Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Story of Us

I have come to the belief that one of the great casualties of post-modernity is us. Here’s what I mean by that. The human brain is the most complex computer in existence. This particular computer comes with preinstalled software developed about 50,000 years ago. This brain has the ability to perceive roughly 100-150 other humans as being unique individuals; everyone else is just them. You can use other terms to describe them, like randoms, non-player characters, or simply the extras and supporting cast in this film which is your life. The human brain draws this very clear distinction between us and them. I call this the UvT (Us versus Them) Mentality.

The problem is that a basic tenant of post-modernity is that there is no us or them; we are all part of one great, big global village. So the archaic tribal brain is at odds with the post-modern social conditioning. We are trying to force a round peg into a square hole and this denial of reality may prove to be our doom.

Okay. That may seem a bit extreme, but I am not so sure. Some rules of nature are pretty obvious, like jumping from height will be painful or lethal. Other rules are more subtle and the results of violating them are more gradual. It’s kind of like smoking. One cigarette is innocent and harmless enough, but after a pack a day for twenty years the habit takes its toll. The sin is not the cigarette, the sin is the lifestyle. It’s these subtle long-term violations of natural law that are the most dangerous. The denial of the UvT Mentality is just such an insidious sin against nature.

Human social organisation has been pretty consistent over these past 50,000 years. Every living creature is driven to procreate. Among humans, males and females join forces to procreate, feed, and nurture their young. It is advantageous to produce as many off-spring as possible in case some die and to help support the family. These are the first three tiers of human society: the individual, the couple, and the family. But what about these children in the family? They need to procreate as well and keeping it in the family is not the best genetic option. Families need other families. This collection of families constitutes the tribe, the fourth tier of human social organisation.

There is another group that fits snugly in-between the individual and the family; call it tier 1.5. This occurs when a small group of men break away, either literally or metaphorically, from the tribe to seek their fortune and thus become a gang. If successful, gang members do eventual take wives, form families, and either establish a new tribe or re-amalgamate into their old tribe.

The tribe is the key. It is the mental template for human organisation. There are a few key features of note that need to be understood so that we can see how this template works and how it is applied to the higher tiers of human organisation.

The generic tribe that I am describing here is the typical form of human organisation taking into consideration the past 50,000 years. For the sake of perspective, imagine that the modern human brain has only existed for one hour. Agriculture and the city-state emerged in Egypt and Mesopotamia about ten minutes ago and the modern nation-state formed half a second ago. As far the human brain is concerned, non-tribal organisation is bucking the trend and by no means the norm.

The first key feature of the tribe is that it claims a defined territory that it exploits and defends. This is universal. The popular myth that Native Americans, for example, had no concept of land ownership is simply nonsense. All tribes recognise the territory used and defended by the tribe. This creates the fundamental delineation between us in our space and them in theirs. The UvT Mentality begins in this physical space. Within its defined space the tribe develops culture. This includes language, beliefs, rituals, history, and stories. This creates a second border that transcends the physical plane to become conceptual. We are different from them.

The tribe exists for one purpose. It exists to flourish. The first part of flourishing is survival, and then as survival becomes easier the tribe looks to prosper. These are the seeds of human morality. Killing, robbing, or lying to members of your own tribe runs counter to the tribe’s purpose because such acts diminish the tribe’s ability to survive. However, in order to prosper it may be necessary to kill, rob, or deceive members of another tribe. So a double-standard develops. Thou shalt not murder your own kind, but you can kill outsiders. There is one standard for us and another standard when dealing with them.

Likewise behaviours considered to be virtuous have their origins within the tribal context. There is an innate sense of co-operation and mutual concern for the well-being of others in the tribe. A man may willingly and happily sacrifice his time, energy, and skill to do a favour for a fellow tribesman. Similarly, he may readily obey a tribal leader directing the actions of the tribesmen for the good of the tribe because he knows that by helping others he is indirectly helping himself. This has to do in part with the interdependency among its members. Abstract concepts like duty, honour, altruism, and human value all stem from the physical necessities for survival found in tribal existence.

It is important to note that the UvT Mentality is not inherently hostile towards those outside the tribe. You may trade with them, ally with them; be friends with them; live among them, and you may even marry from them, but they are still them.

The next tier of human organisation is the nation, a collection of tribes sharing common language, history, culture, beliefs, values, and virtues. This commonality leads to the pervasive belief that the tribes comprising the nation are one people.

To us the step from tribe to nation seems small, but it represents a huge leap in consciousness. The key features of tribal existence are practical and immediate. The members of the tribe live, work, fight, produce, and endure together. Think of it like a family. Imagine two brothers who go their separate ways and form families and you are a child born of one of these families. You grow-up on an isolated farm among your brothers and sisters and led by your father and mother. You work your farm and defend it from outsiders. Then one day an man appears that your father introduces as being your cousin and therefore part of the family. This does not make any sense to you. How can this outsider be part of your family when he is a stranger? To understand this you have to make a cognitive leap and redefine your concept of family to include distant blood relatives who have their own farms where they live, work, produce, and endure with their immediate family, but are still part of your family.

It’s a common phenomenon in history where an invading army conquers an area by picking-off one tribe at a time. These tribes shared a common language, culture, and beliefs, but never united against their common enemy because they failed to make that cognitive leap from the practical tribal identity to the conceptual national identity.

The first four tiers of human organisation, from individual to couple to family to tribe, are straightforward and based largely on immediate and observable necessity. With the advent of the nation and conceptual national identity, human organisation starts to become more abstract. The birth of national identity marks the beginning of a process of transference in which many tribal features move to the national level. The final three tiers of human organisation, the nation, the nation-state, and multiculturalism, are phases in this progression.

The driving forces behind this progression are technological advances in travel times and communication. In eight hours a man can travel 24 miles, a horse 40 miles, an 1850’s steam train 280 miles, a car 480 miles, and a modern passenger jet 4,400 miles. If the nearest tribe or village was fifty miles away, then you could reach them in two days by foot or ride there in one day. With industrialisation you could be in the next town fifty miles away in less than two hours, and today you could drive fifty miles to the other end of the city in less than an hour depending on traffic. The same applies to communications. A letter once travelled as fast as man or horse could carry it but today it moves at light speed.

The early nations were a confederation of largely autonomous tribes residing in fixed locations. Over time more power shifted to a ruling central authority administering a much larger territory and the tribal territories evolved into villages and towns.  As more and more people participated in the governance of the nation we see the beginnings of the sixth tier, the institutionalised nation commonly called the nation-state. The United Kingdom became the first modern nation-state in 1707 followed by the United States in 1783 and France in 1789. In the nation-state, we see a transference of the practical tribal features, such as common territory, mutual interdependency, and common culture, beliefs, language, virtues, and values to the national level and a more institutionalised sense of “us” than we see in the nation.

The basic tribes does still exist, but in the form of villages, small towns, neighbourhoods, and communities within the larger structure of the nation-state. As with the nation, the tribes are united by a shared belief in the unity of the people, their nation-state, and a shared purpose. This is commonly called patriotism among the insiders and nationalism to the outsiders. They still retain a local sense of tribe, but it has more to do with things like interpersonal relationships, sentimentality, and local pride than the urgency of survival and prosperity that we see in the basic tribal model.

The nation-state, like the nation itself, is the product of a shift in consciousness in which the individual’s concept of “us” is expanded to include strangers that we presume to be like us. Conceptual identity is a tricky thing. I may say that I am proud to be an American, but my idea of America may be different from another American’s. There is a presumption that we are part of the same tribe, but that presumption could be based on nonsense. This is why the nation-state needed to function like a giant tribe with clearly defined physical and cultural borders that defined us as being a distinct group.

Call it patriotism or nationalism, but either way the nation-state constantly reinforced tribal identity and tribal morality. In the film Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, a British soldier during the Zulu War observes, “Here is better than home, eh, sir? I mean, at home if you kill someone they arrest you, here they'll give you a gun and show you what to do, sir. I mean, I killed fifteen of those buggers. Now, at home they'd hang me, here they'll give me a fucking medal, sir." The scene is funny because we can no longer conceive the tribe-oriented code that says that it is morally right to kill them to advance the tribe, but immoral to kill us. We cannot conceive it because we have moved into the seventh tier of human organisation called multiculturalism.

High speed travel and communications, the complex, varied, and specialised division of labour, and changes in family law have drastically altered the context of human existence. Multiculturalism is an attempt to expand upon the presumption of commonality found within the nation-state to a global scale to include all humanity as one huge tribe of 7 billion people with different, and sometimes conflicting, cultures, beliefs, values, and virtues.

The post-modern individual still needs other humans, but they are nameless, faceless others. They are strangers scattered across the globe who make our clothes and stock our supermarkets. It is now possible for the first time in history for a person to live without family, friends, or tribe, independent of any community. There is no sense of mutual dependency to bind couples together till death do they part since they do not really need each other anymore, and kids don’t need their parents either. Emotional ties may still bind them, but these relationships are not needed for survival as in the old days. Without concrete mutual dependency the tribe becomes so abstract that it becomes subject to personal whims. The couple, family, gang, tribe, nation, or nation-state still exists because people will it to exist and not because it needs to exist. So we find ourselves trying to navigate a place where the tribe remain a psychological necessity, but not a physical imperative, and so it becomes an emotional luxury.

At the start I illustrated how many abstract values are rooted in concrete necessity. For example, in a conflict where you are protecting the territory from which your tribe derives the resources required for mutual survival, loyalty and honour become vital abstract tools necessary for concrete survival. The absence of loyalty from your fellows or a negative reputation could lead to disaster, but today the cure for disloyalty or a bad reputation is as simple as changing your circle of friends or moving to another part of town. When our morality is no longer rooted in practicality, it becomes little more a vestigial organ with which we feel only a sentimental attachment.

Where villages, small towns, neighbourhoods and communities once fulfilled the human instinctual need for a tribe we now see cultural consumption as the primary delineator of groups. These are usually recognised as subcultures, lifestyle groups, supporters of sports teams, political groups, or hobbyists. These post-modern tribes satisfy our superficial need for community without the sacrifice or permanence that makes it a real tribe.

In the tribal context the individual had value among the people who had known him his whole life. If he wanted to be a craftsman, artist, performer, scholar, or warrior he could be and people valued him for his contribution. In the nation-state you could attain national notoriety but today we demand global notoriety, anything less is just local and therefore deemed not as good or simply amateur. We might argue that we are getting the best of the best by demanding global quality, but the trade-off is that a lower percentage of people can make a living doing what they enjoy and be valued for doing it.

Despite the fact that the current global context is not conducive to tribalism, humans are still hardwired to be tribal creatures and this leads to social divisions and exploitation. For example, looking at the stereotypical Right/Left political paradigm we see the Right operating on a sixth tier model of the independent nation-state sharing common culture, value and beliefs, fixed borders, stressing family and community, and recognise one rule for us and another for them (if one American dies it’s a tragedy but if a thousand Iraqis die it’s a statistic). Any threat to that worldview is seen as an attack on the nation-state and therefore the tribe.

The modus operandi for the Left is more seventh tier as they attempt to apply the pre-programmed tribal model universally. A tribe takes care of its own, therefore we must ensure that no one goes without social support, including people living thousands of miles away in Africa. Multiculturalism and diversity must be promoted regardless of the values and virtues that they promote since all cultures and beliefs are deemed of equal value. Since all humans are part of the same tribe, all human life is sacred and morality must be applied across the board regardless.

So here’s the problem. The right-wing view that I presented here runs counter to the current context in which we live and the only way to change that is through drastic action to save the indivisibility of the nation-state. However, the left-wing view runs counter to the UvT Mentality inherent in human nature, and therefore is also destined to fail without drastic action to force conformity. Both sides need a hammer to pound that round peg of ideology into the square hole of reality but are unable or unwilling to use it.

Another arena where the UvT Mentality is exploited is in the business world where companies attempt to mould their employees into a tribe rallying behind the corporate banner. What they fail to recognise is that the days of life-long employment with a single company are over. Most employees are mercenaries selling their skills to the highest bidder – and rightly so.

So who is your tribe? I have spent most of my life trying to answer that question as I searched the world looking to find “my kind”. I finally found my answer in a quote by the French philosopher Voltaire. “All people are equal, it is not birth, it is virtue alone that makes the difference.”

A virtue is a positive habit and is often linked to values, those things a person acts to gain or to keep. Each of us looks at the world and decides what is worth acting for and which actions are positive (good) and which are negative (bad) in getting them. Collectively, these choices constitute our lifestyle and therefore compose our identity. We are what we do.

Ultimately, what separates one person from another; what makes one man or group of men better or worse than another; what unites a tribe and divides one tribe from another are virtues and values. The virtues and values that a person subscribes to were once primarily the product of social conditioning within the family, tribe, nation, and nation-state. This is still true to a degree, but a primary feature of our multicultural state of post-modernity is the absence of a single dominant ethical system of universally accepted virtues and values. Truth is seen as subjective and therefore little more than opinion.

This condition leaves each of us trying to find a tribe that shares our ideas of what is virtuous and what to value. We possess an innate instinct to be a part of that tribe wherever it might be. Some people happily accept the standard that they were given in their social conditioning. Others want to change the world the fit their standards. Others still just want to find their community and shut the rest of the world out. There seems to be a growing number of people who secretly long for socio-economic collapse and a forced return to tribalism. All that I can answer to that is each person must discover their own standards and be true to their beliefs.  These days the members of your tribe or nation include anyone that you choose to include as your people within that mental construct called us.

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