“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Caveman Conservatism

If some people are more tribal than others, one might reasonably assume that they would gravitate more to sports. If you were to examine, say, their offices or bedroom, you would expect to find sports paraphernalia like posters and such. Also, since membership in any group is potential grounds for tribal identity, other group markers, say, American flags just might be more prevalent in the personal spaces of these more tribal individuals.

When Sam Gosling, author of "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You," conducted all the research he describes in the book, he wasn't measuring tribalism directly. Instead, he was focusing on the Big Five personality traits. He did, however, include political leanings in his questionnaires. So what kind of stuff do liberals and conservatives have in their rooms?

Well, liberals tend to be a bit messier, while conservatives are much more organized. But that's not what I find most interesting in Gosling's findings. Conservatives, it turns out, aren't just concerned with order when it comes to tidiness. They're also more interested in order in terms of rankings--team rankings. What Gosling and his colleagues found was that conservatives were much more likely to have sports paraphernalia in their rooms and offices than liberals. They were also more likely to have American flags.

This leads me to wonder, are conservatives more tribal? Could there even be something fundamentally tribal about the conservative philosophy? Tribalism is a natural human tendency, a built-in bias, and even though it may have been adaptive when all humanity lived in small groups and numbered in the millions, now that we're living in a world of nearly seven billion, a world in which some of the tribes have nuclear weapons, tribalism is dangerous, potentially cataclysmic.

How many times have you talked to a gun owner about gun control and heard that great argument, if you make owning a gun a crime, then only criminals will own guns? This argument isn't even valid; it only makes sense because it appeals to our tribal inclinations. Slightly rephrased, it says there are good guys and bad guys and we want the good guys to have more guns.

"I don't have any problem with the ones who come over legally," is what I hear at the outset of every discussion I have with a conservative on immigration. "But they come over here and" compete with our tribe for resources. Of course, going through the process of immigrating legally is fine and good, but the ignorance and lack of empathy that emphasizing it shows is appalling.

Foreign policy: Ever wonder why some of the same people who argued that the Patriot Act was a great idea are now complaining about how big Big Brother is getting under Obama? It's simple, if you're watching out for bad guys, it's good, but if you're getting into the business of the folks, well then you are the bad guys.

Gays are not like us, therefore they aren't part of our tribe.

Welfare: don't take from the good guys and give to the bad guys (substitute white for good and black for bad and you're not far off the mark).

Abortion is trickier so I'll tackle it later.

I know I'm dealing here with "populist" conservatism and not the more sophisticated types. (David Brooks knows a lot more than I do about policy.) But instead of embracing this kind of outgoup hate and accepting it as legitimate discourse, we should be educating our youth to recognize and see past it.

2 comments:

caynazzo said...

These are semi-topical

http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/survival_of_the_kindest/

and reply

http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/altruism_vs._selfishness_case_closed/

Dennis said...

And of course, de Waal has been a huge influence on me. He was on Dianne Rheim last week in fact. I would hate to put these ideas about tribalism as an addendum to de Waal's points about empathy: that the flipside of in-group fellow-feeling is out-group animosity. I guess this doesn't have to be the case; how something evolved needn't be reflected in it's nature. But some of those damn Rattlers were pretty mean to the underlings until they heard they needed them to win a game against the Eagles.