Fourth Meditation on Democracy [written Saturday, September 22, 2007] REPUBLISHED

https _s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com_736x_ee_59_33_ee593300e425c02784549e0228c025e1In the begin­ning years of this blog, I pub­lished a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elic­it inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have anoth­er round of vis­i­bil­ity, espe­cially (I hope) with younger read­ers. I am re-post­ing them in their orig­i­nal sequence over part of 2018. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­ally append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Most­ly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updat­ing.


14-03-18 BLOG FOURTH MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACYRecent­ly, two Cana­di­an high school stu­dents did a remark­able thing. It was remark­able enough to gen­er­ate a large amount of com­ment in the blo­gos­phere. Accord­ing to the orig­i­nal news item in the Hal­i­fax Chron­i­cle Her­ald [1], a grade 9 stu­dent “arrived for the first day of school last Wednes­day and was set upon by a group of six to 10 old­er stu­dents who mocked him, called him a homo­sex­u­al for wear­ing pink and threat­ened to beat him up.” Any­one who has attend­ed high school knows the usu­al out­come of such sit­u­a­tions. But in this case, it was dif­fer­ent. Two senior stu­dents, Travis Price and David Shep­herd, were dis­gust­ed by this crude bul­ly­ing. “It’s my last year. I’ve stood around too long and I want­ed to do some­thing,” David explained. The two stu­dents bought 75 pink tank-tops and, ral­ly­ing stu­dents through the inter­net, per­suad­ed half the stu­dent body to wear them, or to sup­ply their own. When the bul­lies next came to school, they were con­front­ed by an ocean of pink sol­i­dar­i­ty. “The bul­lies got angry,” said Travis. “One guy was throw­ing chairs (in the cafe­te­ria). We’re glad we got the response we want­ed.”

The protest rapid­ly spread to thir­ty oth­er Nova Sco­tia schools, then across the rest of Cana­da. High schools are no longer iso­lat­ed, self-con­tained, strat­i­fied, and despot­ic mini-soci­eties. Social net­work­ing media like Face­book and MySpace are enabling rapid, flu­id and demo­c­ra­t­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, not only between stu­dents in the same school, but link­ing them to every oth­er school in the world.

There have been a lot of com­plaints about Face­book, and sim­i­lar net­works, from school author­i­ties. They are always express­ing their grave con­cern over some new men­ace. Typ­i­cal­ly, school author­i­ties com­plain that social net­work­ing will be used for “cyber­bul­ly­ing”. Hmm. Well a cen­tu­ry of real high school bul­ly­ing nev­er seemed to elic­it any grave con­cern from edu­ca­tors. Why so much alarm about puta­tive “bul­ly­ing” on the inter­net? The old fash­ioned bul­ly with fists is more of a com­mon-sense dan­ger. It turns out, of course, that the inci­dents that actu­al­ly trig­gered school admin­is­tra­tions’ ire were invari­ably cas­es of teach­ers or vice prin­ci­pals being crit­i­cized or made fun of by stu­dents on Face­book…. or hav­ing their teach­ing skills sub­ject­ed to com­par­a­tive analy­sis by stu­dents. Social net­work­ing is, I sus­pect, dis­trust­ed and denounced by those in author­i­ty for the same rea­son that they pre­vi­ous­ly hat­ed the spread of the writ­ten word and the print­ing press. The pink protest demon­strates that the inter­net and social net­work­ing are pow­er­ful tools for the evo­lu­tion of jus­tice and civil­i­ty.

Travis and David’s actions may be a reca­pit­u­la­tion of one of the most sig­nif­i­cant steps in human evo­lu­tion, one which should be under­stood by any­one hop­ing to move the world in a pro­gres­sive direc­tion, towards demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions, tol­er­ant social cus­toms, and respect for human rights.

We are pri­mates, descend­ed from a line of pro­to-human pri­mates, and close­ly relat­ed to chim­panzees, bono­bos, and goril­las. A lot of analo­gies and con­clu­sions about human soci­ety and psy­chol­o­gy have been made from the obser­va­tion of the social inter­ac­tions of oth­er pri­mates. A gen­er­a­tion ago, observers of pri­mate behav­iour dis­cov­ered aston­ish­ing amounts of vio­lence, bul­ly­ing, mur­der, rape, among our close evo­lu­tion­ary rel­a­tives. They saw clear­ly hier­ar­chi­cal pow­er struc­tures dom­i­nat­ed by “alpha males”. Many peo­ple con­clud­ed that bul­ly­ing, vio­lence, and tyran­ni­cal gov­ern­ment were innate aspects of human behav­iour. This view appealed to the rich and pow­er­ful, who are always hap­py to have it con­firmed that their posi­tion is “nat­ur­al”. But the com­par­isons soon came under crit­i­cal scruti­ny. Obser­va­tion of human com­mu­ni­ties show that they usu­al­ly have noth­ing like the kind of vio­lence observed among chim­panzees. Human beings may engage in war­fare with neigh­bour­ing tribes, or dis­tant coun­tries, and that war­fare can become hor­ri­fy­ing­ly vio­lent. In some dic­ta­tor­ships, aris­toc­ra­cies have man­aged to inflict hor­ren­dous atroc­i­ties on their sub­jects. But the ordi­nary human com­mu­ni­ty, on aver­age, is strik­ing­ly less vio­lent than any chim­panzee troupe. All our obser­va­tions of hunt­ing and gath­er­ing soci­eties — a pat­tern of human pol­i­tics that per­sist­ed through most of human his­to­ry, and still has some prac­ti­tion­ers — have shown that they have rel­a­tive­ly egal­i­tar­i­an deci­sion-mak­ing, and are not char­ac­ter­ized by extreme inter­nal vio­lence. [2] When humans know each oth­er and live togeth­er on a rel­a­tive­ly equal basis, they do not attack each oth­er near­ly as fre­quent­ly as chim­panzees do. Human vio­lence occurs large­ly between soci­eties, or between castes and eth­no-reli­gious clus­ters that exclude each oth­er from their def­i­n­i­tion of com­mu­ni­ty, while chim­panzee vio­lence is a con­stant inci­dence of rage and vio­lence with­in a com­mu­ni­ty. Peo­ple in mod­ern urban civ­i­liza­tions may, or may not, have effec­tive egal­i­tar­i­an pol­i­tics, but rape and vio­lent assaults are not nor­mal among them. These activ­i­ties are rare, dis­turb­ing, and trou­bling to us. We do not expect to be beat­en every oth­er day, even in the most oppres­sive and vio­lent cul­tures.

So why are human com­mu­ni­ties much less vio­lent, at least with­in social groups? There are some ways in which humans are notice­ably dif­fer­ent from their hominid ances­tors and from oth­er liv­ing pri­mates. For exam­ple, humans have much less phys­i­cal dimor­phism between gen­ders, and they have abstract lan­guage. These two par­tic­u­lar dif­fer­ences have attract­ed the atten­tion of paleo-anthro­pol­o­gists who are puz­zling over the rel­a­tive inter­nal peace­ful­ness of human soci­eties. The argu­ment goes rough­ly like this: Some­time, prob­a­bly fair­ly late in the evo­lu­tion of our species, we devel­oped the skill of com­mu­ni­cat­ing through abstract sym­bol­ic lan­guage. This seems to have had the side effect of enabling all sorts of oth­er new and dis­tinc­tive abil­i­ties. The human toolk­it under­went extreme­ly slow evo­lu­tion for a long peri­od, then sud­den­ly blos­somed into a wide range of sophis­ti­cat­ed imple­ments. At the same time, sym­bol­ic arti­cles, such as dec­o­ra­tive beads, requir­ing patient work to make but serv­ing no imme­di­ate­ly prac­ti­cal pur­pose appeared. Very quick­ly, elab­o­rate visu­al arts, musi­cal instru­ments, and oth­er evi­dence of sym­bol­ic behav­iour mul­ti­plies in the archae­o­log­i­cal record. Human beings seem to be “ful­ly mod­ern” in their cul­ture forty thou­sand years ago, and a tan­ta­liz­ing trail of evi­dence sug­gests that the ini­tial out­burst of rapid cul­tur­al elab­o­ra­tion occurred some­where between sev­en­ty-five and a hun­dred thou­sand years ago. I sus­pect that the acqui­si­tion of abstract lan­guage was the key com­po­nent in this “pack­age deal”.

Some sci­en­tists [3] have looked at this and come to the con­clu­sion that the devel­op­ment of more sub­tle means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion indi­rect­ly trig­gered a reduc­tion of inter­nal vio­lence and a reduc­tion of gen­der dimor­phism. While pri­mates with­out lan­guage skills were some­times able to com­bine to counter the harm done by vio­lent alphas, the acqui­si­tion of abstract lan­guage allowed weak­er mem­bers of the human tribe to com­pare evi­dence, plan con­fronta­tions, co-ordi­nate strate­gies, and com­bine effec­tive­ly against the vio­lence of alphas. In oth­er words, instead of sit­ting still and watch­ing the most vio­lent alpha males bru­tal­ize, rape and mur­der the weak, they got togeth­er on their inter­net and agreed to wear pink shirts. Even among non-human pri­mates, there are attempts to curb bul­ly­ing behav­iour. Among the high­ly strat­i­fied chim­panzees, low sta­tus males, or females, may band togeth­er to lim­it the pow­er of aggres­sive alpha-males.[4] How­ev­er, these impromp­tu alliances against the dom­i­nant have to occur spon­ta­neous­ly, in favourable cir­cum­stances. The dom­i­nant chimpanzee’s aggres­sion has no such lim­i­ta­tions. With­out the cru­cial skill of lan­guage to plan ahead, the rebels have poor chances of suc­ceed­ing.

The the­o­ret­i­cal impli­ca­tion is that we went through a long peri­od in which we weed­ed out the worst of our bul­lies, prob­a­bly at first by ambush­ing and killing them, then ulti­mate­ly need­ing only social sanc­tions and cus­tom­ary norms to con­trol them. Dur­ing that peri­od, the mat­ing advan­tage of a big­ger male body was less­ened, and males and females came much clos­er to being the same size. (The aver­age size dif­fer­ence between males and females is notice­able to us, but com­pared to the dimor­phism of chimps, it is triv­ial).

As I said in my first med­i­ta­tion, the con­trol of bul­lies is one of the main prob­lems that a soci­ety faces. Each human com­mu­ni­ty can either max­i­mize or neglect the skills nec­es­sary to deal with bul­lies. One of the cru­cial fac­tors is how chil­dren are taught to han­dle bul­lies, and what the cir­cum­stances of their edu­ca­tion lead them to expect. Trag­i­cal­ly, we design spe­cial social envi­ron­ments for our young in which tyran­ny, intim­i­da­tion, and arbi­trary force run ram­pant. Mil­lions of chil­dren go to school with the cer­tain knowl­edge that they will be phys­i­cal­ly assault­ed, threat­ened, and humil­i­at­ed, and that there will be no social sol­i­dar­i­ty com­ing to their defense. Such chil­dren are like­ly to grow up ready to serve as drones in an atavis­tic, caste-rid­den, and con­formist soci­ety.

Empires and dic­ta­tor­ships are built on this prac­tice. The pub­lic schools of England’s Impe­r­i­al days were night­mar­ish dystopias in which class dis­tinc­tions were re-enforced by swag­ger­ing bul­ly­ing and abject, fawn­ing sub­mis­sion of the weak to the strong.[5] In grim­mer soci­eties, the vio­lence was admin­is­tered direct­ly by the teach­ers. In his dis­cus­sion of the ancient Roman gram­mati­cus, Gre­go­ry Aldrete [6] writes: “The two main char­ac­ter­is­tics of this phase of school­ing were end­less amounts of mem­o­riza­tion rein­forced by bru­tal beat­ings when­ev­er a stu­dent failed to per­form prop­er­ly. The teacher had a wide range of pun­ish­ments avail­able… The ulti­mate pun­ish­ment was the cato­mus, for which the stu­dent was stripped naked and stretched out across the backs of two oth­er stu­dents, one of whom would grasp his legs, and the oth­er his arms. The unfor­tu­nate vic­tim was then sav­age­ly flogged with a wood­en stick by the teacher.” Not sur­pris­ing­ly, peo­ple edu­cat­ed like this found their prin­ci­ple enter­tain­ment in watch­ing help­less pris­on­ers being torn apart by lions and croc­o­diles. They built col­i­se­ums to enjoy these “sport­ing events”. Amer­i­cans’ apa­thet­ic response to crimes of tor­ture, com­mit­ted in the gulags built by their own Pres­i­dent, is not sur­pris­ing, giv­en the base sub­mis­sion taught in their pub­lic schools.

I cer­tain­ly don’t want Cana­di­an chil­dren to grow up that way, and I’m delight­ed to see evi­dence that they are not. The pink protest is proof that we can raise chil­dren to be free men and women.

Our inten­tion was to stand up for this kid so he doesn’t get picked on,” one of the two Nova Sco­tia boys explained. When the vic­tim­ized stu­dent saw the sea of pink sol­i­dar­i­ty, “it was like a big weight had been lift­ed off his shoul­der.” No one at the school would reveal the student’s name to reporters. Quite right­ly, they under­stood that it would re-vic­tim­ize him to do so.

These Nova Sco­tia high school stu­dents have inde­pen­dent­ly dis­cov­ered the first, and most impor­tant step in the devel­op­ment of a civ­i­lized, demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety. They have learned that they can and must stand up to the bul­lies, and defeat them — not by match­ing them in brute force, but by using their brains. They have learned that an unjust social order does not exist by any cos­mic neces­si­ty, but only by acqui­es­cence.


notes:
[1] Fair­clough, Ian — “I’ve stood around too long”. Hal­i­fax Chron­i­cle Her­ald, Sept.23, 2007
[2] Among them are Richard Wrang­ham and Christo­pher Boehm.
[3] Knauft, Bruce M. — “Vio­lence and Social­i­ty in Human Evo­lu­tion” Cur­rent Anthro­pol­o­gy 32:391–428 is a com­pre­hen­sive overview of the evi­dence and its inter­pre­ta­tions.
[4] Uehara, S., M. Hirai­wa-Hasegawa, K. Hosa­ka, and M. Hamai — “The fate of defeat­ed alpha male chim­panzees in rela­tion to their social net­works”
Goodall, Jane — “Unusu­al vio­lence in the over­throw of an alpha male chim­panzee at Gombe.” in:Topics in Pri­ma­tol­ogy, Vol. 1.
Human Ori­gins, T. Nishi­da, et. al (eds.), Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo Press. 1992 pp. 131–142.
Nishi­da, T. — “Alpha sta­tus and ago­nis­tic alliance in wild chim­panzees (Pan troglodytes schwe­in­furthii)”
Pri­mates, 24: 318–336
[5] Well described in George Orwell’s mem­oir, “Such, Such Were the Joys”, reprint­ed in The col­lect­ed essays, jour­nal­ism and let­ters of George Orwell , vol.4. Pen­guin Books 1970.
[6] Aldrette, Gre­go­ry S.- Dai­ly Life in the Roman City. Green­wood Press 2004. p.64

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