Filters and Tribes

(Another post that might deserve a book, or at least a lot more thought on my part. Recall that ‘Random’ is one of the  bywords of this blog. Let’s see how it goes:)

1. Young, inexperienced drivers get into a lot more accidents than older, experienced drivers by a wide margin. While some of this may be traced to emotional immaturity, the main factor seems to be the need to learn to reflexively sift through the mountain of information that assaults the driver every second they are behind the wheel, ignore the irrelevant and focus on the stuff that can get somebody killed.  As you drive through a residential neighborhood, there may be other cars on the road, pets in the yards, bicycles near the curb, speed bumps, crosswalks, pedestrians, a garbage truck – each of these are important to note, as they could very easily figure into your decisions as a driver. There may also be trees, political yard signs, a lovely sunset, your buddy’s house, your cell phone, and on and on – it’s every bit as important to learn what NOT to pay attention to while driving as it is to learn what you must pay attention to.

What makes a experienced driver less likely to get into an accident is his automatic, reflexive awareness of the important stuff, and automatic, reflexive disregard of the unimportant stuff. It takes a couple of years of driving, typically, for a kid to learn this. After he does, the likelihood of accidents drops dramatically.

You could take this back to Aristotle (what can’t you take back to Aristotle?) by recalling his idea of a ‘this’ – something that leaps off the page of Nature, as it were. Some things are perceived as a unit by nature – we see, not legs, teeth and a mane, but a lion. The lion, perhaps even literally, leaps out of the background. and demands our full and immediate attention, to say the least. When there’s a lion in the picture, we probably don’t even see the nice trees and the green grass – they don’t figure into it. Driving, while less dramatic, has the same basic perceptual dynamic.

So far so good. To generalize: we people learn to pay attention to what is important in an environment with simply too much data for us to notice everything. This is a basic, Darwinian level survival requirement. The lion will eat you if you notice the flowers at the wrong moment. In order to deal with the presence of way too much information, we all make largely unconscious decisions to try to filter out whatever is irrelevant to our survival.*

File:Imperium Romanum Germania.png
Germania. Magna, where lived the German tribes about whom Julius Caesar warned: got to keep a lid on those folks, because they are both warlike and difficult to civilize. History proved him right. Some – the Franks – invaded what is now France, driving the Gauls into the low countries and the Visigoths into Spain. They learned Latin (poorly) and eventually became civilized (around 1950-ish…Lasted a decade or two). The other Germans stayed in Germany, didn’t learn Latin and have been a whole mess o’ trouble. Especially theologically and philosophically. Yea, and those bothersome world wars, too.

2. Safety in numbers. Don’t go it alone.  In medieval literature, the lone man is a recurring figure, one fraught with mystery and danger. He served a sort of boogeyman role, used to frighten children and add some spice to stories: the moral being don’t wander about alone, or you may run into one of these unsavory figures, and goodness knows what will happen.** But there’s another, more basic idea or moral here: that one needs to stick with one’s tribe.  Nothing good can come of trying to go it alone.

From the fall of the Western Roman Empire up until maybe 1000 AD (or maybe all the way up until today), political and social thinking in the West were built upon the ghost of Rome and the ways of the Franks.  The Romans made a huge impression in the hinterlands of Gaul and Germania. Even basics such as their roads and architecture that were there for anyone to see even centuries after the Empire had passed away, left an impression of greatness even on those who never saw a legion.

Yet, some have argued (here, for example, in the middle sections) that there was something hopelessly foreign about Rome to the Frankish mind. The Roman ideal of citizenship and glory through serving the Empire, and the related idea that loyalty might be something other than tribal, found no foothold in Frankish thinking. It’s not as though such ideas were considered and rejected, but rather that these Roman virtues were simply invisible.

As the largest and often the sole power in the West, the Franks, tried to recreate the glory that was Rome within a tribal, “pre-logical” way of thinking. As Julius Caesar observed, Germans are difficult to civilize. The hybrid they came up with was feudalism, which frames all larger loyalties and duties within the context of  family and tribal relations. Are we not left with the impression that the ideals of Fichte (which ideas have proven harder to kill than a shoebox full cockroaches), of a totalitarian militarized state with messianic delusions, are somehow only bastard children of Rome? That Rome, where even a woman or a slave could obtain some glory, hints at a better world than anything Hegel or Marx could dream up?

But I digress. Shocking, I know.

What we are here discussing is the idea that the desire to belong to a tribe is, for us humans, hardwired by millions of years of natural selection. The boogeyman of a lone stranger works – it frightens us – because we all sense that our survival and chances of reproduction approach zero if we are not part of a tribe.  Anyone who is out wandering on their own must have either been expelled from his tribe or be crazy. Even today, how often do we talk about loners in a positive sense? We suspect something is wrong with them, to the point where ‘he was a quiet boy, kept to himself’ is what we expect as the standard memory of the neighbors of the latest mass murderer.

I contend that much of the behavior of us people is driven by the need to belong, which need is not just some superficial emotional want, even less a sign of weakness, but is rather an expression of a fundamental survival drive more intense even than the drive to reproduce. We know, in our hearts and in our genes, that loners don’t win – they don’t raise up children who survive to raise up children.  James Dean may be cool, but he’s dead and left no children (that I know of).

3. So, putting the two together: We spend our lives looking to belong. As children, we need to belong to a family, so much so that we strongly tend to reflexively and preemptively forgive or at least make excuses for the failings of our caregivers. In the extreme, abused children will create a whole fantasy world in order to explain the abusive behavior of the adults in whose care they are – it’s the kids fault, they made daddy mad, if only they weren’t so clumsy, etc.

As we grow up, the drive to belong only gets stronger. A child may be doomed, evolutionarily speaking, without the care of adults, but an adult is just as doomed in the evolutionary sense, doomed to die childless, if he is not a member of some group from which he can find a mate and within which he can raise offspring.

The nature of a group is to be able to say who is in and who is out – otherwise, it’s not much of a group. This is where the filtering comes in: we need to be exquisitely aware of the boundaries, the lines that mark off who is in and who is out. As a member of the tribe, we need to be aware of the membership rules. They become the context within which we perceive the rest of the world.

Thus, like 5th century Franks, ideas that could threaten group membership, ideas like we owe our ultimate allegiance to the nation rather than the tribe, that glory comes from gaining honor for the commonwealth, could not rise to conscious consideration until thoroughly massaged and reformed to fit in with tribal rules. ***

It is this confluence of our human propensity to form filters and our drive to belong that creates, I think, the wild disconnects between different political groups: it’s not just that Liberals think differently than Conservatives (and visa-versa), it’s that they inhabit different perceptual worlds. For those totally invested in belonging to a certain political tribe, anything that might cause them any friction, might drive them to question, might threaten their standing, is reflexively filtered out.

Everybody knows this (at least, knows it about the other guy); what I’m suggesting is that the root mechanism and cause is very deep and reflexive, rooted in instincts honed by brutal and final Natural Selection. In other words, it’s way worse than we even think – communication between political tribes is going to be very, very difficult.

The solution is two-fold: first, if our need to belong is satisfied by membership in other, independent groups, we may be less inclined  to invest so desperately in political membership. Maybe. At any rate, this possibility may help explain the animosity of large states towards families and churches – those institutions provide a place to stand from which to criticize the state. And that will hardly do. Bottom line: do not identify with political factions for the sake of your soul and sanity.

Second: We must have a primary loyalty to Truth. Pilate’s question – Truth? What is that? – is the ultimate heresy, the ultimate treachery. If you owe no loyalty to truth, what can the idea of loyalty or honor even mean?

Questions directed against any particular belief can only mean anything if there’s some external standard against which to measure our beliefs. If our primary loyalty isn’t to the truth, beliefs and arguments have no meaning. Conversely, we can arm ourselves against our own instincts by embracing the truth. Thus, when Aristotle says a cultivated mind can hold an idea without accepting it, it is a call to us to cultivate our minds. We need to work for the state where we can examine an idea without the filters.

* There’s a great story about Joe Montana, the famous quarterback known as Joe Cool for his unflappable nature, coming to the huddle before a critical play toward the end of a Super Bowl,  pointing out to his teammates a celebrity sitting in the end zone seats. Montana was cool enough to notice something irrelevant  in a pressure packed moment, thus breaking the tension that might adversely effect the play of his teammates and cementing his reputation as the coolest of cool cats under pressure. But the whole story hangs on the notion that nobody else noticed – because they had reflexively filtered it out as irrelevant.

**The knight errant is a sort of mythical antidote: the lone, armed man who means good, not evil.

*** I need to think about this more (I’m sure others already have, but I have not read them), but it seems the breakdown or expansion of the concept of family as central to political membership that started under the Greeks and was picked up by the Romans is behind the ability to recognize a civic or national duty. Particularly, when a patriarch can choose his heirs from among relatives not his sons, or even from among none-relatives, the family nature of a tribe gets fuzzy. Further, when a man can be honored by the achievements of the younger men he mentors, as was common in classical Greece and even formalized in the Academies of Plato and Aristotle, then the idea of belonging gets expanded – I might identify as an Athenian or even a Helene, rather than merely the son of some Peleus.  By the time of the Funeral Oration of Pericles, family honor and duty had pretty much completely been subsumed under civic honor and duty.  Nothing like this seems to have taken place under the barbarians.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

1 thought on “Filters and Tribes”

  1. My Chinese friends have shared their painful experiences with the “filters” they’ve encountered in American society. Coming from a society where traditionally everyone has a place, and harmony is prized above all else, they are baffled by our territorial “I’m in with the In Crowd – and you’re not” attitude. Which makes me wonder how much of this carries over into our churches – are visitors really made to feel welcome, or are they assessed according to which “crowd” they seem to belong to, and ignored accordingly?

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