Monday, February 20, 2017

On Tribalism

An “On Fascism” follow-up.

A couple things happened to me today, making me want to put aside my other projects and stay up late writing a little more about Tribalism. The first is that someone had a critique for “On Fascism” that I wanted to address. The second, I will get to shortly.

I will reproduce the critique in part:
The trouble is that you like almost everybody else treats fascism as a synonym for "bad stuff" and basically your series can be summed up as "how neutral stuff can lead to bad stuff".
The problem is, neutral stuff, like 22 points, are normal to have. Therefore you should focus on how could people have those 22 neutral things without the big bad thing.
Otherwise the whole thing becomes yet another exercise in cuckservatism, basically telling conservative people you must mostly surrender to liberal stuff and have to give up your tribal view of nation and people or else there is the big bad stuff coming … You are just pushing the old agenda that any consistent and uncompromising way to be a tribal conservative equals Godwin.
He (and I assume it is a he) linked to another blog, whose central argument I will also reproduce:
“Fascists” are those populist, democratic-demotic, socialist, mass-movement leaders who don’t give a damn about the Intelligentsia. Who accept that the peasants want some kind national-religious superstitious mysticism. They are still socialist and envy-based to the core, they are just far more willing to look stupid and uneducated than Communists are. They don’t want to look Lenin-style smart and intellectual. They were basically saying they don’t need the Intelligentsia in order to whip up the Demos [people], they can do it without them.
It’s a small wonder Intelligentsia hated these guys first and foremost, far more than anyone else. They could deal with everybody else, they could ally with the Moderate Left and whip up the Demos to attack the Moderate Right, but these guys were taking their Demos tools from them!
So this is how these populist-socialist, anti-intellectual-socialist movements were constructed “Far Right” and “fascist”. In reality they were largely Anti-Intellectual Far Left, i.e. raw envy without the smart sounding stuff and with a lot of bullshit mysticism.
While, and I'll be honest, the novelty of being called a "cuckservative" is a fresh and interesting new experience for me, the argument is one I want to address more directly.

Let's start with something I hold to be self-evident: Tribalism is Bad. It's also, unfortunately, normal and unavoidable. Also unfortunate, is the fact that my innate bias makes a truly objective argument impossible. I can try to dress up historical examples as evidence, but even if I really try, it's still going to end up as motivated reasoning and virtue signalling. The fact that arguing, reason, and persuasion are only the tools that people use to gain power over one another, as opposed to facilitating a real exchange of ideas, is supremely frustrating to me.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone, when was the last time you got in a political argument with someone, and changed their mind? Or they changed your mind? Confirmation bias is real, and it's a bitch; anyone who disagrees has, in all likelihood, checked out (or is reading only to look for flaws in my reasoning). 

But this isn't just academic, look at this graph from YouGov:

Nor is this an isolated example, here's the one for Wikileaks:
I think the problem is obvious, but I'll spell it out anyway — people's opinions of things change drastically, both as they are seen to affect their tribe (wikileaks), or if high profile people in their tribe change their opinions. We have always been at war with Eastasia. 

This is madness. Things that are true (scientific theorems, a list of Putin's terrible deeds, etc) don't stop being true just because our opinion on them changes.

I realize I'm conflating several points here, but it's because I am continually struggling to understand how people think. I can guarantee that if it had been reversed, with Russia helping Clinton win the election by leaking Trump's emails, I would still not be a fan of Putin. That guy's killed journalists, and done other bad things too. I should hope I don't need to cite sources for this!

I've gone kind of a long way to get here, but it's important. I want to believe that (almost) everyone is fundamentally good and trying their best, and that post problems are more to do with coordination and intractable desires (two groups wanting the same piece of land, etc.). As part of this, it's axiomatic that human rights are paramount; you do the right thing by people not because they might do bad things to you (the golden rule), but because it's the right thing to do, because every person's life has inherent value. Not just when you feel like it but always; no wiggle room, no exceptions.

This position is hopelessly naïve, and falls apart with a single defector. The reason I spend so much time talking and thinking about these political issues, is because the people involved (simply do not accept this (on both sides, looking at you black bloc). I can and will continue to list examples, but as near as I can tell, the vast majority of people don't behave this way, and care only about the people who are like them (or at least make decisions as if the lives of their friends, family, and countrymen are more important than the lives of anyone else). How can you make people cooperate? I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that these right-wing nationalist groups, despite acting rationally, nevertheless embody the worst of humanity's tribalistic, short-sighted nature. 

I feel like an idiot, talking like this. "How do you make people better, smarter, wiser, and kinder?" is a stupid and foolish question, but it's one I keep coming back to.

Let me tell you about the second thing that happened to me today. I was in the supermarket, when I observed an interesting exchange. A brown-skinned man, for whom English was clearly not his first language, asked someone stocking the shelves where an item was. He was told were it was, and walked off. The stock-er then spent the next minute muttering (very very quietly) under his breath about immigrants, and how Donald Trump was going to fix it, and how he was the best president, and other things along that line. This really actually happened, and I was inordinately pleased at the time because I'm an inveterate narcissist who was thrilled to have something to write about. And I'm going to go on record and say that that man's reaction is both symptomatic of the problem and fundamentally inappropriate.

So no, I have to disagree. Call it an old agenda if you want, but there is ample evidence that tribalism, while undoubtedly a normal behavior for humanity, is fundamentally harmful (or at least inevitably leads to harmful outcomes for the out-groups. We have to do better than that. 

And I'm sorry, guy on the internet, that the thing you want is bad. I truly do empathize, as I wish I could make everyone agree with me, and other bad things too. But if the real goal is to have peace on earth, with everyone living long, happy, fulfilling lives, there's simply no way that a world of ethno-states is the way to go. What about people who don't fit? What happens when two different groups want the same land? What happens when one of these ethno-states wants to take something that belongs to someone else?

That's a rhetorical question, by the way. We all know what it leads to. Imperialism, if the other state can't fight back, and war if they can. I talk about this more in "A Historical Blip", but it's easy to forget how long and violent the history of the world has been, as we enjoy a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity. There is no such thing as a little bit of tribalism, or a "good" ethno-state, and it's not about intellectuals getting mad at anti-intellectuals (though I guess it's not not about that...), it's about having an ideological foundation for the world that works for everyone, not just for people like you.

1 comment:

  1. > fundamentally harmful (or at least inevitably leads to harmful outcomes for the out-groups.

    I'm curious: can you imagine a version of tribalism that isn't harmful? Does tribalism have to be "fundamentally" bad, or can it be redesigned towards better outcomes, the way we would try to do for any other piece of technology.

    It's something I've been grappling with as I settle into adulthood, especially in the last year or so. I realized that a lot of what makes my life enjoyable has been a product of tribal affiliation on one level or another. I was lucky to grow up among tribes that valued many of the "hopelessly naive" things. Of course, some of that is just me waxing nostalgic, and no one was perfect about any of it, but I do believe there's some truth to it, that tribal values can include things like fundamental rights and caring about people outside the in-group.

    I guess I've come to see tribalism the way I see capitalism, as an intuitive organizational method and something that can benefit humanity. There are definitely bad outcomes, there are definitely cracks through which people fall, there are definitely particular regions where it fails, but these are fixable problems.

    When a free market can't meet our needs, we bring in additional, non-capitalistic incentive structures (such as regulations and ethics) to ameliorate the issue. Do you think that can be done for tribalism?

    If not, if tribalism is Bad and needs to be gotten rid of, can you think of anything that would replace its functionality?

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