachar, a criminal defense attorney based in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Another quote:

The state has to prove that Kyle Rittenhouse provoked the attack by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And so, the question is: If everyone in that courtroom is still not sure, if the judge wasn’t sure, then how are 12 jurors going to be sure?” said Kim.

That’s just from one article. There are many more. Based on the little I’d read about the case, I would have been surprised if Rittenhouse had been been found guilty.

All this is a way of saying that it can be seen as correct that Rittenhouse was acquitted. Correct in the sense that it made sense legally. You may find it upsetting, or believe that the laws should be different, but that’s not how court cases work. They attempt to apply the existing laws to the existing situation.

Or maybe you believe that the prosecutors should have tried the case differently, and gone for lesser charges. So maybe you have some anger at the prosecution, but I think no matter what: Rittenhouse had a strong self defense case.

Another source of anger seems to be about our gun laws. I’ve seen people express anger that someone could go out to a high conflict area with a gun and kill people and face no legal repercussions. But if the law says what he did was legal, that is a statement on the law. That anger can be seen as directed at the law. But we all know our gun laws are very lax in America. I can understand being angry about our gun laws; our country’s perverse relationship with guns has made me seriously consider moving overseas, not even taking into account our other problems. But obviously that is a frustration that is much broader than the Rittenhouse case; anger at our gun laws doesn’t explain why a lot of anger is aimed at Rittenhouse himself or the verdict itself.

One reaction I’ve seen from outraged people is that this case sets a bad precedent. That it shouldn’t have happened because it will cause more people to go out with guns. That may very well be, but even if you see that as a bad thing, that is unrelated to what the verdict should rightfully have been. Juries and judges don’t make decisions based on the message they’ll send to society; they make decisions based on what the existing laws are and try to reach justice for the person being tried.

Another common reaction I’ve seen is that if he were black, he would have been convicted. This is pure speculation; personally I don’t believe that’s true; let’s imagine it was a young black man who did the exact same thing Rittenhouse did; a young black Trump supporter, with all the other elements the same. I think it’s probable he also would have been acquitted, simply because the legal lines were pretty clear, as they were in this case.

But let’s say the idea of racial injustice in the legal system is one thing that makes you angry. That is unrelated to this court case. That is something you could just as easily be mad about for any number of court cases that have happened in the past or going on right now. Put another way: it’s not very logical to think that Rittenhouse should have been convicted because you believe a black person in his position would have been falsely convicted. (There will be more on ‘white supremacy’ allegations later in this episode.)

Obviously I can’t get into all the legal details here; you may still have reasons you believe the verdict was unfair. But I’d say that, even if you think that: you should find the verdict unsurprising. For the simple reason that our legal system is built upon human fallibility. Our jury system is built on an idea that it’s preferred that many guilty people should go free before a single innocent person is ever convicted. So in that sense, how can we be outraged when people we expect to be convicted are not? Human justice is always fallible, jury systems are fallible; their verdicts are subject to randomness and initial conditions. Expecting court cases to go the way you want them to I’d suggest is immature. This is not to say you can’t be mad about badness and injustice in our criminal system, but I’m simply saying that if you examine any court case, you’ll probably find a lot to object to, because human justice is messy, all the people involved are imperfect and make mistakes. It’s a messy business.

And also: it’s very hard to make comparisons between court cases. I see many liberals hold up two slightly similar court cases and point at different results, as if that comparison proves systemic racism, or proves injustice. But obviously it’s hard to find two cases that are exactly the same, and laws differ in different areas, and what prosecutors choose to prosecute differ, and how juries deliberate is subject to randomness and noise. In short; these things are massively complicated, and holding up two slightly similar court cases and saying “see, this shows how broken the system is” is simplistic and immature. Again, this is not to say that injustices don’t exist; it’s merely to say that you need more than weak comparisons or speculations about what you think would have happened.

Is the anger due to thinking that Rittenhouse is a bad person?

So let’s leave aside the verdict and its correctness or incorrectness for now. A lot of the anger from liberals is about how Rittenhouse is a horrible person, maybe even a monster. A lot of the anger seems to be around an idea that Rittenhouse represents everything bad they see about the right: their love for guns, their hatred for liberal protesters, their violence.

I’d propose that such outrage is simplistic, that it doesn’t match the complexity of the situation, that it is similar to Trump supporters who take a single incident involving the bad behavior of a far left activist and use that as the representative symbol of everything they are fighting against.

Let’s leave aside any objections you might have now, like “clearly their side is worse because of x”. We’re examining how the us-vs-them feelings are similar, at an individual level, and how we tend to bring a lot of our team-based fury with us to incidents, and how that causes us to distort our perceptions.

So let’s try to imagine a political mirror image of the Rittenhouse situation. Let’s imagine a situation where a racial justice protester was in a similar situation to Rittenhouse and ended up killing some people in Kenosha. Let’s imagine it went down like this: a protester had gone out with a gun on the night of the Kenosha protests and riots, because he wanted to quote “protect his fellow protesters from fascists.”

If you weren’t aware, there have been quite a few far-left people open-carrying guns at these events. I mention that just in case you think what I’m proposing would be an unusual event.

I’ll quote from a Seattle Times article about a Portland protest in November of 2020:

While others chanted, a young man stood quietly at the edge of the group of protesters gathered near a river-side park with a semi-automatic rifle strapped across his chest. The man said he had grown up with firearms and in recent weeks decided it was time to carry one to the Portland protests. “In our hometown, we need to take care of our community,” said the man who declined to give his name. The man is one of a small cadre of left-wing protesters who on Tuesday and Wednesday were openly carrying weapons as they pulled security duty on the perimeters of marches through Portland.

In Seattle, during the time left wing people had taken over an area around a police station, some people were open carrying there too. Some people were shot and killed. And you probably remember the militant antifa person who shot and killed a Trump supporter in Portland, Oregon.

So back to our imagined story: let’s say this imagined young protester was traveling around with a group of protesters. And this group had thrown a brick into a shop. Shortly after that, the young man became involved in a physical fight with a shop owner. The shop owner physically attacked the young man, the video showed that pretty clearly, and the young man ended up shooting and killing the shop owner and his friend.

During the trial, a video was submitted for evidence that showed the young man, a couple weeks before the incident, telling his friend “Bro, I’d love an excuse to shoot some fascists.” The young man’s lawyers were successful in getting that stricken as evidence from the trial, with the argument that people say all sorts of angry things they don’t mean when they’re venting or showing off, and that nothing in the young man’s past indicated that he was violent or intended violence on the night of the incident, that it was a case of just things going wrong and escalating, that it was all an unintended tragedy, and that, at the end of the day, the young man had been attacked first and defended himself.

After this young man was acquitted, conservative news pundits made confident speculations about the case, like “If this had been a Trump supporter who’d done this, they would have wrongly convicted him and ruined his life, because the liberal-leaning court system is rigged against conservatives right now, as we’ve seen from other high -profile court cases recently.” Liberals might rightfully scoff at such “we’re being victimized” narratives that are based on purely speculative narratives.

Or let’s say this analogy isn’t direct enough. Because it’s of course hard to make exact analogies. Let’s say it was a far left activist with a gun who traveled to what was expected to be a wild, out of control conservative protest in Virginia because he wanted to protect “vulnerable people” from quote “rightwing nuts.” And let’s say that ended with him getting attacked by conservative protesters and shooting some of them.

If you’re a liberal who’s outraged about the Rittenhouse verdict, I’m curious: what would your feelings be about those other cases? If those people had been acquitted, would you be as angry about that situation as you are about Rittenhouse being acquitted?

I would propose that you wouldn’t be as upset about those other cases, and that’s because you view Rittenhouse as “the bad guy” in this. I would propose that the outrage you feel about Rittenhouse is because you are harnessing all the anger you have about Trump supporters and bringing it to bear on this case, that your feelings from outside the case are impinging on this case. That Rittenhouse is simply the latest representation of what you hate about the right, in a similar way that bad liberal behavior is held up by people on the right and made to seem the representative thing they’re fighting against.

But wait, you may be saying: influential conservatives are holding up Rittenhouse as a hero. This is in no way equivalent because influential liberals don’t hold up far left people who kill people as heroes. And to that I’d say: if those kinds of points are reasons you are angry about this case, you are bringing in aspects that aren’t related to this case. In other words: if part of your anger about the Rittenhouse verdict is how he is being treated as a hero by the right, and about how bad and extreme conservatives as a whole are, you are bringing outside and unrelated anger to the case. Because none of those kinds of points pertain to whether Rittenhouse should be acquitted or not. It is a different topic.

Is Rittenhouse a monster?

Maybe a good place to pivot now would be to explain why I don’t view Rittenhouse as a monster. Or at least why I have no good reason to think he is one. Why I see what happened as entirely to be expected given the highly polarized state of our country, the destabilizing impacts of violent riots, the ubiquity of guns, our gun culture, and other factors.

To start with: it’s entirely expected bad things will happen at violent riots. Did you know that 19 people were killed during the U.S. George Floyd-related protests and riots? Wikipedia has a good summary of those incidents.

I’ll read from a Guardian article about a few of these incidents:

In Louisville, the photographer Tyler Gerth was shot and killed at a downtown park where protesters gathered. The alleged shooter, Steven Nelson Lopez, was homeless and had a history of severe mental illness, and had reportedly been asked to leave the park earlier because of his behavior. Many of the protesters in the park were armed and on edge, and returned fire when Lopez started shooting, local news outlets reported.

Another one:

Las Vegas police officer Shay Mikalonis was shot in the head during the protest, and reportedly remains paralyzed from the injury.

From another part of the article:

Other law enforcement officers have been injured in non-fatal shootings this year, including two Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies shot in Compton while sitting in their patrol car in mid-September, and two Louisville police officers shot in late September during a protest over the lack of serious charges against police officers in Breonna Taylor’s killing.

Is the Rittenhouse incident any more or less horrible or tragic than the many violent things that have happened during those protests and riots? Is the Rittenhouse incident more horrible than any of the many violent interactions that happen at any time in this country or across the world?

Because many violent interactions are capable of being seen through an us-vs-them filter. To mention a few examples: the Portland antifa person who shot and killed the Trump supporter, or the George Zimmerman trial, or George Floyd’s death, or some of those 19 deaths from the George Floyd-related protests. There’s no shortage of deadly encounters that could be viewed and used as polarizing lightning rods, as anger-inducing representations of our national divides. And clearly, in many of those situations, people behaved badly, stupidly, or hatefully. But we live in a nation of 330 million people and we have a lot of us-vs-them anger, and we have a lot of poverty and a lot of mental stress and a lot of guns; and we’ve been existentially and financially destabilized by covid; are you surprised that we’ve got some bad things happen? Are you surprised that people are getting riled up in various ways? I’m certainly not. In fact, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more violent encounters. (Personally I think that can be seen as due to the ubiquity of video surveillance and smartphones, something I’ll be interviewing a criminology researcher about for the next episode.)

Let’s talk about Rittenhouse’s motivations: his righteous anger about the destructive riots that were happening at that time in Wisconsin. It’s entirely unsurprising to me that some people would be upset about all the rioting we’ve had in this country and want to stand up to that.

As a liberal-leaning resident of Portland, I’ve been disgusted and angry about the actions of militant antifa people and the destruction and chaos they’ve caused in my city. And it’s easy for me to imagine that anger through a more polarized lens; it’s easy for me to imagine being even more angry than I am now. It’s possible for me to imagine feeling that going out and protecting small businesses from chaos and destruction is a righteous and noble cause.

The inherent danger of militant protest behavior, and how it leads to so many bad outcomes and incidents, is one reason I interviewed a militant Portland antifa/BLM protester last year for my podcast; I was curious about what kinds of philosophies such people were using as justification for their bad behavior, and I wanted to highlight to more people just how illogical and dangerous such ideas and behaviors were, because that behavior largely seems to get a pass in liberal-leaning media; it surely isn’t as critically examined as conservative-side violence is.

During my interview with the militant antifa person, they defended physically fighting with cops and setting fires to buildings, said that he imagined a society without police, where citizens themselves police the streets with guns and enforce justice themselves. It was all pretty incomprehensible and idiotic to me. And as regards to their militant protesting actions: the lawless conditions that they create in the streets, however well meaning and noble they think it is, very predictably leads to bad things, including bad things that nobody sees coming. Bad things like Rittenhouse situations. Violent actions result in violent reactions. People will get in fights, people will die. Street violence leads to more political polarization, with each side becoming increasingly riled up about the violence; escalating street violence is a common pathway by which some countries have fallen apart. These people are playing with a dangerous fire they don’t realize the power of, in a similar way that Rittenhouse was playing with fire and likely didn’t realize how often his course of action would lead to unintended tragedy.

It is possible to see Rittenhouse’s motivations as noble; a motivation to protect against chaos and destruction. You may find such a view wrong and misguided, but all I’m saying is that it’s possible to see it through that lens. Just as it’s possible to see the motivations of racial justice protesters who go out with guns as noble when looked at through a certain lens. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with any of these people’s beliefs; I certainly don’t; it simply means being willing to try to see the things that are making them angry and not assigning the worst possible motivations to them. And that also means taking into account the very polarized dynamics of our country and the us-vs-them narratives that very influential people spread.

One popular meme making the rounds on this topic is a quote from the Daily Show host Trevor Noah. that quote goes:

Nobody drives into a city with guns because they love someone else’s business that much. That’s some bullshit. No one has ever thought ‘oh it’s my solemn duty to pick up a rifle and protect that TJ Maxx’. They do it because they’re hoping to shoot someone.

I see that as a very simplistic way to frame things. A conservative could just as easily say the same thing about a liberal activist who is carrying a gun. There are always ways to view anyone who brings a gun to an event as wanting to kill someone, to view it through a lens of “they wanted to hurt people” and not “they wanted to protect.”

Personally, I am willing to give people the benefit of the doubt until I know more; we live in confusing and high-emotion times. We have also been destabilized by covid and the associated stresses of the lockdowns.

To be clear here: my goal here is not to defend Rittenhouse’s decisions, no more than my goal is to defend leftist people who go out to such events with guns. All people who go out with guns should realize that things could end in tragedy, that the night could end with them having killed people they didn’t want to kill, or end with them being killed. As Johnny Cash knew: when you take your guns to town, bad shit can happen.

And it’s probably not a coincidence that this case involved a teenager; it’s perhaps no coincidence that older people who felt the same anger and frustration as Rittenhouse didn’t put themselves in the position Rittenhouse did; because they were more mature and realized things can easily go badly.

But let’s assume Rittenhouse is a bad person

But let’s say that you still think Rittenhouse is a bad person who deserves to be punished. And his badness is what angers you.

I’d ask: are you equally as mad about every violent behavior where a political us-vs-them motive might be seen to play a role. Have you been as equally angry about cases where far left people did violent things?

To take one example: are you aware of the case of William Van Spronson? He was a self-described antifa person who in the summer of 2019, in Tacoma Washington, attacked an ICE facility with a semi-automatic rifle and a propane tank bomb and who died by being shot by police. He was a far left terrorist.

He was a self-described antifa person who, in the summer of 2019, in Tacoma Washington, attacked an ICE facility carrying a semi-automatic rifle and attempting to explode a commercial-sized propane tank. He died by being shot by police.

To quote from a Washington Post piece about that:

“This could have resulted in the mass murder of staff and detainees housed at the facility, had he been successful at setting the tank ablaze,” Shawn Fallah, who heads U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Professional Responsibility, said in a statement.

I’d bet that if you’re outraged about Rittenhouse’s actions, there’s a good chance you’re not as outraged about Van Spronson. You may even intellectually recognize that Van Spronson’s motivations and decisions were much worse than Rittenhouse’s, even if he didn’t succeed in killing anyone, but maybe you’re still emotionally more disgusted by Rittenhouse. Maybe you’re searching for a reason for why your disgust at Rittenhouse makes sense. I’d humbly suggest the reason you’re so much more viscerally disgusted by Rittenhouse, despite Rittenhouse being a much more sympathetic person than many far left extremists I could name, is because of political polarization.

There’s a very good chance you’ve never even heard about that Van Spronson person and what he did. I myself hadn’t heard of him at all until a few minutes ago, when I was researching far left extremism. And I think that says a lot about what gets attention in the liberal-leaning mainstream media and a lot about what drives the perceptions of many people on the left. Because I have no doubt if a far right person had attacked an organization with guns and a bomb as Van Spronson did, I would have known a good amount about it. Often, liberal-leaning mainstream media will even present excuses for far left extremism. In an NPR article about Van Spronson, a person named Mark Bray, who’s a professor and who writes about the antifa movement, argued that quote “it’s unfair to lump militants like van Spronsen into the terrorism category without a discussion of the violent ideologies they were targeting. Antifascists, Bray said, aren’t the ones going on hate-fueled rampages.” end quote.

Here are some other examples of far left extremist violence: there was James Hodgkinson, who in 2017 shot five GOP Congressman in DC because he was so angry politically.

Then there are what the FBI calls Black Identity Extremists. A 2018 report about extremisms lists six attacks by black identity extremists since 2014, including Micah Johnson, the Dallas shooter who killed five police officers in July 2016, and Gavin Eugene Long, the Baton Rouge shooter who killed three officers 10 days later.

My point is: If Rittenhouse’s actions disgust you and outrage you, I hope you are also disgusted by the kinds of far left incidents I’ve named. Hopefully much more outraged by those incidents because those few I’ve named are much more disturbing and vile.

I’m mentioning all this not to try to compare far left or far right extremism body counts. It’s known that far right extremism has resulted in a lot more people killed than far left extremism.

But personally I think such numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s possible to see left-associated protests and riots as part of this equation of chaos.

I don’t watch much TV at all, but one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in this regard was John Oliver’s episode about George Floyd protests, where he essentially promoted a ‘burn it all down’ perspective. When you look into police violence and the research about it, you’ll find that it’s a tremendously complex topic; there is simply no strong evidence that racism plays a big role in killings by police, that it is much more about socioeconomic status and the high crime areas that police end up policing more. As someone who has looked at the research a good deal, partly in preparation for interviews I’ve done with a retired police captain, I personally think that our country’s huge number of guns is the main culprit here, in how the lurking threat of guns escalates every encounter cops have.

But the role of guns wasn’t mentioned in John Oliver’s episode, at least I don’t remember it being highlighted. He didn’t talk about the complexity and ambiguity of the causes behind police violence, as shown in the numerous academic studies done on the subject. He didn’t talk about the fact that yes of course, the racist history of America has meant that many black people are poor and live in high crime areas that are policed more and have more interactions with police than white people do, but that doesn’t equate to malicious racism, and it doesn’t detract from the fact that high crime areas need to be policed more than low crime areas. He didn’t talk about the fact that many people in high crime areas very much want a police presence, and that “defund the police” slogans and riots might be deeply unsettling to many poor people, including many minority people.

Police presence is the cornerstone of every modern civilized society, but John Oliver focused on tying the concept of American police to the enforcement of slavery; an association that perplexed one of my most liberal relatives, who later asked me what the hell John Oliver was talking about. At the end of his episode, he played a clip of an emotional racial justice activist, Kimberly Jones, who said that she agreed with something Trevor Noah had said: that the social contract was broken, who said, and I’ll transcribe this approximately:

Why the fuck do I give a shit about burning their football hall of fame, about burning a fucking Target. You broke the contract when you killed us in the street and didn’t give a fuck. For over 400 years we played your game and built your wealth.

Later she said:

As far as I’m concerned we could burn this bitch to the ground and it still wouldn’t be enough and they are lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.

John Oliver, after presenting a very simplistic, un-nuanced, and racially divisive view of what police violence was all about, ended his show on a note of essentially endorsing violence and destruction. I found all this disturbing and irresponsible. Where were the adults in the room? Where were the balanced, nuanced, objective views that sought to examine what I see as much more the truth: that we’re mostly a bunch of people just trying our best to solve problems? How much violence in the George Floyd-related protests might John Oliver’s show have been responsible for? How much responsibility for that might be seen to lie with other influential people promoting similar views? Is it wrong to examine all these complex sides of the equation if our goal is truly to understand why people do the things they do? If our goal is to understand the violence around us? If a conservative host had promoted such a divisive narrative and endorsed violence in that way, would you find their behavior irresponsible? Do liberals get a pass from all criticism and blame because they’re on our side?

My point again isn’t to blame liberals or say that they’re as bad as conservatives; I find the attempt at score keeping unproductive and impossible anyway; these dynamics are complex and overlapping. I’m a lot more interested in why individuals behave the way they do; what the narratives are that are driving their behavior.

My point is that there are many divisive us-vs-them narratives floating around, from across the political spectrum, capable of producing very bad behavior when people fully embrace them. Both the left and the right are capable of some apocalyptic, good-versus-evil rhetoric about the other side, or about the evil nature of society and government systems. And many people on both sides seem capable of excusing the bad behavior of people on their side while being driven into a frenzy by the bad behavior of people on the other side; that is after all what tribalism and polarization is all about.

When I hear about people who’ve been radicalized by these kinds of narratives and do violent things, my primary thoughts are sadness that people have let such divisive narratives drive them mad. It is understandable to me how people are seduced by all sorts of simplistic us-vs-them narratives; we become emotionally isolated, we become obsessed, we want to find a purpose for our lives, we want to be heroes, we want to be martyrs. We all have factors for why we believe what we believe. We are all human.

I think what we need are more people combating the divisive ideologies around us; what we need are more people building more nuanced and empathetic narratives about how the world works and where we should be going.

Claims of white supremacy

One of the more disturbing things about liberal reactions to Rittenhouse and the case has been the confident ways that people claim Rittenhouse is a white supremacist or that the verdict represents a white supremacist system.

The tweet from Colin Kaepernick represents a good summary of all of this kind of thinking:

We just witnessed a system built on white supremacy validate the terroristic acts of a white supremacist. This only further validates the need to abolish our current system. White supremacy cannot be reformed.

These kinds of takes are everywhere on social media and in the news. One Washington Post op-ed reads “Kyle Rittenhouse, whiteness and a divinely ordained license to kill.”

Congressperson Cori Bush had a tweet that read:

The judge. The jury. The defendant. It’s white supremacy in action. This system isn’t built to hold white supremacists accountable. It’s why Black and brown folks are brutalized and put in cages while white supremacist murderers walk free.

These takes are disturbing for the extremity of the claims and for the casualness with which people make them.

One thing that probably helped promote the idea that Rittenhouse is a white supremacist was that President Biden communicated this to the public. Biden made a tweet after one of the presidential debates about Trump that read:

There’s no other way to put it: the President of the United States refused to disavow white supremacists on the debate stage last night.

That tweet included a video that used a voice-over of a moderator’s question from the presidential debate. The moderator asked Trump about white supremacist violence. As the moderator’s voice said “as we saw in Kenosha”, the video showed an image of Rittenhouse.

First, with regards to Rittenhouse himself: There is no evidence I’ve seen that Rittenhouse is a white supremacist. Rittenhouse’s decision to go out to protect businesses and act as a law-and-order enforcer, while you may see it as misguided and stupid and reckless, or even as hateful or murderous, has nothing to do with white supremacy that I can see. It’s maybe worth pointing out that many people at these events, including many people doing destructive and violent things, were white. I don’t know about Kenosha specifically but in Portland and Seattle, most of the fighting with cops and damage to property was done white people. All three of the people shot by Rittenhouse were white, as far as I know.

The one slim piece of evidence I’ve seen presented that he’s a white supremacist is that, when Rittenhouse was out on bail not long after his arrest, he was hanging out at a bar with some far right types, including people from the Proud Boys group. There’s no evidence I’ve seen that Rittenhouse knew these people beforehand. Rittenhouse was wearing a shirt with the words ‘Free as fuck’ on it. At that bar, there was a picture taken of him putting up the OK symbol, which has gotten press for being used by white supremacists.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but first: while that symbol does seem to be used by some bad people, including white supremacists, it also seems to be something done by far right people to trigger and upset liberals.

I’ll quote from the Anti Defamation League website about how that symbol and its recent meaning originated:

“The “OK” hand gesture originated as one of these hoaxes in February 2017 when an anonymous 4channer announced “Operation O-KKK,” telling other members that “we must flood Twitter and other social media websites…claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy.” The user even provided a helpful graphic showing how the letters WP (for “white power”) could be traced within an “OK” gesture. The originator and others also suggested useful hashtags to help spread the hoax, such as #PowerHandPrivilege and #NotOkay. “Leftists have dug so deep down into their lunacy,” wrote the poster, “We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that s***.”

There is a definite culture of malicious trolling by many far right people. And clearly some of the people who use these symbols are white supremacists. But even the group that gets a lot of press as being clearly white supremacist, the Proud Boys, have members who are racial minorities; to me, that group could be more accurately described as culturist than racist; and that’s not to give them a pass at all as in some sense those two things can be very related and overlapped. But in short, all these things are not as simple as they appear.

But let’s assume for now that that OK symbol is a symbol of white supremacy, or even let’s assume it’s one of significant us-vs-them hate. In an interview later, Rittenhouse claimed that he did not know what the symbol meant. He also says that he blamed that outing to the bar on his lawyers, John Pierce and Lin Wood, who Rittenhouse’s family later fired. To quote from a NY Post article:

Kyle Rittenhouse claimed his ex-attorney quote “set him up” for a photo of him posing with purported members of the Proud Boys and making a hand gesture used by white supremacists.

Rittenhouse blasted his former legal team, John Pierce and Lin Wood, saying he didn’t know the “OK” hand signal is now associated with white supremacy and claiming he “didn’t know what a militia was” until after he was arrested.

Some people have scoffed at this idea, that Rittenhouse wouldn’t know the meaning or common interpretation of that symbol. But many people simply don’t know how few people are actually keyed into internet memes and meanings. The people who use a lot of social media and who stay abreast of the latest internet outrage tend to think that everyone else has the same obscure knowledge they do, or must have the same interpretations of things as they do. It would not be surprising to me at all that Rittenhouse wouldn’t know what that symbol was, and it wouldn’t be surprising to me that the people around him had pressured him in some way to put up that symbol.

The reason that scenario is easy to imagine is because it’s clear that the people around Rittenhouse at that time were people who did not have his best interest in mind. One of his lawyers at that time was Lin Wood. Lin Wood later gained prominence as being a prominent spreader of claims that the 2020 election was stolen; he’s a creepy dude into QAnon claims and such. Think about how destitute of judgment these people were to bring Rittenhouse to a hangout with far right people, to have Rittenhouse out in public wearing an offensive ‘free as fuck’ shirt, to have him posing for pictures with far right people, all this before his trial. It seems clear to me that these were morally bankrupt people who had no concern that Rittenhouse, a teenager, might have his reputation destroyed in the public eye, right before a trial that might destroy his life. These were this young man’s protectors.

In that kind of atmosphere and with the people surrounding Rittenhouse, and with the ambiguity of the OK symbol in the first place, and with Rittenhouse saying he blames his lawyer and disavows what happened that night, there’s a lot of reasonable doubt. If this is the only evidence you have that Rittenhouse is a white supremacist, it’s very bad evidence. Consider how easily conservatives might use equally slim evidence to paint a far left person charged with something similar as a white-hating racist who wanted to kill white people. Personally, I think it’s reprehensible to accuse Rittenhouse of white supremacy from the evidence I’ve seen presented. It’s easy to forgive random citizens for making these claims, but it’s harder to forgive people with large platforms, people who claim to be objective, who want to be seen as responsible thinkers and leaders.

Let’s consider Biden’s tweet that communicated to the public that Rittenhouse was a white supremacist. Now it’s easy for me to give their team the benefit of the doubt because i’ve worked in TV news and digital media and I know how easy it is to put out wrong stuff. It’s easy for me to imagine them lazily and accidentally editing that video and just looking for things to match the moderator’s voice-over and not really thinking things through. It’s also easy for me to imagine based on the ok symbol press that the people making the video fully believed Rittenhouse was a white supremacist. I tend to think we’re all being driven mad in general by things that can be easily explained by errors and not maliciousness; we’re filtering everything through a lens of ‘they intended that’ instead of ‘might that just be a mistake or a misunderstanding?

But all motivations aside: surely you should be able to see what is so wrong and divisive about the President of the United States putting such a damaging and incendiary claim out there in the public before someone’s trial. Surely you can see what it is that makes conservatives angry about that. In the same way that liberals are made very angry by confident, worst-possible lens takes that conservatives make. In the same way that liberals were made very angry by Trump making tweets that seemed to attempt to influence court cases that were still in progress.

And these confident pronouncements about so many things being related to white supremacy are everywhere these days; you can find influential journalists and pundits who confidently state that the January 6th Capital riot was a “white supremacist coup attempt” and similarly worded statements. But the fact is that there were black Trump supporters and other minority Trump supporters at that event. Simply put: believing the 2020 election was rigged doesn’t require you to be a white supremacist, any more than support for Trump requires that; it simply requires you to have believed that narrative about the election, which was promoted by many influential people, including the President himself and a lot of influential rightwing media. It is easy to see how people believe such things when so many powerful people are dedicated to spreading them.

And these confident pronouncements of things being about white supremacy are everywhere these days; I have seen influential journalists and pundits confidently state that the January 6th Capital riot was a “white supremacist coup attempt” or similarly worded phrases. But there were black Trump supporters and other minority Trump supporters at that event; you don’t have to be a racist to believe the election was rigged; you just need to have swallowed the lies and deception about the election, which was promoted by many influential people, including the President himself. You may believe that Trump is a white supremacist, or that he’d set up a white supremacist government, but clearly that is not everyone’s view, as shown by his significant support from minority demographics. I’m someone who believes Trump is a truly horrible pathological narcissist and I believe he may end up being the cause of, or at least a core contributing factor in, the downfall of our democracy. I have a very negative of view of Trump, and still it’s not clear to me how racist he is or what he’d do with more power. Even if was pretty certain he was a hardcore racist, I’m not sure what he’d do policy-wise about that considering keeping his racial minority supporters and non-racist supporters from turning on him would probably be an important part of him retaining power. If you’re someone who’s 100% certain that Trump is a white supremacist or you’re certain of how him taking illegitimate power would result in a white supremacist government, I’d suggest that your certainty about something that many people are far from certain about, even people on your own side, is an indicator that maybe you’re looking at things in a very polarized, worst-frame light.

Returning to the Rittenhouse verdict and people claiming the results were ‘white supremacist’: considering that it’s not surprising to many law-knowledgeable people what the verdict would be — to claim that the jury’s finding was racist doesn’t make much logical sense. Personally I think if Rittenhouse had been black, he would have likely been acquitted, just as Rittenhouse was. It seems like the legal lines around this specific incident were fairly clear, or at least we can say it’s not certain he should have been convicted. Put another way: if a black person who’d done the same things Rittenhouse had done had been found guilty, it seems clear that many law experts would have been surprised. And there are clearly cases of black people being acquitted of murder or manslaughter with a self-defense argument. There was a high profile one about a black man named Coffee being acquitted a few days ago. But of course comparisons of cases are hard to make, because every court case is unique, and it is hard to compare court cases that happen in different areas, and which have different judges and juries. So I’d say: considering all these facts and all this ambiguity, does it make sense to call the results of this verdict “white supremacist”? Or to claim that such a single case points to our system being white supremacist?

So what’s the problem with all of these confident and common pronouncements that “white supremacy ‘is to blame for all the things we don’t like around us? I’d argue that it has big negative effects, and that liberals need to grapple more with what those effects are. Imagine that you’re an average Trump supporter who does not see themselves as racist (let’s make it a black Trump supporter just in case, to drive the point home better). And imagine that you see liberal media and liberal citizens constantly painting everything with the “white supremacy” brush. Imagine how little respect you’d have for such incendiary accusations when you see little to no basis for those accusations.

Imagine how these constant hysterical accusations might make you feel that the left has lost its mind, that their hysteria about those things must point to their unreasonable hysteria about other issues.

All of this exaggerated emotion from the left makes it easy to not take them seriously.

Worse, it results in some people reaching the conclusion, “Hey, it really does seem like the media and influential liberal leaders are exaggerating what’s going on and exaggerating our divides; maybe the system really is corrupt in some major way; maybe we need to support people like Trump who see these problems”. Maybe once they start seeing some of the problems with bad liberal thinking, they may start to find other question-the-status-quo beliefs more palatable, (like that the election was rigged, or global warming is a hoax.)

We need to face the fact that people are capable of recognizing the bad thinking on the left; they are capable of recognizing how deeply some of that bad thinking is entrenched in liberal-leaning media and in political leadership, and how little that bad thinking and behavior is critically examined or criticized by other liberals — and that recognition is how some people take what they call “the red pill,” how they start to question all the liberal ideas. It’s a rabbit hole that people do go down.

Trump saw a big increase in minority voters in 2020 and it seems quite likely that that increase was at least partly a response to unreasonable rhetoric from the left. For example, the anti-police, anti-prison rhetoric: that kind of rhetoric is understandably scary to people who live in high-crime areas, or if not scary, just downright weird and a bit maddening.

And if you’re by chance a conservative listening to this, hopefully you can see that all the things I’ve said apply to conservatives, too. For example: Trump’s reckless and divisive way of speaking have driven many conservatives away from the GOP. Pushing back against your side’s divisive behavior and trying to bring more nuance to the discussion is how you make your side more persuasive and reach more people. In a nation where the political races are so close, one side being slightly more persuasive and getting just a few % points more support can make a big difference. We should all be attempting to speak more to the people who aren’t that extreme; the people who recognize like we do that the extreme narratives on both sides are what is driving our country crazy. Maybe that could be a narrative that could bring us all together more, if more of us had the bravery to call out bad thinking and bad behavior on our side when we see it.

Why is all this important?

If you’re politically liberal, you may be thinking at this point: but clearly conservatives are the worse group, so why are you focusing on liberals? Any bad stuff on our side is dwarfed by what’s going on over there.

Again: I am not implying that liberals are at fault for our divides, or equally at fault. I have much criticism for the right, especially for the leadership of the right and how they’ve embraced overt us-vs-them narratives in a way that Democrat leaders haven’t. But for the reasons I’ve talked about in this episode, and for other reasons we could talk about, the left has to be seen as contributing to these dynamics. The very definition of polarization implies that both sides must be driven a bit mad; it’s impossible to imagine a scenario where there’s only one side being deranged. But mainly, the reason I’m focusing on liberal stuff is because I have no influence over people on the right; all I can do is talk to the people most likely to listen to me, who are mostly liberals.

I think if you’re striving to understand how our hatred and anger is continually rising, if you’re actually interested in understanding how these dynamics work and what the drivers are, you have to be willing to examine how people on your side are adding to those divides. As Anne Applebaum put it “America’s left and right are radicalizing each other.” You have to come to terms with the fact that none of this stuff is unique to America; we are going through the same polarizing dynamics that have befallen many other nations, like Venezuela, Hungry, Poland, and many others) We are not unique. We are just human. We are prone to the very human tendency to form into groups and go at each others’ throats. And we may be aided in this tendency by our digital media, and by how philosophically and emotionally isolated we are from each other in modern societies. We tend to think our anger is all about the issues but it’s not so much about that; it’s much more about our growing perception that the other side represents all the bad things, all the bad thoughts.

And you can examine these underlying psychological causes for our divides while still continuing to think “the other side is worse.” Even if it was my goal to get you to think both sides are equally at fault, which it’s not, I would not be capable of convincing you of that. There is much to be angry at. I wouldn’t deny you your anger or passion, or pretend there are not valid reasons to be angry.

But I think the value of examining these ideas is that you’ll be making your side more balanced, more persuasive. By working to reduce the polarized, emotional takes of your side, you’ll be making your side speak more to normal, middle-of-road Americans who, believe it or not, may be seeing things in a less polarized way, in less us-vs-them ways, than you yourself are. Many people on both the left and the right are disheartened and disgusted by the constant framing of every hot button issue as the latest high stakes event that represents good versus evil.

The more we strive for nuance, the more coherently we speak, the more we are able to speak persuasively to people who don’t think the same as us. When I interviewed Jaime Settle, who researched the mechanisms behind how Facebook and other social media increase us-vs-them animosity, one of the things she said was most useful in combating extreme polarization was demonstrating to others how we don’t fit into the stereotypes of our group. The more people do that, the more people understand that we don’t easily fit into such extreme and simple categories. The more it’s hard to get mad at “the other side” and all their ideas as a symbol of all that’s wrong with the world. And that idea is partly what motivates me to do this podcast; to demonstrate that complexity with my own ideas.

If you think that Rittenhouse is a monster: where is the compassion and the understanding of complexity that I think you likely bring to other situations, to other people? For example: I’d guess that, when it comes to some violent and criminal behavior in the world, you’re able to examine things like: that person’s environment, their upbringing, the world of ideas they lived inside of, the influence of media, the ease of acquiring guns, our country’s culture of normalizing guns, etc. Where is that curiousness about Rittenhouse’s behavior in this case? Where is that compassion and striving for understanding all the historical and environmental factors that lead to almost all events. Where is that intellectual curiosity about why people act the way they do that I used to appreciate about many politically liberal people I knew?

Because it seems that those things are largely disappearing; our understanding of and tolerance for others seems to be increasingly overshadowed by a desire to see everything through a team-based lens, to score whatever cheap political points we can in the moment.

Mark Lilla wrote a book criticizing Democrat party politics called ‘The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics’. I’ll paraphrase something he said in there: liberals generally have so much empathy for people in developing countries, even those people who behave badly; they’re able to see that there are factors at work that affect people’s behavior, that there are many cultural factors at work. But many liberals aren’t willing to apply that same empathy and understanding for the people who are right down the street from them.

I do think that we all need to get a lot more curious about the people around us and a lot more understanding about their motives if we’re going to avoid worst case scenarios in the near future.

Podcast wrap-up

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn about this podcast at www.behavior-podcast.com. If you liked this episode and think other people should hear it, please share it on social media.

Personally I think more understanding of our us-vs-them dynamics and how they work is one of the most important things we could be talking about. If you liked this topic, please check out some of the past episodes where I discuss political issues.

I make no money on this podcast and spend a good deal of time on it. I also get a good amount of hate for it; my work talking about political polarization topics has strained and ruined some friendships. If you’d like to show some appreciation, you can leave me a rating on iTunes or on whatever platform you listen on, and you can share this podcast with other people. I have a Patreon at www.patreon.com/zachelwood if you’d like to show me some financial support and encourage me to do more work like this.

Thanks for listening.

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).