October 24, 2012

Breach of Social Contract

As long as we're back in essay mode again, I thought it was time for a slightly "headier" one. See, as much as I love talking about fun stuff like Aliens or Transformers on this site, it's just not as important as some of what's going on in the "real" world. God, that word leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, I've now seen all of the Presidential Debates between incumbent Barack "Everybody Chill the Hell Out, I Know Math" Obama, and Mitt "Makin This Up As I Go While Armed With Money and Binders of Women" Romney. While we're at it, I also took the time to watch the Vice-Presidential Debate between Joe "That's a Bunch of Stuff and Malarkey" Biden and Paul "The Fountainhead Shrugged When I Told My Party Leader to Shut Up" Ryan. Yeesh. If I were feeling diplomatic, I'd describe the events as filibuster-like bouts of political give and take. But I'm NOT so I'll call them what they are: public demonstrations of the reasons I continue to self-identify as a misanthrope. Yeah, we're going there.

By now, the subtlety with which I have lampooned each of the candidates should have tipped off many of you that I have a...oh, let's call it "bias" towards the left wing of American politics. Of course, if you've read any of my posts prior to this one, you should have figured that out by now, but for the newbies here: I definitely do consider myself to be "liberal" on the binary switch that is American political ideologies. But that very duality, my dear readers, will form the subject of today's post. For you see, I think I understand a little better why it is we consistently fail to come together as a people and make this world the shining place many believe it can be. From where I stand, it all stems from a common misunderstanding about human social nature. Most people would categorize us as "Social Animals", and that's essentially accurate. The trouble is we are best classified as "Tribal Animals", but...

We Don't Accept Our Tribal Nature 

I imagine a few definitions will be required to flesh this out a bit, so let me start from there. Social Animals are, to my understanding, animals that typically act as and within a group of their own species to ensure the continued survival of both the individuals of the group and the group as a whole. This is behavior typically exemplified in many kinds of organisms on Earth up to and including Chimpanzees, Ants, Buffalo, Geese, Wolves, Bees, and a myriad of others. This definition absolutely includes Human beings, but, as some of the more zoologically inclined among you may have noticed, not all those animals I mentioned are social animals in the smae way.

Ants and bees fit into a category of social organism often referred to as Eusocial, from the greek root "eu" meaning "good/proper" or "true/real". They get this definition from the way that they act not as a group of individuals, but as ONE individual entity with independently functioning pieces. None, save for a leader organism (often a matriarch in the form of a queen), have any indepenent "will" that guides their behavior, and all effort is directed towards the maintenance of the whole at the expense of any individuals. In this model, no one organism matters as the success of their "society" is dependent on the continued existence of the whole "hive" and nothing more. Obviously, humans (as a species) do not fit this pattern, but we'll return to this soon, so keep it in mind.

Now geese and buffalo, on the other hand, absolutely strive for the protection of the individual, but do so by relying on a "safety in numbers" method of group behavior. The "Herd Social" organisms of the world function, not like a hive, but rather as individuals that share a space and each finds a niche where they can live out a relatively unmolested existence. The social aspect comes in when a situation arises that potentially threatens the herd. If any individual raises the alarm, the rest will follow suit and respond appropriately; i.e. they will all run away or stand their ground as a group to ensure the survival of as many as possible. In many respects, human civilization seems to follow this pattern; the majority don't claim direct responsibility for any other individual and we react as groups to threats to our space or existence by rising to one aid. Pretty close, I agree, but still not quite right. For our answer we look to chimps and wolves: we are "Tribe Social".

Tribalism is basically the form of social living where a given individual lives amongst others of its species where there are strict boundaries set around which others are part of its social circle. The "pack" or "mob", if you will, forms the social unit in question. Often, there is an associated "Alpha" (not always, but often male) who "leads" the tribe by maintaining a strict hierarchy within it of who is permitted to mate, or eat, or enjoy other social liberties within the tribe. This leadership is often absolute, but changes when a challenger of sufficient strength (as defined by the tribe's collective perception of strength) "usurps" the current alpha and takes his/her place as head of the tribe. Additionally, the tribe works as a whole (under the alpha's guidance of course) to expand territory, acquire food and other resources, and protect the community from various dangers...including other tribes.

Yes, the other defining feature of a tribe, that sets it apart from a herd or hive, is that tribes DO NOT MIX WELL. The contact of one tribe by another is either stringently avoided or results, nigh-inevitably, in open conflict or war. Tribes don't get along very well, and under the alpha's guidance, tribes will often fight for the right to control territory, resources, access to mates, and security. Sounding familiar to anyone else? Sounding at all like our democratic process? Obviously, we often choose to dress up our tribal behaviors in the guise of something "civilized" by holding debates, elections, and "campaigning" for resources rather than outright fighting over them; but make no mistake, we are tribal creatures through and through. Besides, we regularly (as a species and a nation) engage in actual violent conflict with other "tribes" for a variety of reasons. The debates between our various candidates represents nothing more or less (to me) than the head-butting of tribal Alphas, campaigning on behalf of tribes labeled as "Democrat" or "Republican" by their various constituents. Millions of Americans align themselves with a tribe and root for "their alpha" to "win" the debate, and therefore gain some sort of claim over the way the nation will progress.

But don't think that we're only tribal at this scale; look at ANY classroom and you'll see the exact same behavior in the form of cliques and circles of friends at any age. To those who would say "my clique/circle doesn't have an Alpha", look carefully, and you'll see that it most assuredly does...it just might not be YOU. In fact, it might not be a proper "human" at all. Sometimes an image or an ideal is sufficient. The punk movement has no organization, but it has beliefs that guide its members. And even in those circumstances, "leaders" inevitably rise who embody the movement. Civil Rights in the US had no nominal official leader, but I'll be damned if someone tries to make the case that people like Dr. King or Malcolm X don't fill that role handily.

This pattern exists at virtually every level of human social gathering that I can think of. Left-wing, right-wing, liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, indepenedent, academic, gamer, musician, religious, graduating class, sports-fan, fan-boy, fan-girl, neighborhood (sometimes down to the building!), city, town, state, country, skin color, hair color, height, weight, straight, gay, bisexual, male, female, cat-people, dog-people, lizard-people, and COUNTLESS others all form the basis, for good or ill, for tribalism amongst us. It's actually so imbedded in our nature, that we are often multi-tribal. I know I've identified in my life as many things that all have a "tribe" with an "alpha" who is them-self part of multiple other tribes. In some cases, I have even been the alpha myself. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but it's essential that we pay attention to and remain aware of this behavior. Why? Glad you asked.

So much of our time on this Earth, as a species, is spent looking for a tribe to belong to. Most of us don't need to be an "alpha" of our tribe, just a constituent. But in our quest to find the tribe (or tribes) that that we fit, something weird always happens: we deny that tribal nature and attempt to dress up our world in something more "pleasing". Let me give you a couple examples: recall the definition of the Eusocial Animals - the ones that live in a hive that exists solely to serve the hive itself with no regard for the needs of any individual. Sound anything like Fascism to you? It ought to. The Nazis called themselves "National Socialists", implying that they are a nation of individuals who serve their Nation absolutely. I can almost hear the buzzing. And yeah, their "queen's" mustache, alone, was grounds for re-thinking that idea.

Look at the Communist party of virtually any nation that has attempted to build their infrastructure around its tenets. Communism itself is essentially an attempt at Herd Social behavior. Think of the mantra of the Communist party: "From each according to his ability, and to each according to his need". Sound like the mutual protection of all with no specific elevation of any one? Sound like life in the herd? I, at least, think so. Essentially, the mantra asks that each individual contribute to the heard without being individually responsible for the herd as a whole. In cases of protection, we fight or flee as one, but otherwise we simply carry on.

Of course the problem with that is that you can already see how another form of Herd Social behavior can arise as a direct consequence of that "live and let be" model: Reaganomics! What's more "herd" than simply leaving everyone alone entirely and letting them "do as they please" while simply coming together for a war? I can almost hear Ayn Rand nodding in approval. Under these terms, the new herd is one where some in the herd are doing VASTLY better than others, but still expect the compliance of the rest of the herd. How could this be expected to last? It couldn't!

Which brings us, at last, to the 2012 election. It almost seems like we're finally in a situation where we can embrace our tribal nature. Two parties: one red, one blue (a sign of tribalism if there ever was one), fighting it out for Alpha-status over both tribes. But alas, it is not to be. The governing principle of the last two (if not three) election cycles that I can observe is this notion of "reaching across the aisle". Especially in this election, there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of both candidates to work on a "bipartisan" level. In essence, both tribal alphas are fighting over who could peaceably unite both tribes the best. All I can say to that is: WE ARE NOT A HERD! Although the average American would probably never admit it, we don't want to reach across the aisle. We want the other side of the aisle to shut up and stay down. We want to bludgeon the opposition into submission so that "our side's alpha" can lead us onward. In our heart of hearts, we want, nay, need conflict. And why shouldn't we? It's in our very nature.

No generation on the planet has managed to grow up without a major war as the single most powerful cultural influence of their time; no one gets through life without establishing boundaries and pushing against the boundaries of others in the name of progress (high-school  anyone?). But this, I submit to you, is not a flaw in the human condition...merely its natural expression. See, while it might be uncomfortable to admit it, the peace and harmony of "reaching across the aisle" doesn't get us anywhere. I've watched the "bipartisan" politicians utterly fail to achieve anything. Obama can't get things done because he can't garner the support of the Republicans AND Democrats alike. Congress can't ever pass a decent law that would make any noticeable progress in our lives because they can't do anything without compromise. Harmony, however comfortable or ideal it may be, is stagnation and mediocrity. Conflict, at it's core, is our life.

With the elections just around the corner, I just want to remind everyone to PLEASE go and cast your vote. We may not have this whole thing down perfectly, but nothing improves without the participation of its tribe in the social order. This promises to be a very divisive election, so please make sure to contribute to this very important conflict. With any luck, we will see some improvement.

Happy voting.

I'm Trevor and that's my Frame of Mind.


  1. Shortly before Obama's inauguration, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that the single most important thing for Republicans to achieve in the new Congress is for President Obama to be a one-term president. Of course Democrats also try to obstruct Republican initiatives, but I do not recall any other statement as bald-faced and antagonistic to the well-being of the country as this. I don't understand why that kind of statement is not grounds for impeachment.

    In any case, I agree with your points, but I wonder if you think it has always been like this in American politics, or if the influence of our tribal nature has grown over the years. After all, we did agree on a Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights and more recently the New Deal, Civil Rights legislation and several rounds of reasonably sensible tax reform. I'm pretty ignorant about history, and political history most of all, so perhaps these initiatives succeeded because one faction had all the power and forced the initiatives on the other factions, but somehow I doubt that. If I'm right, then what do you suppose accounts for the death of whatever modicum of cooperation/compromise/bipartisanship was possible in the past and the rise of tribal mentality?

  2. Well written Trevor, this was very interesting to read!!! I had never thought of politics (and human culture on the whole) in this way. Many of the points here will be on my mind for a while.

  3. Wow, this is huge. I could write pages in response to this. In fact, I did--only to find out when I hit "Publish" that there's a 4,096 character limit! Well, back to the drawing boards, with some selectivity. I guess the readers all dodged a bullet here.

    My strongest reaction is this: yes, conflict is at our core. But so is murder, and theft, and fraud, and all kinds of villainy. Every society I'm aware of tries to hold those to a minimum. Conflict, generically, of course, produces some benefits as well as making problems. Tribal conflict specifically, well, that's less clear. I can imagine that in other times and contexts, tribalism and tribal conflict conferred advantages. But as our species seeks to create a better life, not just eke out survival, it seems to me that tribalism, and specifically tribal conflict, does a lot more harm than good.

    Second reaction: maybe the tribalism explains why there is so much passion (at least in the blogosphere) about this election. My view of this election is that it is an insult: two far-right candidates running against each other. The next four years will either be the fourth term of the George W. Bush Administration (Obama having given us the third), or the first term of a GWB clone administration. There are no consequences to who wins this one. It's an insult to even call this an election!

    First quibble: "from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs" is, I would say, the resource allocation policy that prevails in families. Nowadays in nuclear families, in earlier terms in extended families as well. It doesn't feel herdish to me at all. In fact, aren't herds really lacking in distinctions based on ability?

    Second quibble (@Paul): My memory of the 1960's is that there was nothing approaching agreement about Civil Rights legislation. There was bitterness and rancor, with violent resistance in the South. While overt resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1965 per se has subsided, the red-blue divide so prominent in contemporary politics derives, I believe, directly from those divisions. And even the "gender gap" arose from it.

    Great post, Trevor. Lots to think about and respond to. Wish I had more space (but I suppose it is merciful that they limit me).