February 14th, 2012

An Informal Theory of Tribalism, Part 1: Background

I'm much of the way through an excellent book: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, whose previous works on my shelves here include How The Mind Works, The Language Instinct, and The Blank Slate. The book's dual mission is to demonstrate with hard research and reliable numbers that violence in human societies has declined and continues to decline, and perhaps to explain why. So far I'm persuaded by the first element of its mission. The second, well, I'm not as sure--but I'm also not finished with the book. However, I've read enough to recommend it, assuming you don't mind long, dense books that require focus and an open mind to get through. The Better Angels of Our Nature provides solid backing to the impression Colin Wilson gives in his 1984 tome A Criminal History of Mankind: that the past was a bogglingly cruel and violent place, not only in certain parts of the Earth and in certain societies, but everywhere. Today, by contrast, we live in the safest and most peaceful era in human history. The improvement has not been linear, but graphed over centuries (and not merely years or decades) it's been steady. This is counterintuitive if anything is. Still, the citations Pinker presents are beyond my ability as an amateur historian to challenge. Much of his thesis involves things I've not read of in detail before. Pinker's description of the widespread practice of infanticide in our past is especially chilling. I may recognize the evolutionary logic for some of it, but the repugnance nearly all of us feel when contemplating the idea reflects how far we've come.

In short, we are not fallen angels. We are risen apes.

I've had a suspicion for quite a few years that the root cause of human cruelty and violence is tribalism. Pinker's book provides more evidence that I was right. He cites a number of causes of violence, but most of them are either the consequences of tribalism, or tribalism outright. Furthermore, tribalism is something primal, something we inherited from the killer primate ancestors we share with creatures like gorillas and chimpanzees, who are enthusiastic and highly calculated murderers of their own kind. We see it in our own historic records as far back as they go, and also in the societies of aboriginal peoples who have avoided contact with modern societies until recent times. (Jared Diamond has written much about his experiences with recently contacted tribes in the new Guinea highlands; see The Third Chimpanzee for a sample.)

It's easy for those of us in the Intellectual Elite to cluck and roll our eyes at any suggestion that tribalism is still with us. Don't. What we've made great progress suppressing are warfare and murder, mostly by sheer dint of will enforced via societal pressures against fountains of violence like polygamy and honor cultures. We're still having trouble with deeper evils like idealism, but idealism is not a consequence of tribalism. (It certainly takes advantage of tribalism, as Marxism did with great success in the past hundred-odd years. Let's not confuse the horse with the rider, even if both need shooting.) Tribalism is very much with us, and whereas it causes less murder than it used to, it still shapes our thought and our societies in ways that should give us pause. It generates hatred like nothing else out there, and enslaves even the brightest of us.

The quickest way to find evidence is to read the comments sections of forums covering anything less technical than the alignment of IF strips. Everyone knows what flamers and trolls are. They've been around since there were online forums. I saw them in my bang-path days in the early 80s. Anonymity amplifies the temptations to flame and troll; see the very brilliant take that Penny Arcade has on the topic. I was a little surprised to see how much the psychology of flaming and trolling is rooted in tribalism. As with a lot of insights, once I knew what to look for I saw it everywhere. I've actually engaged the trolls here and there, to see how they react to certain kinds of provocation. (If you ever stumble across any otherwise uncharacteristic or inexplicable posts of mine online, it's almost certainly me poking a troll with a stick and taking notes.) I now think I know enough to summarize my research and toss out an informal theory of tribalism, especially as it applies to our online world.

The series here will not be contiguous. It's a difficult thing to write about, and I have other topics on my do-it list, most of them more fun if less provocative than this. I do want to ask that you put on your Cloaks of Heroic Courtesy before you click the Comment link. I always welcome thoughtful and polite discussion. However, if you insist on flaming or trolling, I have a perfect opportunity to tap my pointer on our virtual blackboard and use you as an example: "Kids, here's still more evidence supporting my theory. Let me explain what's going on in this comment..." Be the student. Don't be the lesson.

Next: What tribalism is.