Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tribal Politics: It's All Where You Place Your Attention

A while ago, I offered an unorthodox explanation for the root cause of racism, sexism, classism, and other -isms. My thinking went like this:
"When I was a kid, Polish jokes were all the rage. And it surprised me to discover that each culture has its Polish analog - a group deemed stupid. And its Jewish analog - a group deemed stingy. And its black analog - a group deemed lazy. How bizarre it was to learn that Norwegians tell jokes about "those dumb Swedes"!

The same negative labels persist all over the world, regardless of the group being pinned with a given label. And that's because plenty of people, of any given group, are, indeed, dumb, stingy, and lazy. Those are human qualities, but since our perceptions are set up to focus on the unfamiliar, we notice those qualities more readily in those unlike us. We study the Other...and we don't like what we see. Men rue the cruelty of women; women rue the cruelty of men. Both are quite correct, really.

Racism, sexism, and classism are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy."
The same mechanism underlies all of the many ways human beings behave tribally, and politics is prominent among them. Consider this quote by H. L. Mencken:
"Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right."
The extreme polarization we see right now is merely the fruition of Mencken's dynamic. It hinges, really, on the age-old loathing of The Other. When it comes down to it, its not each other's political beliefs we really abhor. It's deeper than that. We smell otherness and recoil from it. And the resultant climate - of dogmatic certainty, disrespect and dehumanization - only feeds the process. Our empathy muscles grow flabby as our outrage muscles hypertrophy. Think Israelis and Palestinians.

This accounts for why we've seemingly lost any ability to tolerate (much less empathize with) other positions. As with racism, sexism, classicism, etc., we smell, at a very deep and primitive level, deep ugliness in "the other side". Alas, the ugliness is truly there! Trying to deny or suppress it is fruitless! In spite of the obvious symmetries, we fail to notice that we're keying into a universal human ugliness that's actually unconstrained to any one group. We just notice it in Other because that's where we focus our attention. And, per Mencken, political forces have a stake in keeping our attention right there.

Sniff hard enough most anywhere and you will smell stench. Or the divine. For we are all both.

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