Tuesdays with Abhorrent Fiends vol. 45

I originally had a ton of different links up here. A buffet sampling of the world's ills, from a sad story about a young man kidnapped and forced into suicide bombing to a smarmy pastor who preaches what sells, not what (according to his religion) saves. But I'm going to pare it down a little. I'm not making a big, fancy point about the source of all the evil in the world. That's too big a topic for me, and even if I came up with an answer that made for satisfying reading, it wouldn't be the answer.

So here's the story that irritated me enough that I decided to make a blog post about one of the ways people like you and me can talk ourselves into doing stupid, hurtful things. Found the link to it here. It's about a bus full of idiots in Boston.

I have a tendency, sometimes, to think up my point first and then only afterward look to see how the evidence suggests it. Sometimes there's some idea that has been pressing on my thoughts, some emotional or mental state I struggle to describe, and I come to see another person's story as a metaphor for my own inner experience. In this, I am not alone. But giving in to that temptation is dangerous.

Sunday afternoon Dave and I were sitting in the TV room with an NFL game paused. (I'm not a football or sports person myself, but Dave has a way of explaining things that helps me see the math and psychology behind them. And math and psychology are cool!) The jist of the conversation went something like:
Me: Football is like, Olympic-level athleticism combined with intense, action-packed groupthink. Either one of those things is extremely hard to do and can consume a person's entire life all by themselves. I mean, you have to be ultra good at two things. No wonder football players never seem to do anything else!

Him: You know, I have a lot of respect for guys who can leave the game behind, still keep a sense of themselves, and learn to do other things. The biggest thing is, if they can learn not to take the game home with them. Not to respond to every situation in life as though you were defending the same ten yards or so of grass as you do on the field. Cause it's just a job.

Me: Exactly. You can't commit your entire identity to the franchise.

Him: Yeah, I've actually read some interviews recently where guys had a really realistic perspective on it. The team could cut you any time, for any reason, or trade you. Or maybe your contract runs out and they don't want to re-sign you.

Me: So you can't totally emotionally commit to an organization because they're not going to do the same for you.

Him: Well, they might. If you're, like, a transcendently talented player who doesn't have a massive attitude problem, they'd feel like they were lucky to have you.

Me: That makes sense. But the thing I think that happens, when guys can't adapt, is that they've taken part of the team's groupthink--the "we're the best! we're better than they are! we're always gonna win!" part--and applied it to their own identities. Because that's a really seductive mindset.

Him: Right. You've got to separate part of yourself from the team. And most of the players you read about who go out and commit crimes are the ones who weren't able to achieve that separation.

See, when I started drafting this post back on Sunday, I had it all figured out. Here, I thought, was a simple, cogent argument. I could explain how it happens some people get carried away by the hype of whatever it is they've chosen to do. Could explain how others are able to retain a wider perspective, to focus their love and attention on the thing they are doing rather than the way they feel about themselves because they do it.

The crux of the matter, the place where the action really happens, is inside the personality. A person enters into a social group with a certain level of commitment, of trust in the group and its aims and goals and methods. Inside the minds of other members of the group there is a whole spaghetti monster of memes, a mess of value judgments with the dedicated emotional energy of the whole group behind them.

Of course not all the value judgments, not all the beliefs and assumptions, actually have anything to do with the aims of the group or the thing they have come together to do. Like if, off the field, all the players on a particular sports team had a fad going for Valentino suits. They would all agree that Valentino was awesome, and slap their mental and emotional energy down on the table to back up the belief. But that belief, because of the way they came to have it, would be part of their identity as a member of the team, rather than their personal preference of tailoring styles.

Now, a person who was thoughtful about the things he believed and why would be able to separate the suit fad from his identity as a team member in his own mind. He would have a sense of perspective about the belief he'd absorbed from the group, would know it wasn't necessary to the game plan or his own integrity as an athlete. But a less thoughtful person would not be able (to borrow a phrase) to achieve that separation. So, for example, if a casual acquaintance said something critical to him about the suit, he might react as though the honor of his team was in question. In that case he'd be defending the meme about suits--this particular belief of no special importance--with all the same vigor and intensity as he would have defended the source from which the belief came to him--the group identity of his team.

Reminds me of DNA sequences. Every strand of DNA contains many "instructions", that is, sequences of proteins which, when assembled, become the shapes of specialized cells and tissues that permit an organism to grow and function. But in between instructions and the stops between them, there is a lot of static. Broken bits of code, sequences that don't assemble any proteins at all but just sit there, filling space and helping the DNA molecule cohere. Every group's memetic spaghetti monster has a ton of those, whether the group is a legally chartered academy of scientists or an informal group of friends who happen to sit at the same end of a local bar. The "suit memes" could deal with anything from which jargon you use to talk about a subject, to which suits are best, to the moral advisability of smoking, to the immediate likelihood of global thermonuclear war. And it doesn't make a bit of difference. Their sole function is to identify group members to one another, to help hold their sense of identity as a group together. LaVey called such things "goodguy badges", and I think it's a good term for it. It is a belief whose sole function is identification, but which a person who has not thought the matter through will treat as though it were an integral part of his or her identity.

What does this have to do with me, sitting here thinking I have the answers? Or a bus full of idiots who laugh at a drunkard's talk of rape and murder, without ever pausing to wonder if the drunk might not be joking?

I believe we assemble our identities, our working knowledge of who we are as people, from the raw memetic material we get through social interactions. The more intense the relationship, the higher the level of trust, the more beliefs go flying back and forth from one person's mind into another's. Or from one person's habits, instinctive reactions, unconscious prejudices, into the mind of another.

For good or ill, we absorb a lot more information from our environment than we are aware of on a conscious level. Regarding physical reality that's a grim necessity. If you had to read every word on every sign you drove past, notice the shape and texture of the bumps on the steering wheel every time your fingers touched them, you'd go nuts. (You might get more spiritually in tune at first, but in the long term, information overload is a terrible way to go unhinged.) But when it comes to social reality, metaphorically speaking, we all end up swallowing a lot of ideas that can back out of a driveway and sideswipe us when we least expect it.

So here's how I figure it. (Yes, it's scary to realize I'm geniunely and sincerely reduced to guessing about my own motives. I hope, most sincerely, that this is just because I'm analyzing my motives beyond the point which is usually reasonable.) When I started out writing this blog post, I'd been reading around to any blog that struck my eye for a couple of hours. I gravitate to the style of blog where the author picks a subject on which he or she has particular experience or skill as well as strong feelings, and writes about ignoble bastards who try to use something in the blogger's area of interest to defraud and harm other human beings. Maybe I'd chosen, with the arcane emotional calculus we all use to assemble our working identities in the day-to-day, to absorb something the bloggers had never intended to give me. I hadn't absorbed their earnest desire to prevent suffering or their hatred of quackery and swindling, but instead a vague, nebulous feeling: These jerks are wrong. I know what the answer is, why can't they see it?

The moral of the story is: we absorb what we feel we most need. Not what we think we need--this type of decision usually takes place below the level of conscious thought. But if I am feeling small and powerless, I will seek beliefs within the social belief structures available to me that make me feel empowered. If I want to feel wise and superior, I will seek beliefs that support that feeling. If I want to get angry and start arguments with people, I will seek out beliefs that urge me to conclude the world is against me.

This is not to say that you can find anything anywhere if you look for it. You can find anything anywhere, but it won't be of equal quality. If you or I were to travel through time and go back and join the Heaven's Gate cult, and our most earnest emotional need was to feel intelligent and insightful, they could fix us up with some beliefs that did the trick. But if those feelings, and not the reality behind them, were all we were after, then we'd be just as dead as the rest of them.

Which is why those guys on the bus in Boston were idiots. Not because they were disrespectful and insensitive to the women (or men, perhaps, who'd had female friends or relatives raped or beaten or murdered)--that just makes them jerks. They were idiots because they responded to the drunkard on the most superficial possible level, without questioning in their own minds what his motives might be, what he was getting out of it, before deciding whether or not they wanted to encourage him. And any time I spout off about something because I'm reacting emotionally, because I'm looking for a quick hit of self-esteem or self-loathing or whatever emotion it is I need that day, I'm just as much of an idiot as they are.

This post is mostly a note to myself to remember it! Because I very nearly posted something much less useful!


kisekileia said...

This is a really wise post. I learned the hard way how important it is not to stake your identity on a group you're part of. The experience that finally taught me that was 9.5 years ago, and I still haven't fully recovered from it.

Fiat Lex said...

Thank you! This idea kind of hit me over the head, yeah, and I'm glad it did.

I would say I am sorry you had to have that experience. But from the sound of it, things staying the way they were would have caused a whole different set of problems.