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Posts Tagged ‘tribalism’

Horrible things are happening in France.

It’s really not a useful function of this blog to tell you about that. Other, better people have already given you much more useful detail about what’s going on, and I’m no better at picking the accurate and useful details apart from the misinformation and speculation than you are. All I can be is one more futile voice in the crowd, agreeing that it’s horrible when horrible things happen, and we all feel bad.

My one-time secondary blog would be relevant here. If we want to change things, to effect a world less imbued with anger and violence, less susceptible to such an apparent onslaught of attacks and hatred, a good place to start is to examine attitudes to the Other. To try to understand how tribalistic tendencies nurture fear and contempt toward those who, for whatever reason, don’t feel like “one of us”.

And god knows there are plenty of opinions on display at the moment about the Other, and their role in this latest tragedy.

For some, the Other is the Infidel, who refuses to submit to the true way through an inherent grotesqueness that makes them less than human. They deserve nothing less than death, and to serve as a message to the rest of the world.

For many, the Other is the kind of inhuman monster who could commit violence like this against innocent people. Examination of the mindset that could lead to such acts is therefore of no interest. They’re awful, broken people, the ones who did this awful thing, and deserve no sympathy. And maybe this means that some other folk who share some characteristics with the awful, broken people – their religion, say – are necessarily awful and broken too. They might not want to think that. But it seeps through.

For a tragically visible number, the Other is a big collective mass of Everyone Who’s A Bit Different From Me And Is To Blame For This Somehow. Refugees, whose camps are reportedly being burned. Muslims, who are already defending themselves against exactly this type of entirely predictable slur. People with suspiciously dark skin. You know, that lot. You know who I mean. Obviously these groups of individuals are all loosely connected at best, but who cares about nuance and meaningful distinctions when we’re under attack by Them.

For me, primarily, the Other is people who, at times like these, talk about the need to close ranks and close borders, to crack down on all those foreigners coming over here bring all their terrorism with them, to solve intolerance with intolerance, to face hate with hate. The Other is loudly proclaiming how a mercilessly authoritarian approach is the only appropriate response to atrocities like this, and that there’s no time for bleeding-heart lefty ideas like “free speech” and “compassion” when we need to make sure our people are safe.

Humanity and love for the Other: it’s a tough job, but someone’s everyone’s got to do it.

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(content note: murder, gets a bit grisly in places, no pictures or anything, it’s basically fine)

A lot of contemporary pop culture is about terrible people doing appalling things.

This is not new or surprising. I mean, real life is so lovely and free of conflict these days, it’s only natural we’d seek out stories of sadism and cruelty as a way to escape the comfortable banality of our everyday lives.

Ahahaha. Oh, what frivolity. Such larks.

Anyway, we’re obviously used to seeing villains and antagonists committing vile acts of evil and terror – killing people, subjugating and enslaving whole populations, and the rest – before being soundly and rightly defeated by the brave heroes. But since they’re not generally the obviously relatable characters we’re meant to empathise with, getting into those bad guys’ heads can be fascinating.

But while it’s written under the guise of “exploring a dangerous and twisted yet still distinctly human and underappreciated mindset”, I’ve noticed distressingly often these kinds of narratives reading like some sort of lefty/liberal revenge fantasy, in a way that’d be creepy and sinister and utterly objectionable if the political allegiances were switched.

And I sometimes wonder how much these “explorations” are genuinely about finding the humanity in someone different from you – finding something human to connect with in a character whose motives and values in general appal and disgust you – and how much they’re about indulging the part of you that kinda does just want to murder people.

You’re not a monster, though, so they’d have to be people whose values seriously disagree with yours – maybe over a political issue like gay rights, or something else far more important than the ethics of killing other people.

The obvious example from TV is Dexter. He killed a lot of people, which we’re not supposed to be okay with. But he also had a career and a family and we liked him. And a crucial part of that dichotomy was the moral code he lived and killed by. The show was pretty inconsistent in dealing with what really drove him and why he felt compelled to limit his killing to those who “deserved” it, to the extent that he did. But importantly, the code was something we could relate to. The people he killed were often themselves murderers, or violent thugs, or rapists, and often tended to be casually homophobic and misogynistic and racist.

In other words, they’re people you don’t mind seeing die horribly. You wouldn’t want to actually kill them yourself, in the real world, obviously – but when you’re watching Dexter, you can kinda get behind him.

And this seems to matter. Dexter’s not a relatable anti-hero because of the contrast between his uncontrollable sociopathic violence and all the other delightful, human, recognisable, charming aspects of his character. We don’t see the good in him and wish he could somehow conquer this one horrifying flaw. Instead, the thing that should be his least likable, most alienating aspect is the primary draw. The fact that he’s a serial killer is shaped such that it’s a positive factor in itself.

In Christopher Brookmyre’s book Snowball In Hell, the viewpoint narrator throughout much of the text is a charming and witty serial killer, who targets a right-wing newspaper columnist and goes to great lengths enacting an elaborately ironic revenge fantasy. (Think Saw, but without the grisly “appreciate your life more” parables.) The book expresses contempt and disdain for the homophobic xenophobic bigot and his inhumane views, it marshals a rational argument against them through our charismatic narrator and ridicules them for the vacuous nonsense they are, and then the main character tortures him to death.

The message, at least in part, seems to be that despising and wishing ill on an asshole with hateful politics is not only wholly reasonable and appropriate, but also not that big a step from sadistically making them suffer and ending their life.

Even the main protagonist’s reaction when she hears about this brutal killing is basically “Well, I’ll try to solve this crime and catch the bad guy, because that’s the technically correct thing to do and it’s my job, but I’m not in any way sorry that shithead’s dead.” Because, you know. Why mourn the malicious and vindictive snuffing out of a human life if they’d said some horrible things about gay people? For all that the murdered journalist was portrayed as appallingly intolerant, he was never so unable to tolerate someone else’s lifestyle or opinions that he slit their throat and let them bleed to death while they begged for mercy. The guy who does that to people is cool and suave; the bigot is just gross.

The narrator-murderer also gives us enough of a direct diatribe about his infuriation with things like manufactured pop music and reality TV, that I’m not convinced we aren’t meant to be going along with it and continuing to agree with his worldview. If it’s really just a satire on the ideas he’s espousing, it’s played very straight and a large part of the audience are going to be taking it literally, missing the satire in ways the author has no excuse not to have seen coming.

It becomes more clearly self-aware further in, I think, but this character’s fashionably cynical perspective provides around 100 of the first 150 pages, and it doesn’t feel at all as if it’s supposed to be alienating or other or different. We’re meant to connect with his contempt, it’s meant to tap in to the way other people feel.

Which could support the argument that he’s satirising the danger of that whole lefty-liberal revenge fantasy thing, except it’s still just played too straight for me to buy that explanation. He’s not writing American Psycho here. That book – if I’ve in any way understood anything (not a given) – was about the frustrations of modern corporate life, and how close to psychotic murder are a lot of the emotions it genuinely induces, in huge numbers of people. It was about the disconnectedness that its protagonist felt, and it was really saying yes, this destructive force might be in you too, or at least not so far from home, and that should worry and unnerve you because this is not a nice person.

Whereas Brookmyre’s attitude seems closer to: Hey, this guy is kinda like you, only he gets to kill those people you pretend you don’t hate. Fun!

It feels like these kinds of stories aren’t really about getting into the head of someone truly alien, whose desires and feelings and thought processes are beyond us, so that we can try to understand someone with a completely different worldview from our own. The message is that these psychotic murderers aren’t that different from you, and you should feel fine about that. Their moral code is almost always understandable to a large degree – they’re offended by the same things you are, they’re impatient with bigotry and injustice just like you – but they have this extra aspect to them that means killing people is permitted. They’re still likable and charming and you’re inside their head because of the way the story’s told, but rather than helping to normalise the other, what this does is make the angry, violent, murderous feelings buried under your supposedly benevolent worldview seem understandable and human and maybe even not so morally wrong.

Murder isn’t treated as a moral evil in the same way as, say, writing disparaging things about gay people and immigrants in a newspaper column, or objectifying women, or sometimes simply “being arrogant”. It’s not that these aren’t really bad things; the point is that they’re not as bad as murder, yet they often feel like they’re even worse, so long as it’s the right kind of murder. We’re coaxed into empathising with murderous protagonists all the time, but there are certain rules; you can’t kill any children, it’s generally safer to stay away from women, and you have to have a wry quip for every occasion. It’d be more of an actual challenge to make a relatable protagonist out of a bullying homophobic jerk than a socially liberal assassin. Persuading us to understand someone’s humanity would be trickier if you let them consistently and carelessly break that kind of viscerally understood cardinal sin.

In Brookmyre again, while we’re following the murderer-narrator and still finding him kinda dashing and charming, there always has to be some lefty-acceptable reason for the people he kills – a racist comedian, a vapid bimbo WAG. Somehow it’s never just an actual innocent who doesn’t deserve it who gets killed while we’re watching him be all suave and charming about it. If we couldn’t other and dehumanise the victim based on their politics, then their murder might start to feel like a real tragedy.

There’s an element of the same issue in the film of Kingsman. You know the scene I’m talking about (unless you don’t, in which case do catch up), and it is quite breathtaking, but the purpose in making those people Westboro Baptist proxies seems to have been to make sure we’re less distracted when they get slaughtered, letting us revel more joyously in the carnage. Which I totally do, that scene is fucking incredible and just typing a sentence about it has made me have to go and watch this amazing edit again as a substitute for revisiting the whole film – but it’d be harder to enjoy the beautifully shot ultraviolence if the people getting killed weren’t homophobic and racist bigots. Which says something uncomfortable about the value I seem to place on the lives of other humans when it turns out they’re not keen on gay people.

I’m not sure what the answer is to any of this. I’m not sure there’s even a coherently posed question. And I haven’t even mentioned Hannibal.

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Nine Worlds happened again last weekend. We’re three for three so far, and already booking tickets for next year. I may share my detailed feedback for them here when I get around to putting that together, as it’s not been without its problems, but it still has a lot to recommend it over other similar conventions, and it’s still way better than it could be.

deadpoolSomething that’s been a bit of a common theme for me each year has been feeling a bit disappointed with myself in the aftermath, for not throwing myself into things with a bit more gusto. Y’know, socialising with strangers, and other such nightmare scenarios that I understand are popular at many gatherings of this kind.

It’s really not a forte of mine, spontaneously talking to unfamiliar people and “making friends”, even when they’re clearly there for similar reasons and can be assumed to share many interests with me.

(That’s me in the pic above/to the side, incidentally. I’m the one who genuinely didn’t know what those two were doing behind me and was just following instructions to do some jazz hands. They look like my friends, right?)

But if anyplace was going to be designed to make it easy for me, and provide a range of decent and interesting people who I’d have a good chance of getting along with and who are unlikely to be bewildered and alienated by the concept of an introvert, NineWorlds is fairly close to how it’d look. (TAM London wasn’t bad, and QED may be worth a shot someday.)

NineWorlds is the closest I’ve come to feeling like I’ve found “my people”, outside of being alone in an empty house with a couple of cats (and possibly my wife if I’m feeling especially gregarious).

And I’ve spent way too much time in my life hoping for that “finding my people” feeling, ever optimistic that it really may be about to happen. I’ve gone into many new situations, with some part of me daring to hope that maybe here, at last, I’d finally feel at home, and feel welcome, and not be anxious around my (technically) fellow humans. These people shared my academic interests, or my approach to science and religion, or my sci-fi fandoms, or something else that gave me hope that our interactions would be different, and my feelings of awkwardness would somehow melt away around this particular crowd.

Other people speak of having this exact experience when they click with the right in-group, whether that’s the first other gay people they’ve ever had the chance to meet, or whether it’s LARPers, or whoever. It didn’t seem an unreasonable hope in my case. But every time it’s left me feeling empty and disheartened, in proportion to how different I was expecting things to be.

I’ve not given up all hope that someday I’ll feel less perpetually self-conscious and overly self-critical and not just want to hide whenever I’m around people. But I’m no longer waiting for the right kind of “other people” to make it happen suddenly and all at once. If I make any progress in that direction, it’ll be through slow and steady increments of the kind I’ve been making over the past few years. A brief back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that, if trends continue, these gradual increments will render me a confident alpha-male just in time for mankind’s colonisation of Betelgeuse.

But aside from being an impractical expectation of the dynamics of social interaction (at least in my case), I’m also not sure whether finding “my people” is the worthiest goal.

I mean, if the people you meet in a gay bar or a goth club or NineWorlds are “your people”, then it follows that everyone else is necessarily not among your chosen extended kin. Now, for some folk there’s a real value in determining who isn’t part of the in-group who are known to be trustworthy, particularly if they’re accustomed to being shunned or hated or abused by others from the out-group. But however valuable a service or sanctuary the tribe might provide, there’s a danger that the same dehumanisation and contempt for “the other” might start going both ways.

I want everyone to be “my people”. That’s what humanism means to me. I’m never going to get along equally with everyone; there’ll always be folk I engage or connect with more readily, and they may share enough characteristics that they could be identified collectively as a tribe to some degree. But I’d rather avoid determining whether somebody new is to be trusted or feared, based on whether they appear to fall into some nebulously defined category. Without being too harsh on people who find that a useful heuristic, it seems worth avoiding if possible.

(Post-script: Actually I think the closest I’ve come to identifying “my people”, moreso than NineWorlds attendees, is “people on the internet who I can’t see or hear in real-time and who aren’t occupying the same physical space as me and who only communicate by text and gifs”. Those people are definitely special.)

(Oh, and double-post-script: I tumbl now, apparently, in the obvious place. Expect cross-postings but also new and original content as I become a master of cross-platform interactive brand management *punches self in face*)

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I do not support or endorse Barack Obama.

There. That wasn’t so bad.

This isn’t a topical piece. I’m not reacting to some shocking announcement made in the recent State of the Union address, like that the economy needs to be better or that education is good. He hasn’t done anything new to alienate or upset me.

I’m just doing my best to judge him by his track record. And, right now, I cannot support the guy in any meaningful capacity. Maybe after a bit more time spent at Less Wrong I’ll be able to go further than that, and with less temerity.

What’s prompted me to try writing this is a distressing incongruity I’ve been noticing within my squishy pink skull-contents lately. I value rationality a great deal, and am attempting to practise it more skilfully as an art, and one big honkin’ source of bias is lingering so resolutely that I really need to address it:

To a non-trivial degree, I still personally identify with the “liberal” or “Democrat” in-group.

In practice, what this means is that I have a distinct bias favouring the left and its members in US politics, regardless of any relevant facts I may be asked to consider. While I’m not above praising an individual Republican for something worthwhile, or condemning certain Democrats’ activities, I’ve definitely noticed my opinions starting to form simply based on the subject of a news story, or its source if their political stance is known to me. I feel myself getting either outraged or defensive, based solely on a headline summary, before analysing any of the facts. I seem inclined to presume either that those awful Republicans are being called out for doing something terrible again, or the Democrats are once more being unfairly smeared by some bastard Republicans, and I feel myself taking it personally.

It’s not that I’m a moron (I hope). I’m better once I have a chance to do some actual thinking, but this is about how my brain reacts before I’ve had that chance. And on some level, it still considers the Democrats somehow “my team”.

Which means that it’s easier to maintain and bolster the conceptions I have of what “my team” and “their team” are like. Republicans are homophobic and racist, Democrats are tolerant and progressive. Republicans are war-mongers, Democrats are against unnecessary military action. Republicans want to tax the poor more than the rich, Democrats have much more socialist policies that favour equality.

And while there may be some truth to all this in both their rhetoric and their policies, you have to cherry-pick very selectively if you want to conclude that it’s as easily divided as that.

And once you’ve pledged your allegiance on one side or the other, cherry-picking the data to confirm what you prefer to believe becomes a natural thing to do.

The overall state of US politics lends itself really, really well to this kind of black-and-white thinking and tribalism.

I’m mostly referring to the domination of these two camps, Republican and Democrat, who seem to be constantly at each other’s throats on just about everything, insist on aggressively competing against each other at every opportunity, and of which it’s assumed you must choose one to side with (although more people do seem to be rejecting that idea recently.)

But it’s also true that a lot of Republicans make it really easy to confirm my prejudices against them, and – if I’m not careful – reinforce my allegiance to their opposition.

I mean, Newt Gingrich is an obnoxious ass, whose cruelty and self-serving hypocrisy makes it very easy not to like him. That’s not just my anti-Republican bias talking. He’s terrible. He’s cheated on at least two of his three wives and how dare anyone bring it up when discussing his suitability to lead the country. Ugh. He is an awful man.

Mind you, how bad was it when George Bush was President? That guy who could barely string a sentence together, got the country entrenched in ludicrously extensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and stripped away an unprecedented number of civil liberties with the Patriot Act? He was horrendous.

And then you’ve got Obama, who ran on a platform of change from what went before, who seems like a good guy, a smart guy, who says a lot of the right things, and who I really wanted to win in 2008. And who has reauthorised and expanded on most of Bush’s policies, signed the massively authoritarian National Defense Authorization Act into law, is keeping up the country’s traditions of selling billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia, has done nothing to prevent the indefinite detention of who knows how many innocent people in Gitmo, has had more innocent people killed in Pakistan by unmanned drone attacks than Bush ever did…

But, y’know. At least he’s not a Republican.

And it has been noted that a Presidential track record like Obama’s is exactly the sort of thing Democrats would leap on to argue the atrocious consequences of having a Republican in the White House.

If I try to ignore the labelling distinction between the two teams, and just look at what Obama’s done, matched up with how I’d want politicians to behave, there’s really nothing to justify maintaining any further support, allegiance, or tribal team spirit for Barack Obama or the Democratic Party in the USA. The only reason I feel inclined to do so is that their outward appearance, viewed through my established set of preconceptions, doesn’t make the bile rise in my throat the way it does when I hear the Republicans talk.

But I’m starting to think that it should.

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