30 June 2009

Cargo Cult Civilization

So, over on Dreamwidth, piranha has a question about American conservative social norms -- why is conduct they decry in others OK when they do it?

I think this question has a simple answer.

Civilization is a trade-off; you give up immediate gratification for indirect benefits. This means a larger co-operating group, less effort expending on suppressing the impulses towards immediate gratification of others, and general improvement of circumstances.

It's not that hard to understand, but it is sometimes hard to do; actively participating in civilization means, often, not getting what you want right now; it means being patient about standing in lines, playing by the rules, accepting that the indirect benefits of being honest outweigh the direct benefits of cheating.

If you don't understand or accept that trade-off; if you continue, personally and fundamentally, to be driven by the basic primate status indicators—being able to hit who you want, and, if male, rape who you want—you can't really be civilized. You haven't made the jump to civilization as a thing you do, you're stuck in a civilization-as-environment mental space.

At which point you probably make two mistakes, both common mistakes about environments: that if it's preventing you from doing what you want, this is in some sense malicious and needs to be suppressed, and that it's effectively indestructible and eternal and that your actions cannot then modify it.

So, basically, the US right believes that the tenets of civilization—the necessary cosmopolitan respect for differences in others, the we're-all-in-this-together, I'm-not-special common good, the need to co-operate in groups to solve larger problems, the indirect benefits of peace and prosperity over the immediate direct benefits of loot and rapine—are negatives; they prevent the accumulation and demonstration of basic primate social status.

(This is a very common and widespread problem with honour cultures; it's by no means restricted to the US.)

Because they don't really understand civilization, they complain about it as a big amorphous thing that's trying to tell them what to do; they produce superficially logical complaints ("the nanny state"), and they interact with it on the basis of uncomprehending imitative ritual. (Hence my choice of post title.)

Anybody who does understand civilization doesn't display basic primate status indicators; therefore, according to the US right, they're of very low status and their opinions don't matter. The only really important thing is to prevent them from being able to tell people with status what to do, since that's a complete perversion of the natural order. As such, their expectations and standards for members of their tribe are "can't be told what to do by outsiders" in a more fundamental way than "sticks to the ostensible and declared moral standards", since the real moral standard is the core primate one about "I have status; if you don't have status, I get to do whatever I want to you".

Outsiders have to be made to stick to their stated standards because that's an opportunity to compel them and and thus an opportunity for an affirmation of basic primate status relationships in their favour.

(There's a lot that could be said about how this relates to the choice between a dynamic, specific-problem, situational hierarchy organizational model and a fixed hierarchy model in selecting preferred social organization, but this is already both long and drifting off into perhaps undesirable definitions of simple.)

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