“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
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Harris sees this salience dynamic potentially operating at any level from nations down to individuals. According to her theory, our individual personalities can be viewed as membership in the tribe of me. This is why even within our groups we compete. Harris believes that peer groups, as opposed to families, are the most important developmental influences on who we become. But if there are no rival peer groups around to make our own group salient then we are free to jockey for status. If we aren't capable of taking over the top slots of the group hierarchy, then we resort to carving out a specified niche--subordinate perhaps, but integral nonetheless. And that is the source of our individual personalities.
"The Nurture Assumption" is the book in which Harris puts forth this theory; it is at once fascinating and infuriating. I have several problems with the personality development theory itself, but my biggest beef is with Harris's pseudoscientific attempt to pillory Frank Sulloway, whose account of the effects of birth order in "Born to Rebel" is just as interesting and less histrionic. (I spent some time a few years ago researching Harris's charges against Sulloway and came to the conclusion that her criticisms were either ad hominem, ad hoc, or just silly.) However, I find her characterization of group dynamics useful in helping to give a clearer impression of what I mean by tribalism, a word Harris doesn't use herself but which I think well suits what she describes.
So, to keep the thread running, on September 10th, 2001 we were Republicans and Democrats, but the presence of an outside group the next morning made our Americanness far more salient.