Thursday, August 21, 2008

tribalism and self-righteousness

We humans are the most social of the higher species. We’re tribal by nature. It’s genetically hard-wired into us. That tribalism can manifest itself as nationalism, religious affiliation, racial identity, and countless other ways. They can range from rooting for our alma mater to identification with a political party. Some forms of tribalism are good, some harmless, some not so good. For example, most people would agree that racial identity probably has more potential for harm than good. On the other hand, being a fan of your city’s professional sports team is probably harmless at worst (unless you are a Mariners fan, in which case it is an exercise in futility and frustration). Personally, I believe the tribalism of the city sports fan is a good thing. A strong tribal identification with your city probably makes you marginally more inclined to care about other aspects of your community, like the quality of schools, parks and other aspects of civic life.

I tend to view nationalism as a particularly dangerous form of tribalism if for no other reason than nations maintain militaries and can and often do go to war against each other (something that cities don’t, at least not in this day and age).

Tribalism isn’t inherently good or bad, but it is an aspect of our species we should be conscious of and we need to guard against its excesses – with the worst excess being war.

In a somewhat related vein, my friend, the science fiction writer David Brin, has a theory that among the forms of addiction to which we are vulnerable is self-righteous indignation. He writes about chemically-mediated states of arousal -- especially those involving dopamine and other messenger chemicals that are active in mediating pleasure response – that self-reinforce patterns of behavior. He notes that, “Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again. Moreover …this trait crosses all boundaries of ideology.” There is pleasure in knowing “with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.” This can exacerbate our political and ideological polarization: “We have entered an era of rising ideological division and a ‘culture war’ that increasingly stymies our knack at problem-solving. Nowadays, few adversarial groups seem capable of negotiating peaceful consensus solutions to problems, especially with opponents that are perceived as even more unreasonably dogmatic than they are. … Might recent exaggerated levels of bilious social division be partly attributed to an all-too human tendency to fall into addictive patterns of self-doping, by wallowing in a pleasurable mental state? A state that undermines our ability to empathize with opponents, accept criticism, or negotiate practical solutions to problems?”

(And, yes, I will confess to these same tendencies toward tribalism and self-righteousness, as these posts attest.)

Brin’s observation is consistent with my own belief that our individual and collective capacity for self-delusion is almost infinite. We can justify just about any self-serving behavior – to a degree that would be almost incomprehensible to an objective observer. Researchers and writers on the subject of evolutionary psychology have come to similar conclusions. We are likely to be more persistent and more persuasive – and therefore more effective in securing the things we need and want – when we are convinced of our own nobility and blamelessness. Indeed, we easily fall into a sense of victimhood. If we are an aggrieved party, then our own aggression or selfishness is nothing but a justified response to the outrages perpetrated upon us.

Show me a bully or an aggressor and I will show you someone who almost certainly believes himself to be the victim of some outrage or humiliation -- or the defender of someone subjected to such outrages or humiliations. The more hostile and aggressive the behavior, the more likely it is coming from someone who believes himself to be a victim. Psychologically, the victimhood is necessary to justify the aggression. And it is not limited by logic or any objective reality – our capacity for self-delusion is almost infinite.

If you listen to right-wing talk radio or FOX News, you would think that the most aggrieved victims on the planet are testosterone-fueled, middle-aged white American males. There is literally no limit to the outrages perpetrated upon them on a regular basis. They have every reason to be angry and hateful.


I’ve been thinking about this in light of the current conflict in Georgia. I have been surprised at how quickly so many Americans have reverted to full-on Cold War hostility toward Russia and outrage at the their behavior in Georgia. Leading that charge has been John McCain. Indeed, McCain’s demonization of Russia goes back years. As far back as 2006, he was urging Bush to
boycott the G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg. Even before recent events in Georgia, he was saying that Russia should be kicked out of the G-8 (and China refused entry) while admitting Brazil and India. He has proposed the creation of an “Alliance of Democracies” that would be “our side” in a new Cold War. He has long supported extending NATO right up to Russia’s borders and into the former Soviet Union. Even while our military is already overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain is threatening military action against Iran and proposing a set of policies to bring about a new Cold War against Russia (and, it appears, isolation of China, as well).

Make no mistake about it, McCain is all about war. It is war that made him a national hero and that has served as the foundation of his political career to this day. He comes from a family of warriors – his father and grandfather were both four-star Admirals. And that raises another fear – that he shares with our current president an Oedipal problem. Bush and McCain were both underachieving screw-ups in their respective youths, bridling under the yoke of their super-achieving fathers. Like Bush, McCain was a “legacy” in his father’s alma mater. And like Bush, he performed poorly – in McCain’s case, finishing 894 out of his class of 899 at the Naval Academy (and he probably wouldn’t have graduated at all had he not been the son of a four-star admiral). Bush sought to finish what his dad started in Iraq, expressing the belief that war was necessary for a president to achieve true “greatness.” And can anyone doubt that McCain needs war to cap off his life story and ultimately surpass his father and grandfather as a military man? He very apparently is bored by things like economics, health care and the like. The one thing that really gets his juices flowing is war – or the prospect of war.

And that, of course, requires enemies. In McCain’s case, it apparently doesn’t particularly matter who. Russia is the obvious candidate today. But Iran will do. Maybe China in due course. In October of 2001 – even before the Bush team started beating the drums of war – McCain was
among the first to seek war against Iraq:

Within a month [of 9-11, McCain] made clear his priority. “Very obviously Iraq is the first country,” he declared on CNN. By Jan. 2, Mr. McCain was on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, yelling to a crowd of sailors and airmen: "Next up, Baghdad!"

War is the ultimate exercise in tribalism. And to create enemies, you need outrages that justify your self-righteous indignation. At least in a democracy, people generally don’t go to war without believing themselves to be victims or the defenders of victims – or otherwise fully entitled to our self-righteous indignation. Even in the case of our unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq – a country that posed no imminent threat to us or any other country – fully 70% of the American people believed at the time that Saddam was directly involved in the 9-11 attacks. We were victims, just responding to his attack upon us. (Recall Bush’s 2004 debate against Kerry where he justified the Iraq war with the statement, “the enemy attacked us.” Of course, he used the word “enemy” rather than “Iraq” because Iraq hadn’t attack us. But the obvious point was that we were just responding to a provocation.)

By contrast, one of the things that has struck me about Barack Obama is that, to a remarkable degree, he doesn’t seen to view the world in tribal terms. His autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” suggests that his relative lack of tribalism comes from his own struggle with self-identity as a biracial child, raised by a white mother and white grandparents but viewed as “black” by the rest of the world. He grew up viewing himself as part of no tribe. Whatever the reason, he is unusually empathetic. This can be a liability for him in his run for the president. In the Democratic debates, he tended to answer questions with long prefatory explanations indicating that he understood and respected various viewpoints on a subject before stating his own views. It led him to de-emphasize external manifestations of tribal patriotism – like lapel flag pins – until it became a political issue. And he is loath to engage in attack politics and negative campaigning. These are all traits that I believe would make him an excellent president, but which can be hindrances to attaining that position.

McCain, on the other hand, is deeply tribal. He is also rash and impetuous. He tends toward hyperbolic rhetoric that leads to somewhat hysterical over-reaction (but always over-reaction toward the creation of enemies for whom the threat of a military response is the obvious – and justified – response).


As Matt Welch (the author of “McCain: The Myth of a Maverick”) wrote recently:

McCain's Georgian Hyperbole
Exaggerating threats is a feature, not a bug, of McCainite neoconservatism, and reveals much about what kind of president he'd make.

Matt Welch August 18, 2008

On Thursday of last week, Republican presidential nominee John McCain said that Russia's invasion of Georgia was "the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War." This is most certainly not true, at least according to the last two decades' worth of foreign policy assessments from one John McCain.

In December 1990, two months after Germany reunified and four months after Saddam Hussein did unto Kuwait far worse than what Vladimir Putin has so far done unto Georgia, the Arizona senator asserted that "the peace and security of the world for future generations [demand] that the world community act decisively to end the Gulf Crisis now." Pretty serious stuff.

In January 1994, he described North Korea's nuclear weapons program as "the most dangerous and immediate expression" of "the greatest challenge to U.S. security and world stability today," and warned that "there can be no serious doubt that our vital national interests are imperiled." Serious!

In an April 1999 speech that everyone considering voting for McCain should go read now, the rogue-state rollbacker said that "America's most important values—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—are under vicious assault by the Milosevic regime," requiring "an immediate and manifold increase in the violence against Serbia proper and Serbian forces in Kosovo," including mobilization of "infantry and armored divisions for a possible ground war." Très sérieux!

And of course, during the current campaign, he has repeatedly reminded voters that he's running for president to confront "the transcendent issue of our time: the battle and struggle against radical Islamic extremism." Which, he argued at a Republican debate in June 2007, "is a force of evil that is within our shores.... My friends, this is a transcendent struggle between good and evil. Everything we stand for and believe in is at stake here." If that isn't a "probably serious crisis internationally," then the
phrase truly has no meaning. …


Matt Yglesias picked on the same theme:
[N]ot only is Russia on the march beyond Tbilisi to Ukraine, Finland, and substantial swathes of Poland but that’s not even the transcendent issue of our time. And North Korea’s nuclear program is “the greatest challenge to U.S. security and world stability today” but that’s not the transcendent issue of our time. And Islamism is the transcendent issue of our time, but not a serious international crisis or an especially great challenge to U.S. security and world stability. Now of course there’s no way to make sense of that, because it’s not supposed to make any kind of sense. McCain just thinks that overreacting is the right reaction to everything. It’s a hysteria-based foreign policy.


Max Bergmann compares McCain’s tendency toward hyperbolic rhetoric to that of a TV pundit:

McCain’s approach and tone on foreign policy has always been more emblematic of a TV pundit rather than a sober president. While McCain has attacked Obama as the "celebrity" candidate, the fact is that a bad place to be over the last 25 years has been between John McCain and a TV camera. The New York Times on Sunday noted that one of the first things McCain did after 9-11 was go on just about every TV program - where he incidentally called for attacking about four countries. …

But TV appearances encourage sound bites, over-the-top rhetoric, and good one-liners, not reasoned and nuanced diplomatic language. … Thus on almost every crisis or incident over the last decade, McCain has sounded the alarm, ratcheted up the rhetoric and often called for military action - with almost no regards to the practical implications of such an approach.

The big concern with a McCain presidency – a concern which I am surprised has not been vocalized more fully – is that the U.S. will lurch from crisis to crisis, confrontation to confrontation, whether it be with Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc. The danger is that McCain’s pundit-like rhetoric will entrap the U.S. in descending spiral of foreign policy brinksmanship. Just think about the very likely scenario of McCain giving Iran/Russia a rhetorical ultimatum and Iran/Russia ignoring it. Now we are stuck - either we lose face by not following through on our threats or we follow through and go to war. We can’t afford such a reckless approach after the last eight years. For the next eight we need a president not a pundit.


McCain’s reaction to events over recent weeks just reaffirm his tendency toward foreign policy brinksmanship.

McCain often says that the president he would model himself after is Teddy Roosevelt. And while there are many things about TR to admire, those are not apparently the things that McCain would emulate.

Obviously there is the superficial fact that TR, at age 42, was and to this day remains the youngest president ever. McCain, at 72, would be the oldest man ever elected president. But on substance, the two men also differ markedly. TR advocated a “death tax” and a progressive income tax. McCain is proposing to enact the largest, deficit-exploding tax cuts ever – at a time we are fighting two wars and running record long-term structural budget deficits. TR created the first national parks and national wildlife refuges (Yellowstone alone would qualify him as a great president). McCain is making the centerpiece of his campaign opening up protected areas to oil drilling. TR was a political progressive who strongly supported labor unions and went after big business trusts with a vengeance. McCain is anti-union and virtually his entire senior campaign team consists of veteran lobbyists for big business. Indeed, the differences between TR and McCain and so extreme and so complete, it makes you wonder how in the world he could hold up TR as his model president.

There is one element of TR’s legacy I failed to note. He loved war. The glory of it. The manly virtues it drew forth. Like McCain, he built his political career on his war record. As assistant secretary of the Navy he urged war against Spain over Cuba and placed the navy on a war-time footing. When the US eventually started the Spanish-American War, TR helped create the all-volunteer “Rough Riders.” (Of course, the US started the Spanish-American war not to seize Spain’s imperial territories including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, to name a few. It was because of Spain’s outrage in sinking the USS Maine – which, as it turns out was “bad intelligence”. Nonetheless, we were just victims seeking to do justice by liberating Spain’s territories.) TR’s leading of the charge of the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba was the act that made him a national hero and propelled his political career.

No wonder McCain models himself after TR. A ”war hero” needs a war – especially if he wants to be a “great president.”

And I’m sure McCain will come up with plenty of self-righteous indignation for our tribe to justify it.

7 comments:

SteveO said...

Hello Mr. Daggatt,

I visit Brin's blog, where he frequently quotes you. Glad to see you have started to get your ideas out more publicly. Keep up the thinking and writing! I have your blog on my feed, so I can keep up to date.

Boot said...

Interesting piece. Do you have suggestions on how we can minimize our genetic tenancies towards national tribalism and war?

dmon said...

I also found my way here via Brin's blog. And now I've been sharing this blog as much as I can.

Boot, you didn't ask me but I feel compelled to try to answer, because this feels like a potentially good discussion...

The way I see it, said tendencies will breed out in many generations of planet-wide meta-tribalism (i.e. globalism). If we the species survive the next few generations of anti-globalist resistance, we have hope.

Unless you meant minimizing our tribalist tendencies in our own lives, in which case I suspect that awareness of such tendencies is key. I tried to dig up a story I read a while back (best guess is it might be related to this) that claimed that if adolescents are taught that the brain continues to develop and grow, they learn better and in fact grow smarter - awareness of the process influences the process. I'm going to postulate (admittedly with virtually no basis) that awareness of our lesser-desired psychological instincts helps tame them. If you succeed in taming it in your own life then you will model the lack of that behaviour to your children, who are prone to choose a mate similar to their parent - and if that mate is naturally non-tribal, then the genetic component of the tribalist instinct is reduced in further progeny...

Or something like that. Go team.

SteveO said...

dmon, I seemed to have missed the "tribalism gene" myself. Even as a kid I never got the whole affiliation to a sports team (other than one I was on), religion, etc. I like my country (USA) because I have been in others and think it is a pretty good (though not perfect) way to run things.

But before you think I am saying I am the next step in evolution (!!!) I haven't noticed that this has conferred to me any reproductive advantage. :) Two awesome kids is enough. Lots of emotional, "tribal" people have lots of kids, and I don't notice any predilection for the next generation to have fewer kids or mates. In fact, reproductively, they may be more successful.

So I don't see a strong enough selection pressure (yet) to make any difference. There is still too many confounding factors for that to make a difference, IMHO.

But cultural changes can happen much faster than biological ones, and that is really the only way to combat this negative tribalism urge. The same reason men don't rape women whenever they want - a biological "success" inhibited by cultural abhorrence. If we can acculturate such that "my team right or wrong" makes listeners uncomfortable and frown, it can be repressed. Instead, we glorify it, e.g. sports, politics, race identity, etc. Which is where I diverge from Mr. Daggatt in that I do think sports affiliation is harmful as it paves the way for more pernicious tribal affiliations.

Of course, framing "sports" that way is also a way to get people to stop listening to the argument, so it is probably better not to mention it until and if it emerges naturally from the cultural suppression of other tribal affiliations. So please ignore what I wrote above... :)

dmon said...

SteveO, glad to see someone jumping in :).

I used to think I was non-tribal, until I went nomadic (moved from Canada to the US) and found myself very much inclined to nationalism. I try to recognize when I'm being irrational.

I share your angst about relative breeding rates, and sadly have no consolation to offer. I keep thinking of Brin's "Earth" scenarios - overpopulation will make breeding more selective, etc., with a mixture of emotions: as a species we'll evolve in an enlightened way, but we have to muck through a lot of anti-enlightenment to get there. As population bumps up against resource scarcity, evolutionary "fitness" will adapt to favour survival wits and foresight. Morlocks and Eloi, I guess.

I think your point about cultural evolution being faster than biological is good, but given enough generations I think that cultural and social evolution begets biological evolution. If we survive that long.

Re sports - my main objection to sports team idolatry (and I say this as a conflicted Canucks/Bruins fan) is the excessive distraction of the citizenry it engenders. Too much bread and circus, allowing the ruling class too much latitude. If people spent a small fraction - even one percent - of the energy that they put towards following their teams into following what their politicians are up to, they'd demand and seek to establish better government. Next conversation you have, ask the other person who their congressional representative is - chances are they won't know. Then ask what their baseball team's win/loss record is this year.

And on that depressing note, have a happy weekend.

Mr. Daggatt, please keep up the good work. This blog is at the top of my feed queue.

Building Shanghai said...

"TR created the first national parks and national wildlife refuges (Yellowstone alone would qualify him as a great president)."

Just a nitpick, but TR didn't found Yellowstone- Ulysses S. Grant did. TR did expand the park system and wildlife refuge system a great deal, however; unfortunately, as much as he'd love to have been able to claim it, Yellowstone wasn't his.

Aside from that though, great blog; I'll be reading it regularly...

Young Ian said...

Mr. Daggatt, I too stumbled on this blog by accident. This entry articulates brilliantly what I've been thinking for many years.

If you haven't read Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, you ought to take it for a spin--it's all about the deployment of righteousness in the service of, among other things, tribalism.