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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