February 07, 2009

The Ravages of Tribalism (III): Learning to Hate "The Other"

Part I and Part II provide the background and context needed to more fully appreciate what follows.

Some General Observations

The analysis of the final part of the true story we are considering will reveal several significant patterns of thought and behavior. Before turning to the story's specifics, I want to offer certain observations about the behavior of tribes in general. With regard to these issues, the particular basis of tribal definition is of no moment: these characteristics are true of tribes defined on the basis of family, religion, sex and/or sexual identity, race, political party, and/or nation. I will be discussing all these points in much more detail as this series progresses, but it might be useful to begin even now to see how these patterns operate.

I would not go so far as to describe the following as "Laws of Tribal Behavior" or in similar grandiose terms. Let's designate them in a simpler way, perhaps as "Observations About Tribal Beliefs and Behavior." These are the observations that I consider of special significance:

ONE: To the degree that membership in a particular tribe or tribes is important to a person's sense of identity, that person believes that his own tribe(s) is inherently and uniquely good. To the degree that tribal membership is a critical element of personal identity, all members of all tribes are convinced this is true of those tribes to which they belong.
TWO: Insofar as the tribe's centrally defining characteristic(s) (race, religion, political beliefs, etc.) are concerned, all other tribes that differ with regard to these characteristics are necessarily inferior and wrong. This has an especially critical implication: at first with regard to these centrally defining characteristics, and inevitably in a more general sense, the individual members of all other tribes are necessarily inferior to and less worthy than the members of one's own tribe(s).
THREE: The basic dynamics of all tribes are the same. This applies to all tribes in two different critical respects. It is true of dynamics within the tribe -- that is, of those particular mechanisms which create and maintain tribal identity and cohesiveness -- and it is also true of how one tribe views itself and behaves in relation to other tribes.
FOUR: The major mechanism by which any tribe creates and maintains tribal identity and cohesiveness is obedience: the requirement that each member of the tribe conform his thinking and behavior in accordance with the major elements of the tribe's belief system.
On the last point, I refer you to my discussion of obedience in, "The Honor of Being Human." I prefaced the description of obedience offered there by noting: "I wanted this description to encompass at least three fundamentally different kinds of relationships, but to isolate the dynamics of obedience that are common to all of them. Those three relationships are: parent to child; one adult to another adult; and the adult to the state."

Because it is critical to what follows, I repeat the description here:
Obedience is the term used to describe the demand by a person in a superior position (superior psychologically, legally and/or in terms of the power he possesses in some other form) that a person in an inferior position conduct himself in a particular manner. The essence of obedience is the demand without more: a reason may be provided, but a reason is unnecessary. Moreover, the reason may be unconvincing or incoherent, and it may contradict other reasons provided for other demands. Most importantly, the reason need not be one that the person in the inferior position agrees with. Informed, voluntary agreement occurs when a person is presented with a reason(s) to act in a certain manner; he understands and is ultimately convinced of the validity of the reason(s), and therefore acts in the manner suggested.

Obedience is the opposite of voluntary, uncoerced agreement: the understanding and agreement of the person in the inferior position are not required, and are often not sought at all. The person in the inferior position may profoundly disagree with the reason(s) offered for the demand, if any. When the person in the inferior position obeys, he does so because of his certain knowledge that if he does not, he will be punished in some form: psychologically, legally, socially, or in some other way. Thus, the primary (although not the sole) motivation that ensures obedience is negative in nature: it is not the promise of a reward (even though certain rewards may be offered), but the assurance that he will not suffer consequences that are painful in varying degrees, i.e., that he will not be punished.
You are probably already seeing how all these issues are involved in the story we are analyzing.

The Final Part of the Boy's Lesson

We turn now to the final part of the deeply damaging lesson being taught to the boy in this story:
Of course I realized that this could be an excellent "teachable moment" about impulse control, so I knelt down and spoke to him. I told him that I was very disappointed, that I really didn't like what he did. I asked him again why he did it, and he still didn't answer. Then I asked him "Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?"

He replied, "Republicans."
I want to be very precise here, and I also want to answer in advance one particular objection to my argument that I can easily imagine might be offered. If one wanted to minimize what I consider the deeply damaging effects of this kind of incident, I suppose one might contend that the mother isn't saying that those people are "bad" as people. Rather, she's making a narrower claim: that they "know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway." Thus, they are bad actors, if you will, rather than bad people. In this context, I consider this a meaningless distinction.

First, this lesson is being offered to a very young child. As is true of every aspect of the particular content offered in this lesson (as distinct from the psychological dynamics involved), it is impossible for a young child to grasp an issue of this kind in anything close to the manner required. Many adults can barely understand it; how in the world is a young child going to, especially in a situation as emotionally charged as this one? He won't understand it. But his understanding is not sought or required.

Second, consider further the introductory phrase of this part of the lesson: "Do you know what we call people..." This is the very essence of name-calling. This is one form in which a person seeks to demonize members of other tribes that are especially disfavored. This is the way any vicious racist might begin a particularly disgusting description of those people he loathes. The message is unmistakable, and this is trebly true in this setting involving a young child: "Those people are bad." For these reasons (and others), it is very striking to see a story of this kind proudly offered on a self-described "liberal" and "progressive" site. And as we will see in a moment, not one commenter had anything other than enthusiastic praise for this story.

So I can already refer to the general observations offered above, and offer this story as one proof for them. And with regard to these issues, remember: The basic dynamics of all tribes are the same.

As I noted in Part II and with these additional points in mind, I say again that your reaction to this kind of condemnation of those "bad" people should be identical, regardless of the designation. Replace "Republicans" with "Democrats," or African Americans ("Do you know what we call people who are lazy and irresponsible, and who know that's bad but do the bad thing anyway?" -- Barack Obama knows all about that one), or Jews ("Do you know what we call people who are greedy, manipulative and dishonest, and who know that's bad but do the bad thing anyway?"), or any other similar category, and the lesson is the same. It is utterly wrong, and deeply destructive.

I should repeat a point I made about this story. I didn't select this story to introduce these issues because I think this mother doesn't love her children (which I emphasized I do not think), or because this story represents some unusual kind of emotional manipulation and abuse. We are all tragically familiar with numerous examples of much worse treatment of children. I selected this story for precisely the opposite reason: because it is so completely and absolutely ordinary. As I said before, this is the kind of incident that most people wouldn't even notice. I'm sure that some readers are thinking even now that I'm inventing problems out of next to nothing (in which case, I refer them back to the issues discussed in Part I and Part II).

It is because this kind of incident is so utterly common and ordinary that it is of such immense significance. As I am trying to demonstrate, it is by such means that certain patterns of thought, feeling and behavior are instilled in young children -- and it is these same patterns that lead to enormous suffering as those children grow up, suffering which very often continues after they have become adults. These same patterns also underlie many of the horrors that we see in our world today, just as similar horrors have engulfed the world in the past more times than bears remembering.

This particular story, together with the patterns of thought to which it gives rise, presents still further issues that merit analysis. Whether we call the "bad" people Republicans or Democrats, this perspective entirely rules out the possible existence of those individuals who might hold different political convictions in good faith. The "bad" people are not simply mistaken or misguided. They are bad. Not only are they bad, but they know they're bad. Despite this knowledge -- which the accuser knows the "bad" people to possess with the certainty of the True Believer -- the "bad" people persist in their evil. The young boy in this story certainly does not want to be "bad" or evil, and he desperately does not want his mother to think he is. So of course, the boy will say whatever his mother demands. He will obey.

We might very well wonder whether the mother believes her own condemnation. It would certainly appear that she does. Consider the insurmountable obstacle this belief represents. Such a belief makes impossible the idea of changing the opinions of those with whom one disagrees about issues of any significance. For according to this perspective, we aren't faced with a problem of knowledge or understanding. Those who disagree aren't innocent in their error, if it is error: they are "bad," and they know they are "bad." So what is one to do in political battles? Try to overwhelm your opponents by sheer numbers? If you can't do that, what then? Eliminate them?

One need only consult the leading liberal and conservative blogs on any given day to appreciate that this perspective is widely held on both left and right. Both "sides" frequently accuse the other of inherent dishonesty and all manner of sin. While editing and rewriting an earlier draft of this essay, I came across another such example just this morning. The title of the post announces the same perspective held by the mother in our story: "Crazy People." The post concludes:
As John Cole explained this week, "I really don't understand how bipartisanship is ever going to work when one of the parties is insane."

Between sanity and craziness, there is no common ground.
When the young boy in our story grows up, he can write for Washington Monthly. What we learn and internalize as children, we perpetually reenact as adults. As some readers may know, John Cole was once a conservative and a fervent supporter of the Iraq war and occupation (as well as of the Bush administration in general). He once wrote otherwise identical posts with identical condemnation running in exactly the opposite direction. Now he is warmly embraced by many liberal and progressive bloggers, for they recognize, at least on the emotional level, a committed tribalist when they see one. Remember these words from Alice Miller that I offered in Part I:
This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called "healthy normality"--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience...
Cole's loyalties have changed, but that is only on the surface: it is only "a switching of values," which in themselves are unimportant. His arguments and his perspective reveal that "his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience." And I repeat again: The basic dynamics of all tribes are the same. I will be analyzing this kind of "switching of values" in more detail in the future; in another variation on this theme, Andrew Sullivan also represents an example of this phenomenon. (See my analysis in the concluding parts of the "On Torture" series -- here and here -- for my earlier discussion of the problems in Sullivan's approach, many of which are related to these same concerns.)

In addition to the unavoidable fact that this perspective and condemnation in this form ("bad," "crazy," "insane") are not susceptible of proof, both "sides" render their own belief incomprehensible. In different ways, and frequently in the same way, both left and right appeal to "American exceptionalism," and to the "inherent goodness," even nobility, of "the American people." But if that's true, how is it then that so many Americans -- tens of millions on either side in the last election -- are "bad," and know they are "bad"?

In "The Elites Who Rule Us," I considered various forms of "American exceptionalism." The full essay discusses these issues in much greater detail, but here I offer this passage as especially relevant (the essay was published in May 2007):
[A]mong progressives, the appeals to the wisdom and infinite goodness of "the American people" are unending. So exactly which Americans are they talking about? We can safely assume they probably don't mean the 62 million people who voted for Bush in 2004, long after the criminally murderous nature of his policies had been made unequivocally clear, or the millions of Americans who still support Bush even today. They probably don't mean those Americans who enjoy hearty laughs watching repeated acts of torture on 24, and who wish only that their government used similar methods still more systematically (as if we don't use them systematically enough already). But here is where the genuinely religious nature of this belief in the innate goodness of "the people" becomes clearer. We should first note that, whenever political leaders or would-be wielders of power appeal to "civic democracy" or "the will of the people," they operate on a crucial but unspoken assumption: that the people they invoke just happen to agree with them. When these seekers after power use the state to force people to act in certain ways, they will only be doing what the people themselves want, for the beliefs of "the people" coincidentally overlap with their own at every important point. I repeat that every bloodthirsty dictator has said the same.

But note a further religious element involved. Every fervent "believer" thinks that if only others saw the truth as he does, if they only had all the "facts," they would be overwhelmed by his particular vision, and come to see its indisputable veracity. In exactly the same way, all these seekers of political power think that if only "the people" had all the "facts" (which are the ones they view as important, and no others), they would embrace every significant part of their political program. This avoids one obvious and fundamental aspect of human nature, and human behavior: people can have precisely the same information -- yet they will reach vastly different conclusions because they operate on the basis of different moral premises and values. People make different choices; as we all know, those choices are often entirely unlike ours, and not infrequently directly opposed to ours. Keep in mind that the state is a system of obedience: the essence of the state is force and compulsion. If you violate the state's requirements, you will pay a penalty. But this reality is washed away with appeals to "the will of the people": the power-seekers convince themselves that you are only being forced to act in ways that you would choose yourself. This is only a very brief beginning on what is an inordinately complex subject; I will return to these issues in much more detail in an upcoming series about the primitive tribalism that has overwhelmed our politics today.
It's almost two years later, but I finally got here.

This perspective dispenses with the idea of legitimate opposition, legitimate in the sense that a person might have access to all the information you do, but decline in good faith to draw the same conclusions. This belief system necessarily means that all opposing views are not only mistaken, but fundamentally illegitimate and even immoral. Up to this point and despite the fact that I regard this as a gravely dangerous method of proceeding, insofar as specifically political questions are concerned, this is not necessarily a problem. Certainly, I think my own views are correct. As just one example, an especially important one, I think there can be no valid disagreement that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq represented and continues to represent a monstrous, unforgivable series of war crimes. I am further convinced that all those who directly support and enable these war crimes are war criminals -- a category which includes almost everyone in Washington since 2003, with only a handful of exceptions. You may disagree, but to do so requires that you choose to disregard the plain meaning of the Nuremberg Principles. That may indeed be your choice; it is not mine.

I don't consider these conclusions open to question, yet I recognize that many people (most people, in fact) do not agree. While I will draw certain general conclusions about those who disagree -- they are lacking the required information, they don't know how to process that information they have, perhaps they've never seriously examined these questions, or possibly, in some exceptionally rare cases, they know these are war crimes and simply don't care (although if there is such a case, I have yet to be pointed to it) -- I will not presume to pass judgment in an individual case without having a great deal of further knowledge. Among other things, I would need to know the extent of the person's knowledge, what sources of information he relies on or is even aware of, and the specific arguments he uses to support his views. That is only the beginning of the questions. But I certainly would not say that all those who disagree are "bad," and I most definitely would not say that they know they are "bad." (I have drawn certain conclusions about some individual writers and bloggers, as I will further discuss in future parts of this series. But in those cases, my conclusions are supported by a considerable amount of evidence, in the form of the writings and opinions offered by those writers and bloggers over a substantial period of time.)

But note with care precisely the point at which the problem arises. I am not attempting to gain power in the political system (either directly or indirectly) to compel obedience on the part of those who disagree with me. I am certainly trying to convince others of the correctness of my views and perspective, but I am seeking their understanding: "Informed, voluntary agreement occurs when a person is presented with a reason(s) to act in a certain manner; he understands and is ultimately convinced of the validity of the reason(s), and therefore acts in the manner suggested." In terms of action, the action I suggest most often is that people consider withdrawing their support for our current corporatist-authoritarian-militarist system, in those ways that are open to them given their particular circumstances.

Given the nature of the state itself -- and the essence of the state is its power to compel obedience -- and given the particular nature of the present system, those who are seeking political power are not seeking understanding and voluntary agreement: they want the power to force people, including those people who profoundly disagree with their convictions and goals, to act in those ways they themselves consider to be "good." As I often have cause to note, every murderous, slaughtering dictator has made the same claim.

And the lesson imparted by the mother in the story we have been examining is radically different from my own perspective and views as described above: "Then I asked him 'Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?'

"He replied, 'Republicans.'"

As we've discussed, this is the prototype of the most primitive form of tribalism, the dividing of the world into "us" and "them." "We" are right, "they" are wrong, and there are no exceptions. "We" are "good," "they" are "bad," and there are no exceptions. In any matter of moment, "they" are to be defeated, by any means necessary. It is impossible to change their minds or alter their opinions: they are "bad," they know it, and they do "the bad thing anyway." The young boy in the story -- and any child who is incapable of surviving without his parents' approval, which means any child -- will not question these beliefs, for these beliefs cannot be questioned, or so he is told. Therefore, he will do whatever is necessary to please his mother. In this quest for approval, which is neverending as the blogger whose email I discussed in Part II demonstrates, all those facts which may call this division of "us" and "them" into question are cast aside. Facts don't matter, truth which does not accord with what our tribe demands doesn't matter, nothing matters except the continued approval of the tribe we have chosen.

Of course, choice in any meaningful sense is completely irrelevant with regard to this very young boy. As noted above, the tribal division of "us" and "them" cannot be defended by an adult. How is a young child going to make sense of any of this? But he won't make sense of it: his understanding and voluntary agreement are beside the point. The point is obedience.

A few of the comments to the Daily Kos post should also be noted. Not one of the comments raises even a minor question regarding the content of the mother's story. The mother knew her story would meet with great approval from her tribe; tragically, she was entirely correct. All the commenters find the story delightful, even wonderful. And they offer some of their own similar stories.

One commenter calls the boy's response "the perfect answer," and goes on:
I'll share mine: My 9 y.o. recently asked me what would be a good name for a crazy monkey (have no idea where that came from). Out of my mouth, without any thought, came: "Bush" He looked at me for a minute and completely cracked up. He gets it.
A nine-year-old "gets it"? What exactly does he "get"? Certainly he gets that his laughter would be the response that receives parental approval. It would be valuable to know exactly what the boy saw as he looked at his father "for a minute." Almost certainly, he saw the beginning of a smile or some other indication that laughter was the expected and approved response. He's already learned how to pick up the emotional signals of approval and disapproval, and he's learned how to adjust his behavior accordingly. He's also learning how to dehumanize those who are not "us," those who are on "the other side." Could this nine-year-old begin to explain, on his own and in his own terms, even one of the political issues involved? Yet this parent is convinced that his child "gets it."

Or consider this comment:
We took my daughters, five and seven, to see the Yeoman of the Guard, an operetta set in the Tower of London. We explained that the Tower was where important people who had done bad things were sent.

My five year old said "Like George Bush would have to [be] there?"
A five-year-old, who has already learned just what to say to please Dad, although she could not possibly understand in any genuine sense any of the complex political questions at issue.

It is all too easy to teach children to obey, to teach them how to be alert to emotional signals from their parents, and how to act in ways that will merit the parents' approval. It is much more difficult to teach them, in those terms appropriate to their age and level of development, how to be truly independent, and how to think and act in ways that are spontaneous and genuinely their own.

The question of teaching and nurturing young children in ways that are not destructive and that do not lead to the tribal perspective requires further examination, and that will be the subject of the next installment.