Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Tribe Has Spoken

The propagandist's purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human. - Aldous Huxley

For most modern Westerners, our moral sphere - those we consider to have value, who we take into account when making moral choices - encompasses all human beings, regardless of their race, gender or social status. Many people include sentient non-humans, and to a certain degree some even go further and include non-sentient life forms into their moral sphere. But it wasn’t always the case.

The current size of our moral sphere is the result of centuries of expansion. Not so long ago, and for many people to this day, people of a different gender or race were on the outside. For a long time, slaves - who historically weren’t chosen on such strict racial lines as they were in post-Columbus America - were outside it, too. If you go back far enough you get to the point where anyone who was not a part of your tribe was not worth caring about. They were the enemy. They were the Other. And they were evil, barbarous sons of bitches.

This was the case for a hell of a long time - long enough to be important on evolutionary timescales. But we don’t really have tribes any more. Our societies have grown large and incredibly interconnected, and it has become nearly impossible to remain divided into tribes. So what do we do? We invent them. We assign different groups different labels - Self and Other, although the label for a person or group may differ in different situations.

I tried to add up all the ones in my immediate social circle once. One Uni Residence hates another, but they are unified by their hatred of a third; those three, in turn, are unified by their hatred for Residences on other campuses; and on it goes. Of course, in this case I’m using ‘hatred’ very glibly - friendly rivalry would be a better description, for 99% of the people involved. But people do this all the time: we constantly label people as Self and Other - as friend and enemy - and rank how close or far someone is from us. And even when we are randomly assigned into these groups, like on Res, we are so fiercely territorial with these labels that sometimes shit gets out of hand.

Tribalism of this sort is the root of a lot of problems, some of which I will probably deal with in later pieces. But what I want to talk about today is the idea that when you see yourself as a part of a group, you become much more eager to praise them, and reluctant to criticise them, than if you were judging their actions fairly.

We’ve moved beyond rivalries between football teams or home towns here. We’re talking about big ideologies. Religions. Philosophies. Political parties. And, honestly, I’m not quite so concerned with people who are actually members of the parties - actual Labor MPs sticking to the Labor party line, or whatever. They’re a party, and maintaining party discipline is a valid strategic move, if not a valid intellectual one. What concerns me is when a person who votes for that party - who subscribes to a philosophy, who follows a religion - sticks to the party line just as rigidly.

If you tend to vote Liberal, and a new issue comes up, does the Liberal policy affect your position at all? If you vote Labor, and a Liberal politician makes a stupid mistake, do you feel like your side has had a victory? If you’re unsure what to think about an issue, do you find out what your church’s position is? If the footy team you support wins, do you feel like you’ve won? Because you haven’t. You might imagine yourself to be a part of something - indeed, this feeling is what drives the success of organisations such as these - but you’re really not.

You don’t work for these political parties - they work for you. You should run for the hills if anyone ever mentions anything to do with loyalty; vote for them, or don’t, depending on how best you feel their current policies will serve the country. What they’ve done in the past is only relevant as a predictor of what they’ll do in the future, and their policies are a much better indicator. What the party stood for ten years ago might be completely different to what it stands for now - and indeed it may be a completely different bunch of people who just happen to be holding the old banner.

People will always try to label other people. They will try to fit you into neat little check-boxes, and they will try to fit themselves into those same boxes. And when a square peg doesn’t fit a round hole, it’s the peg that gets rounded; people change their beliefs to fit their labels, not the other way around. I don’t want to belabour the point, but since so many forces of society are (indirectly) telling you otherwise, I want to be clear - this is absolutely, fundamentally wrong.

There may be a rare case when you come across a religion, a philosophy, a political party - hell, a single human being - with whom you agree entirely. Who you can unequivocally say represents your views in every way. But in every other case, you have to cherry-pick. You have to say “Okay, the Squares have the general idea, and they’re right about a lot of things, but they’re completely wrong on this issue. And the Circles are generally idiotic, but they’ve taken a much more practical approach here, so I’ll support that. And on this issue - none of these jackasses know what the hell they’re talking about; it should be dealt with like this.”

Thinking for yourself isn’t a tool for deciding which team to pick, it’s the ability to stand on your own, without a team. Because the truth doesn’t take sides.

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