Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hope against the tribal mind?

In the midst of all of the work for my summer class on logic (gotta learn my students good), I have found a few scattered moments to devote to reducing my cache of library books. True, most of those moments are earned by sacrificing sleep, but what's sleep compared to reading?

Anyway, my most recent read was David Berreby's Us and Them. I had to snap it up the instant I saw it, because it deals with the "tribal mind" as a source of conflict. Followers of this blog know that tribalism is one source of my pessimism about humanity. Berreby, however, seems to be optimistic; he stresses that there is nothing essentially tribal about people; indeed, whether we view a collection of other people as a foreign "them" or part of "us," has much to do with circumstances. If the circumstances are controlled well enough, tribal division can be overcome by prompting us to view all humans as part of the same tribe. This amounts to the "expanding circle" view that is set against such things as biological essentialism and the clash of civilizations.

I don't entirely disagree with Berreby. I think the attitudes and behavior of both individuals and groups are malleable and stimulus-dependent. I think circumstances can fairly easily prompt even seemingly good people to become liars, thieves, and murderers, but also agree that even the seemingly worst of people will become altruists under the right conditions.

However, I differ with Berreby on two points. First, I am not at all optimistic about our being able to control circumstances well enough to overcome tribalism except locally and over the comparative short term. This is not just a problem at the level of civilizations, but a problem within civilizations, where I think circles become increasingly unstable, and subject to violent fracture, with their expansion. Secondly, the mere fact of malleability is something that I would count as corruption. It isn't that I think people are inherently bad—I don't. But the fact that the goodness of good people is not robust—that even in a peaceful community, you must constantly be aware of shifting circumstances, and watch for the glint of the knife—that is sufficient for me to consider humanity corrupt. It is precisely because of this corruption that expanding circles are unstable.

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