The Predicament

(4;30 a.m., wide awake, so let’s blog!)

What I’m here calling the Predicament is something with a thousand faces, touched on in a million ways; Pournelle’s Iron Law, Gell-Mann Amnesia Affect, herd mentality, group think, mass psychosis, class distinctions, compulsory schooling, ‘news’, ‘political campaigns’, sports fandom, and I’ll think of more.

Call it human nature, if you want. Or, better, canine nature. Even allowing for the irresistible tendency of people to project human motivations onto the behaviors of dogs (itself yet another example of the Predicament), dogs and people have a lot in common. When we say dogs are pack animals, what we mean is that the typical dog just wants to know who’s in charge. Dogs are easy to train, because, once the trainer establishes that he is in charge, the dog becomes eager to do what he wants. A skillful trainer first never lets the dog wonder who is in charge, and second is good at communicating what he wants the dog to do.* A happy dog is one that knows exactly where he stands in the pack hierarchy.

In feral packs, some dog becomes the alpha. Sometimes, there are battles between the alpha and wanna be alphas, but most often, the lead dog can just stare down any pretenders. The important part here: almost all the dogs just want to know who is in charge. They really don’t care which dog leads, they just want a leader. The average dog just wants to follow, and is really unhappy when he doesn’t know who to follow.

Once read a blogger’s story about being drummed out of the army. Turns out he was naturally immune to the intimidation techniques used by drill sergeants to break down the recruits.** When his would yell at and bully him, he just laughed, and couldn’t control himself. They had to get him out of there, fast, before he destroyed the whole process for the other recruits.

So: the Predicament. Whatever we may think, whatever we may pledge ourselves to, even when we are most rebellious – hell, sometimes *especially* when we’re most rebellious – what’s really going on is that we’re just looking to see who is the big dog, who it is that we’re supposed to follow.

(Agent Smith voice:) I had a little revelation, in my old age here: without ever trying, without ever even desiring it, I won almost every alpha male battle I was ever in. Now, while I may look a little like an alpha – 6’2″ tall and, as a young man at least, strapping – I’m about as intimidating as a puppy. BUT – by a combination of cluelessness and not having any f’s to give, I was simply immune to a lot of the gamesmanship and intimidation used to establish pecking orders. So, on sports teams, in social groups, in groups of volunteers, at work, when the subtle little games got played by which people are put in their places, I ignored them (if i were even aware of them) – and so I won. I got voted team captain, head of the crew, head of the department, the guy people looked to for ideas. People would see that I was not backing down and not being intimidated in any way, and assumed I was the alpha – and so I was.

Huh? Me? But the facts stand. I tell this story only to illustrate how desperately and reflexively people want a leader to follow.

So here is our predicament: wanting to belong -which, in practice, means wanting to know who to follow – is a need so dramatically and powerfully prior to any desire for the truth that the truth simply doesn’t enter into it. The truth will be sacrificed; hell, the truth will never be acknowledged. It is so dreadfully uncomfortable, so terrifying, really, to not know who you are following, that 2+2 really does equal 5, as far as you are concerned, for all of us most of the time, and for most of us all of the time.

The drumbeat of lies we’re being subjected to doesn’t even register with most people. They just want to know who is in charge, and find some relief in belonging to the vast herd of followers. The level of trauma needed to disabuse most of us probably exceeds death – many of us would rather die than to fall out with our group. We won’t even notice the inconsistencies, the hypocrisy, the insanity of our beliefs. When Goebbels said he could make a Brown from a Red in a couple weeks – turn a fanatical Communist into a fanatical Brownshirt – he meant that he, a master propogandist, could leave the fundamental fanaticism intact while changing the object of allegiance. He could take advantage of the fanatic’s overwhelming desire to belong to swap out the much less real object of his fanaticism.

And we, ourselves, we habitually skeptical few, will fall for some of it some of the time. We are only human, after all. The price of sanity is eternal vigilance, it seems.

*A little twist worth thinking about: dogs who are best at doing what the humans want get to breed; dogs who defy their humans don’t. Over time, only sports defy their humans.

** Militaries have learned over time that the more human instincts of the recruits need to be broken down and replaced with those that promote obedience and unit cohesion. That’s what basic training is all about. In the Civil War, all sorts of untrained volunteers quickly assembled into regiments and divisions and headed straight off into battle. When the guy next to him got blown apart, that volunteer turned out to be unimpressed by orders from his commanding officers – Ohio farm boys and New England shopkeeper’s sons tended to drop their arms and walk away after a few hours of battle, tops. So – boot camp, to minimize that sort of thing. They minimize it largely through – you guessed it, right? – peer pressure. The deserter is the outcast.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

10 thoughts on “The Predicament”

  1. Deep in my soul, I know this to be true. But I think natural resistance to it must be genetic. My father, when asked about his basic training experience, reported (like your correspondent) that it was obvious the drill sergeant’s bellowing and cursing was all for show– a well-practiced act– and it was difficult not to laugh. It was wartime, though, and they weren’t throwing anybody out just for not being sufficiently intimidated.

    My brother’s stint in the military had some similarities– he doesn’t have your impressive height, but he’s pretty jacked… and he has no interest whatever in being in charge or dogging the footsteps of whoever *is* in charge– mostly wants to do his job, get paid, and be left alone. He found that, even though he was rarely the highest-ranking person around, any time things got chaotic and there was any kind of emergency, everyone looked to him for orders. He reckons it’s because he was reliably the guy who wasn’t freaking out (which gives the illusion you know what you’re doing).

    It gets even weirder when you’re a girl. Social status with women is so… weird. I’ve never had a good grasp of it, but I can approach the problem academically in a new social setting, and after a few months I can sometimes figure out who’s in charge by carefully watching how all the women interact with each other, whose go-ahead has to be obtained before an organized event actually happens… but I have no place in female social hierarchies, so I never know what to do with that information. In general, I’m in charge of nothing, nobody asks my opinion, and as long as the group is basically decent people, I’m content to be an anonymous worker bee whom people sometimes forget to add to the phone list. I don’t want or need to be part of the action. Just as well. I couldn’t organize a potluck if my life depended on it.

    All of this changes in a crisis. In a real emergency, like my brother (and Dad), I don’t freak out and run around all hair-on-fire having hysterics and waiting for someone else to take charge. I can look around and figure out what needs to happen next, do what needs doing, give orders, and (weirdly) people obey them. Once the crisis is over, I go back to being nobody, a person totally invisible to women with professional dye jobs and expensive handbags.

    I have some theories on this. Like I said, I think it’s genetic. I think in general it’s a liability: nobody likes you when you won’t (or can’t) slot yourself comfortably into the hierarchy. It makes normal people nervous, and sometimes antagonistic, when they can’t assign you a clear rank. The rank-insecure feel threatened. But the same group-cooperation traits that make for a successful social hierarchy– one where everybody knows his or her place, everybody knows who’s in charge, and this lubricates day-to-day interactions so that the group has cohesion, and can manage the sort of day-to-day cooperative tasks that allow for surviving and thriving from one season to the next in normal circumstances. But that same group cohesion mindset only works when things are going… maybe not well, but going normally and predictably: when the situation is within normal parameters.

    When the situation is *not* within normal parameters, survival depends on freaks like us. And this is consistent enough that our genes persist, at a low level, down the ages. Noah must have been such a freak, building his ark while everyone laughed. Tamar was a woman of action: she saw what had to happen, knew her rights, and threw social convention to the winds to get what was due her. Their stories are of people who either have no place in the hierarchy, or are willing to abandon it for something more important, even though they lose standing in the eyes of their peers by doing so.

    I like to think of Ignaz Semmelweis as one of these. Totally reviled, unwilling or unable to either lead his peers or follow the alphas… because he was pursuing something else entirely. Something of benefit to all mankind… that existing authority structures perceived as a threat. He’s what happens when it goes wrong, and nobody else can even *see* the crisis. I think it’s a similar story, all those how-many? ordinary parishioners who took decisive action to report clergy abuse in the RC church, and got the ostracism hammer brought down on them for it. These weren’t the people for whom “fitting in” is the primary virtue.

    Maybe it only works when the crisis is so immediate it can’t be ignored. But sometimes, group survival depends on having that one weirdo who cares more about the objective situation at hand– the information and its consequences– than about his or her place in the hierarchy. The guy who can see the flood coming, even though there’s never been one before.

    1. A lot of good points in there. Ignaz Semmelweis is one of those guys whose story I can never forget and yet whose name I can never remember.

      Think I’ll need to expand on this idea and your feedback in a future post.

      I love your idea that some level of social outliers is a genetically determined. I’ve long thought that traits that are only helpful once in a while, maybe only once every 100 generations, but are VERY helpful then, would be preserved. Noah had a LOT of descendants, after all.

      Re: inheritability. Same story here – my dad was an OK farm boy, and most of his 13 siblings never left OK. But he joined the CCC, toured the West as a clerk (he had learned office work in his ongoing effort to escape the farm) then settled in CA, became an ace welder, then started his own company. But only some of his 9 kids displayed that sort of gumption, yet maybe one of us mastered the go along to get along schtick. So, yea. And dad was the sort of guy you describe: never really wanted to be in charge, yet always ended up in charge whenever anything needed to get done.

      1. From the old Pick Up Artist stuff, the Alphas, Betas, and so on, I think it is the Sigma who simply won’t play the social games, because he isn’t wired for it. He is over there just doing his own thing, which gives him a bit of an Alpha vibe, a vibe he isn’t aware of and doesn’t know what to do with, since he isn’t actually playing the social games.

        Part of the current situation is TPTB, that can’t rope some of us into the prevailing narrative, choose to turn the screws carefully, making it hard to resist and easy to comply. Weekly flu tests and various banishments, instead of just getting the jabs and carrying on. Given that most non-vaxxed simply aren’t going to follow that TPTB lead dog, I’m not so sure how it all goes from here.

      2. I’m so relieved to know my family’s not the only one! Dad… was always terrible at working for other people. He ran a couple of small businesses for a while– not terribly profitable, but he was a talented metalworker. Otherwise just kind of an eccentric fellow… but he has some freaky secret talents: he’s really, really good at dealing with crazy people. If he’d been inclined to law enforcement, he would’ve made an ace hostage negotiator. I’ve never seen anyone else who could meet someone while they are off their meds, out of their minds, and flying high in some paranoid alternate reality… and just quickly and deliberately connect. Enter into the person’s delusion just enough to steer them in a safer direction. He was a really excellent driving instructor. Nerves of steel– he taught all four of us to drive, but also several family friends. When he arrives at a traffic accident before the cops, he stops and directs traffic.

        Of his four children, three of us are crap at going along to get along. My eldest sister, the exception, didn’t do it naturally. But she was ambitious and she *studied* it: she latched onto the rich/smart kids in school, deliberately adopted their speech patterns, manners, and habits, went off to business school, and made a success of herself in the big city. The rest of us… don’t really care enough to make that kind of an effort, and are always kind of the odd man out wherever we go. We’re very chummy with each other, though.

  2. a) alpha theory of wolves is for stressed wolves, unrelated, in captivity. I know someone who likes to point out that unstressed in nature, the wolf structure is mommy, daddy, and kids, not this alpha stuff.
    b) Okay, maybe a lot of things are functioning to create a more stressed captivity like situation.
    c) All this ‘people behave this way’ stuff is ultimately a reduced order model based on observation. Humans are not widgets, and have significantly greater potential for behavior that does not fit the model.
    d) One of the centers of gravity of the opposition is a false, heretical, and evil religion that idolizes reduced order models. Arrow of history, etc. As the martyrs rejected belief in the pagan idols, we today are called to reject complete confidence in behavioral models simple enough to be contained inside a human mind. Yes, sometimes, for example, an evil man may continue to do evil, but using that observation is not the same as having actual faith in it. Reserve faith for matters that are correct objects for faith. Do not have faith in the models the opposition is using to make us despair.
    e) It may well be that other humans, The World, are corrupt, and will betray God, instead of finding their way to Him. He calls us to witness, He never promised us that it would always bear worldly fruit. He calls us to accept the risk of it not bearing worldly fruit. Do not so trust your understanding of the hearts of others that you despair of witnessing. Yes, witnessing does not require that you accept all risks of being killed by a murderer, or robbed by a thief. There is room for prudence. Prudence can be part of what you were put on Earth to do. God wants us to use our own judgement in some things, to have some confidence in it. But we are not to worship ourselves.
    e) I may be speaking more of the log in my own eye than anything else.
    f) I probably have a sinus infection, may have woken me up with an unsettling nightmare. A bit at loose ends. I’d had this post pointed out before bed, and now have found my way over here again. Whatever is going on with my head has been screwing with my thinking, and waking up in the middle of the night never helps. I may have wasted your time with this.

  3. Thing about the communist to nazi thing, they were basically similar religions painted in political clothing.

    The rituals fed the same dark parts of the soul, and a man ruled by those appetites would find that one fed them as the other did. But part of that similarity, that ritual, that belief, was about consensus and the appearance of power. Manipulating the perceived power around the cultist of one would make the other suddenly more attractive.

    The Nazis valued and promoted the conversion stories of communist cultists turning their coats to national socialism.

  4. This is reminiscent of the part of “Persecution and the Art of Writing” where Leo Strauss observes that modern historians have seen philosophers as essentially creatures of their own culture and society, when in fact all philosophers across time are united by the fact that they are all, to a greater or lesser extent, at odds with their own respective societies. This enmity between philosophy and society is inevitable because the skepticism of the philosophical truth-seeker is a threat to any human social order, and any human social order is both a necessary facilitator of and a threat to the search for truth.

    I think Strauss goes way, way too far on this. He believed that reason and revelation are *inherently* in conflict, which is wrong. He thought that there was no rational basis for a morality that might sustain a human society, not merely that we would probably fail to find it. He also projected his own neuroses onto the great men of the past, which is pretty ironic considering that part of his project was to liberate us from the foolish modern idea that we had nothing to learn from men of the past. But come on, Maimonides was not an angsty, culturally Jewish agnostic who worried a lot about what agnosticism might do to society–that is a description of Leo Strauss. Maimonides was a believing Jew.

    Still, in this vale of tears, there is a germ of truth to what Strauss says. Actually-existing social orders do conflict with the rational search for truth. Some more and some less, but this is just how it is, a consequence in my view of darkening of the intellect by original sin which causes our social orders to tend to the bestial. And maybe it goes even a little deeper than that. Maybe you wouldn’t want a society where no one is like Socrates or Richard Feynman, but would you want a society where everyone was like that?

    Regarding the earlier comment on Noah, I once heard it joked that the world makes more sense once you realize that everyone alive is descended from a paranoiac who believed that he was the only righteous man on earth.

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