Self-sorting and living in a silo? Well, the stakes have been raised.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 12, 2016

I happened to tune into a radio program today in which some political and cultural commentators were lamenting that our world has become “self-sorting” or “silo-ized”. It is seldom the case now, they noted, that people of dissimilar values interact with each other in the same neighborhoods or enjoy each other’s company in social activities, or even use the same media. These things were common in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, but declined rapidly beginning in the 1970s or 1980s.

The commentators in question could not really say why this was the case. The discussion arose, predictably, when they were lamenting some lame position somebody took on something, and wondering how any self-respecting human being could hold that position without realizing it made him look like a fool. Their answer was that the individual in question was “silo-ized”. He never read anything, viewed anything, or interacted with anyone who would take exception to his “stupidity”.

To put this another way, he didn’t mix with the right crowd—the intelligent people who could set him straight.

I’m sure there is considerable truth to this “self-sorting” or “silo-izing” theory. Plenty of people have remarked on it. But, alas, few can say why this shift has occurred. That is surprising, because it should be obvious.

Innocent Explanations

I admit that we can point to a number of relatively innocent reasons before we confront the elephant in the room. Compared with the mass media of the mid-twentieth century, the media available to us now is far more differentiated. Mass urban newspapers, huge radio stations, and a very few major television networks have given way to innumerable media options on “cable” and the Internet. People no longer have to be exposed nearly as much to the mainstream (the “culturally normal”, or the “culturally respectable”).

This is certainly true of the media we consume, which is now far more tailored to our personal interests and beliefs, and this “tailoring” is raised to the Nth power by social media, through which we can very easily self-select into like-minded groups. With a few mouse clicks we can interact with people who share the same values and enjoy the same things. Why, we may well ask, should we be bored, annoyed, angered or disgusted any more than necessary?

At the same time, there remains a powerful dominant secular culture within which it is far more difficult to make social and economic headway without attending the “right” schools, affiliating with the “right” causes, affirming the “right” policies, and talking the “right” talk. I am describing the politically correct life. It is found in universities and corporations throughout the West. Even when it is relatively benign, it frequently serves as a socio-economic differentiator, and the winners naturally migrate to the tonier neighborhoods. (To some degree this has always been true, of course, but perhaps more along ethnic lines, or as a simple matter of crossing to the other side of the tracks.)

Real Divisions

But it is time to face the elephant. The most pressing catalyst of “self-sorting” and “silo-izing” is the enormous cultural fact that the differences which separate large blocks of people now are far greater than those that separated our fathers, or (depending on how old we are) our grandfathers.

It was one thing to quibble over whether to vote for Eisenhower or Stevenson in 1952 or 1956. By today’s standards, the two men had remarkably similar values, and the voters wondered primarily about who would make the best leader. In the aftermath of World War II, the vast majority settled on the General. And as far as school choice goes, there were differences in academic quality and connections, but the values everywhere were uniform.

I still remember the “I like Ike” buttons used in the 1950s. In the days before the 1956 election, my eight-year-old self could be seen pulling a wagon around our neighborhood bedecked with signs that read, “It doesn’t matter whom you vote for. Just vote!” (Actually, I’m not sure I really ended “who” with an “m”, but I know I was a good little citizen.)

Well, the first of my six children who eventually came of age politically turned eight in 1983, and I am proud to say that none of them would have been caught dead pulling that wagon. They already knew the stakes were too high to be morally indifferent about outcomes. There was already no possibility, after any election, of simply sighing and saying, “Darn, I think the other guy’s policy ideas would have worked better.” And today it is even worse. Today one can be indifferent about the outcome only if one believes all political hope has been lost: “Well, I never expected any good to come of it anyway.”

Ultimate Things

No. The differences today are fundamental moral differences, great yawning chasms between conflicting understandings of what it means to be a person. This is not confronted merely academically either, but as a literal matter of life or death—life or death in both this world and the next. It is no wonder people self-select into silos, when the active persecution of the unfashionable has already begun; and when—if we do not choose carefully—the people we associate with may turn out to be mortal enemies.

Will physical walls soon be built around our cultural silos? That we do not know. But we are fools if we do not recognize the biggest reason for such a significant social trend. Too much hangs on our differences to pretend that they should not play a major role in the selection of our friends, and certainly of our children’s friends. Too much depends on our differences for them not to guide our choices of schools and neighborhoods.

There are, of course, many peculiar sub-groups in society, and there always have been. But now it more often comes down to this: On the other side, the culturally fashionable (who hate the light) are driven by the need to dismiss us as either irrelevant or dangerous. And on our side? We hope simply to find a niche in which our families can feel safe.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bernie4871 - May. 16, 2016 11:02 AM ET USA

    Younger persons will glibly say, one way or another, that the old don't understand the young and the future will turn out OK as it always has in the past. Today, morally, culturally, historically older educated persons finds that absurd. Many young people can't even tell you who is on the front of a $1, let alone "Who made me?", "Who am I?", "Why am I here?", "What SHOULD I do?". So they live with their girl friend, kill their baby, smoke pot, live in adolescence till they are 24 or someday.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 14, 2016 5:29 PM ET USA

    It seems to me that every generation, at some point, thinks that their generation is falling apart in comparison to the previous generation. It may be because it is very difficult to put ourselves into the shoes of the previous generation or maybe it is because we know how the past turned out and we are uncertain how the present will turn out.