22 September 2020

Focusing on the wrong issue (PART 4/4) (Part 1 of a series on race based on emails to my family)

 In the modern world, where technology has created wealth and comfort beyond what anyone could even imagine for 99% of human existence, close to 100% of human problems can be traced to our inability to let go of our prehistoric propensity to group other humans into categories of “us” and “them”.

The driver of all outrage, without exception, comes down to grouping people into broad dichotomies.  No one feels outrage at earthquakes, or diseases, or even single individuals that can’t be categorized with other people – we look on sole psychopathic sadistic murderers with fear, horror, anger, disgust, and often morbid curiosity, but as long as their victims are entirely random, we do not feel outrage.  That feeling is inherently reserved for groups, for groups who are not ourselves, who we can point to as a fundamentally “bad people”.

Historically people needed absolutely no rationalization to make that distinction.  We hate the people on the other side of the river because they are them over there, and we are us.  Children need make no grand explanations for it, nor do sports fans.  People will make these in-group / out-group loyalties in psychological experiments even when they know their association with a group is 100% arbitrary and random, being kind to and trusting the “green” stranger and distrusting and being unfair to the “purple” stranger if the coin toss put them on the green side. 

One of the most significant differences between the political left and right is that the right continues to deliberately, consciously, expressly, embrace this worldview, without any shame.  They believe nationalism to be entirely valid, to in fact be a virtue.  They find the ideas of “one world one people”, multiculturalism, global prosperity, to not only be unrealistic, but not even desirable.  In that worldview, one’s moral priorities should be to one’s God, one’s family, and one’s country, (in that order) – and fuck everybody else if it helps you and yours.
This lines up perfectly with our instinctual feeling of morality, which was designed not to make us actually good people, but merely to facilitate group living.  It is why so many people easily rationalize doing evil things in so many contexts, war crimes and slavery and prison abuses, gang members and terrorism – and its why no one should ever trust their gut instinct to be an ethical guide.  Our feelings line up with (so called) “morality”, but not with true ethics.

The key ingredient in creating in-group loyalty is indoctrination.  Propaganda doesn’t have much effect on people who have already accepted a competing ideology.  The best way to ensure indoctrination is to get people while they are young. And you don’t convince that young person with direct and clear factual statements, explanations and evidence of the superiority of the group’s way of thinking, but by making them FEEL like the group is all one “us”, and that they are “one of us”.
One of the ways we identify us vs them is common language, another big one is food: family dinners, dinner with friends, we celebrate milestones and holidays with feasts – the term “breaking bread” means people, possibly disparate people, coming together peacefully. This is why so many religions have seemingly random dietary prohibitions: if someone from the wrong group invites you to dinner, there is sure to be someone offended, and your loyalty to “us” is retained.

Another big one, used by nearly every group, is some form of group vocalization or music: prayers, chants, slogans, anthems, songs.  There is something hypnotic and engulfing about a group in song, your own voice lost in a sea of many who make up your people.

I remember a moment when the significance of this fully came together to me: I was walking along the sidewalk, to or from a job I believe, when I was passed by a line of children, preschool or kindergarten age, all holding a string to keep them together, with adults at the front and back, and they were all singing Jewish songs I recognized from various Jewish functions, in their tiny preschooler voices, all as one.  I thought about how I don’t know what all the words mean, but I remember enough of the translations to know they are all various prayers and bits of historical culture and religiosity. 

I heard the same songs when I worked at a Jewish summer camp, with the junior high and high school kids, English speaking American kids, but they all knew all the words, all joyous and cohesive – there was daily singing, but one night in particular, outdoors, in a tight group, stood out to me particularly strongly – these were kids who knew who their “us” group was.
At bootcamp they don’t let you sleep enough.  As a result, people fall asleep in class fairly often. You’re supposed to stand up in the back of the class if you can’t quite keep awake.  Not everyone always makes it.  In two months, the only time I saw the company commander truly angry was from offense that several people fell asleep during the class on the significance of the American Flag and the National Anthem.  On military bases it is expected that everyone will stand and face the flag twice a day, at
8am and again at sundown, as the national anthem (or another patriotic song) plays over loudspeakers that can be heard from everywhere.
The same phenomenon is behind sports chants, war cries, the chants at marches and rallies: you are one of us.

That primal feeling of togetherness, that makes people feel accepted and safe – and righteous, can’t exist without an “other”; other religion, other team, other country, other political beliefs. 

As the most basic form of indoctrination, it predates verbal explanations – once established, loyalty to it can convince people of all sorts of insane things, talking plants on fire providing the meaning of life to one, (definitely not just insane), person, of one random tribe of all the groups of people on the planet…

I remember very distinctly being aware that this is what was happening at rallies and marches since I was a child, and of being uncomfortable with it. I almost always opted not to participate in song or chant, but it took many years before I figured out exactly what it was that bothered me and learned how to articulate it.  There is a phenomenon known in psychology as deindividualization, which basically just means “group-think”, where otherwise independent minds get lost in the crowd. By chanting, the group is asking each individual to pledge loyalty, just the same as it is implied in an anthem or spelled out in a pledge of allegiance – it is just a much more subtle, and therefore insidious, way of doing it.


This is why I am wary of promoting speaking out as a “tradition”.  I don’t believe it should be a standard, an expectation, or a cultural thing.  It can be important, there are times when protests and rallies are warranted, are necessary to break a negative status quo.  It can be a necessary means to overrule a powerful entity, government or corporate, that is taking advantage of their strength, by consolidating the weaker masses into a larger, stronger, unified mass.  I see the value in that - I have participated in it and I would again if I believed it to be for a good reason.  But I think there is a real risk, as soon as there is any feeling of it being a tradition, of having it be important for it’s own sake instead of just on an individual, case-by-case basis. If the point is the rebellion, more than the cause, then it just degrades into another form of group-think, of drawing lines of in-group and out.
Group-think is the sort of thing that can convince people to ignore their own lived daily experiences in favor of belief in a political narrative.

At the end of this moment 20 more people will have died, with all the ensuing grief to their loved ones, as a direct result of the riots, twice as many as all the high-profile unjustified police killings over a decade put together. 


A bunch of police policies will be changed - most likely for the better, true!

But the next year  over 9,000 black people will be murdered every year by people who aren’t cops, which will be ignored, because it happens in all those “diverse” but segregated cities, where (other than cops) middle class white people don’t have to see it and can pretend it doesn’t exist. 
We can’t be outraged for those 92,750 young men and women, they can remain an anonymous statistic, because they are mostly killed by Black people which means the perpetrators aren’t “other” enough.  Without an “other” there is no accompanying feeling of self-righteous outrage.
Instead we will have reinforced the Narrative yet again while leaving the status quo of poverty and violence remaining along racial lines for a new generation of people, ensuring the anger and fear, the self-righteousness and otherization continue, no matter what policies are put in place, no matter the outcome of the trials, no matter how rare events like these become.

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