2/13/2006

Our Tribe
by: StealthBadger
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February 12, 2006 at 08:38:27 America/Chicago
( - promoted by Maryscott O'Connor)

[I was initially wondering whether or not to crosspost this here, when I started thinking of flamewars like the one that happened in Armando's GBCW here not too long ago. How to handle things when you come face-to-face with the truth that you can not reason with the unreasonable is a problem that will only grow more prevalent, not less, as the cultures of the world increasingly turn towards fundamentalism. This is my answer.]

[Update II: Thanks to Paul Rosenberg for catching the fact that I'd cited the wrong title for Octavia Butler's novel.]

[Update: Crossposted at dKos. Please recommend there if you feel it appropriate.]

In the novel Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler, the central thematic conflict addressed in the story is the paradoxical existence within the human mind of both intelligence and a need for heirarchy. Simply put, when a need to fit into a structure and reason conflict, reason is not always going to win. When the heirarchal impulse dominates, the effect is almost certainly destructive to anything outside that group, and probably to any inside the group who do not sufficiently acquiesce to its control. The larger problem is that there is always more than one heirarchy, and heirarchies by definition seek to embrace and control as much as possible.

StealthBadger :: Our Tribe
When I read this, there was something I couldn't put my finger on that disquieted me about the words chosen, well-supported by the ambivalence with which she portrays the issue within her own writing. While putting together follow-on articles to Baseball, Kenjutsu, and Telling the Truth, the words to express my discomfort finally formed: it's not just heirarchy, it's the overwhelming power of "tribe," both in how we identify with our own group, and how we objectify others. But is there a way to describe the effects of this in rigorous, logical terms, or is this an ineffable part of being human which we can never understand?

I don't know about all of the things that go into it, but there's definitely one part that propagandists, confidence artists, and political consultants have known for years uncounted, and that is supported by research: our brains reward us on the neurochemical level for affirming our ties to our own tribe, and rejecting ties to others. From an article in the Washington Post:

The field of social psychology has long been focused on how social environments affect the way people behave. But social psychologists are people, too, and as the United States has become increasingly politically polarized, they have grown increasingly interested in examining what drives these sharp divides: red states vs. blue states; pro-Iraq war vs. anti-Iraq war; pro-same-sex marriage vs. anti-same-sex marriage. And they have begun to study political behavior using such specialized tools as sophisticated psychological tests and brain scans.

"In my own family, for example, there are stark differences, not just of opinion but very profound differences in how we view the world," said Brenda Major, a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the president of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, which had a conference last week that showcased several provocative psychological studies about the nature of political belief.

The new interest has yielded some results that will themselves provoke partisan reactions: Studies presented at the conference, for example, produced evidence that emotions and implicit assumptions often influence why people choose their political affiliations, and that partisans stubbornly discount any information that challenges their preexisting beliefs. Emory University psychologist Drew Westen put self-identified Democratic and Republican partisans in brain scanners and asked them to evaluate negative information about various candidates. Both groups were quick to spot inconsistency and hypocrisy -- but only in candidates they opposed.

When presented with negative information about the candidates they liked, partisans of all stripes found ways to discount it, Westen said. When the unpalatable information was rejected, furthermore, the brain scans showed that volunteers gave themselves feel-good pats -- the scans showed that "reward centers" in volunteers' brains were activated. The psychologist observed that the way these subjects dealt with unwelcome information had curious parallels with drug addiction as addicts also reward themselves for wrong-headed behavior.

The rest of the article is devoted to another study that reveals empirically what anyone familiar with the Southern Strategy already knows, that the Republican party is more likely to appeal to those with more pronounced racial biases. Now one study does not make it truth, it will be interesting to see if the results can be reproduced. I would not be surprised if the conclusions were supported in further research, but there are bigger metaphysical fish to fry. At the risk of drawing the ire of a great many people, I must say that focusing on the second part of the article is to miss a huge part of why the Southern Strategy, Fox News, and even the trolls you get on political blogs all tie together, and how the way our minds work perpetuates these things.

When we see someone frothing at the mouth, pontificating almost without reference to the points being thrown back at them, what is really going on? When someone whose arguments have been pounded into scrap suddenly pauses and says with the slightest of smiles, "well I just don't believe it," what the hell just happened in that person's head? When someone who knows they're not going to convince you keeps pounding away without mercy or reason, what are they doing? What, besides adrenaline, causes some people to love heated dispute, and to actively seek it out? Why are people, and that includes you, sometimes driven to moments where you say "if only they could just see how wrong they are?" If you have been maddened by this before, and even later wondered at your own willingness to skip over a shaky bit of reasoning in order to state a conclusion that you're not completely comfortable with, and wondering why exactly you felt good about doing it at all, the answer is pretty simple: endorphins. Part of the package you get from being human is a system for rewarding group identification.

When you affirm your beliefs (which ultimately in our inner world defines who is tribe and who is not), you feel a glow of warmth. When you reject someone else's that conflict with your own, you feel it too, in addition to whatever turmoil the discussion may have stirred up. When you are forced to be polite to someone who you feel is "other," it's a horribly disorienting thing. It literally feels good now and then to think in your heart that freepers are idiots, because you're affirming membership in your own tribe. It's not a simple thing, it's not by far the only thing that acts within us, but ignoring it is like pretending you don't blink. This isn't thought control, though through repetition and symbol abuse, it can certainly push your buttons. It isn't a tinfoil-hat theory, this is just part of how your head is put together. It isn't good or evil, but it isn't particularly well adapted to modern society.

It's also possible to fall into this trap more than once. Look at how many people ran from one self-help movement to another in the 70s. We have serial cultists, who after rejecting one "Revealed Truth," immediately run off for another one so they can once again experience the euphoria of affirmation. Few people know what this feels like compared to someone who's been in the military, where conformity, obedience, and group identification is what makes the Pentagon go 'round. These words and their irony keep coming back to haunt me, from a disabled vet of OIF who was speaking at a freeper rally: (note: I incorrectly quoted this on an earlier thread, apologies)

“We didn’t think about Bush or Halliburton. When bullets are coming at you, you think about the guy on your right, and the guy on your left, and that’s what I lost my legs for.”

It's not just when the bullets start coming at you, it's every day of your life. Our brains are wired to make our bonds with the group we belong to more important than anything else, which is what makes a sociopath so terrifying to society at large - whatever makes that connection give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside just isn't working.

So what can you do? If this is the way it works, then isn't any attempt to fight it doomed to failure? It's not like you can pull that part of your brain out, and there's certainly no way to counter it any more than you can "make" someone stop drinking, right?

Yes and no.

Yes, it's always there, but there are ways to turn it from a weakness into a strength without jumping feet-first into a moral slime-pit. The very, very first thing you need to do when confronted with this behavior is to get over yourself. Nothing productive is going to happen as long as you and whoever you're arguing with are feeding each other's endorphin/adrenaline habit. Second, recognize that you have no power in the situation over anyone or anything but yourself. On the other hand, unless you're strapped into a restraint chair in an interrogation room, no-one has any power over you that you do not give them. It's your mind, and it's morally wrong to give it away when all you get out of the deal is a little glandular excitement. Lastly, relax and breathe; you are safe. You are part of a group that recognizes its faults and seeks to overcome them. You are of the family that embraces mistakes as opportunities for learning. Your tradition is to value being correct more than being "right." Your people's passion is to be good, kind, and fair when nothing in the world forces them to do so. You are part of the reality-based community, and your tribe's wisdom is the Enlightenment.

Once you've gotten yourself under control, first find out if there is any common ground you can reach with the other person. Not just a common opinion, but some way in which you and they can look at each other as part of the same group. If not, then get out as quickly as possible, because nothing can be accomplished barring some accidental magical transformative moment. Perhaps someone else of your tribe can connect with them, all you can do is exacerbate the problem by reinforcing the divisions between you. Feel free to call them on exactly what they're doing, though - your tribe values truth.

If you find that common ground, see if you can expand it a little. Just a little. Don't push for too much, and don't expect anything later. See if you can stretch the boundaries of agreement just enough for someone else to have a better chance of reaching a little further later on. The goal is not to make them do or be anything, it is to have a conversation in which truth is agreed upon, even if that truth is that you don't know the answer to the question you face. Ultimately, their definitions of "us" and "them" are their own responsibility and no-one else's, all you can do is invite them to see you as one of the former, rather than the latter.

Don't get cocky, though, or you'll just start feeding that addiction again even as you spin your wheels rhetorically. Fortunately, your tribe is a demanding one, because you can never always be right. It's also accepting, it embraces everything from democracy to patriarchy-blaming to activism to scholarly research, just so long as you're keeping the faith. Even better, your tribe encourages this as part of its "revealed wisdom's" greatest lesson: it is far, far better to be learning, than to be right.
My Left Wing :: Our Tribe

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