“Book Review”: Terra Ignota

This is a discussion of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders, which are the first two novels in a sci-fi series called Terra Ignota.

I’ve put “book review” in quotation marks because I cannot pretend that my essay is meant to provide useful information to people who are considering reading these books.  It’s not even really meant to discuss the books’ artistic qualities at all, although in fact it does that thing, in the process of getting where it needs to go.  It is a philosophical complaint that happens to have their text as its substrate. 

I am writing this for an imagined audience that has already read Terra Ignota.  Not even because of spoilers — although there are some spoilers, at least in a plot-structural sense — but just because I’m trying to grapple with the implications of a complicated thing, too complicated for me to be able to reproduce it in summary at the level of fidelity that would be needed. 

If you’re interested in getting a more normal sort of book review from me, all I can provide is the following:

1. For various complicated reasons, there is no way in hell that I can be remotely objective about Terra Ignota as a piece of literature, and you should probably turn to someone else if you want sound analysis of its artistic merit. 

2. That being said: the critics all seem to be describing it as a beautiful jewel of a series, and as far as I’m concerned, in this case the critics are completely right.  The prose is clever, and intricate, and manages to remain fun despite its incredible density; the best of the characters are refreshingly individual, original, and bizarre; the author’s chops as an intellectual historian shine through, and she takes a contagious delight in treating serious ideas with the seriousness they deserve; and yet, in the end, all of these are garnishes beside the real feast.  Given the values her own writing espouses, I can pay Dr. Palmer no higher compliment than to say that she channels the sensawunda of Golden Age sci-fi, in a pure way that we haven’t much seen since the Golden Age.  She dreams up weirdness after weirdness that can be dropped upon the world, and asks “what if?,” and then takes the time to explore all the answers to that question.  I want to call it “great worldbuilding,” but in so doing I would mislead.  In this fallen age, “worldbuilding” is a term that has come to mean something less remarkable than the thing these novels are doing.   This is not RPG-sourcebook material — this is not “check out the clever rules of my magic system!,” or “look at all the heraldry and politics I made up for my feuding noble houses!,” or anything so common — this is imagining substantively different ways that reality could be.  It is good.  You should read it.

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“Book Review”: Terra Ignota

Book Review: Portal of a Thousand Worlds

This is a discussion of a fantasy novel, which ended up being weird enough in an experiential/literary way that I thought it worth some extended thought.  Quite apart from anything else, it’s a pretty fun read, as fantasy novels go.  Good prose, engaging characters, etc.  If “magic assassins and court intrigue in fictionalized Qing-era China” sounds appealing, well, Portal of a Thousand Worlds will probably appeal.  It will also be a bit disconcerting, for reasons that constitute the topic of this review.  But overall I probably recommend it.

That said: I cannot talk about the things that make this book noteworthy without spoiling it in a very substantial way.  I am not holding anything back.  So, uh, don’t look below the cut unless you’re OK being spoiled.  Go and read Portal of a Thousand Worlds first, if you think you might be interested.

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Book Review: Portal of a Thousand Worlds

Book Review — Rule of the Clan

This book is more important than it is good.  By a lot.  Which is a problem.

*****

That is to say…

When I started reading Mark Weiner’s Rule of the Clan, my initial reaction was: Oh, thank God, someone is finally doing this.  The key thesis of his work is a Giant Thing that I’ve been trying to articulate and defend — for years, including on this very blog — and I’ve done a piss-poor job of it, largely because there are sociocultural factors that make it a very difficult thing to articulate or defend.  And his language seemed clean and clear and compelling!  He wasn’t gabbling, or getting bogged down in stupidities, the way I always did!  Fantastic!, I thought.  I’ll have a new thing to shove at all my friends instead of having to construct my own arguments! 

And then, right away, he makes it clear that he’s not actually going to talk about the entirety of the Giant Thing.  He’s just going to talk about one narrow aspect of it, which is frankly the aspect that I find the least interesting from a modern-urban-liberal perspective.  But fine.  The Giant Thing is indeed Giant; even a single narrow aspect probably deserves a whole book, and the “least interesting” part is still super-crucial, especially if you’re the kind of social engineer who worries about piddling little implementation details like “all of geopolitics.”  So fine.  Still on board.

And then we move on from the introduction and get to the rest of the book.  Which contributes very, very little.  It’s the same few statements of theory repeated over and over and over and over, interspersed with informative little wide-lens descriptions of various societies around the globe.  These two things are never actually combined.  We never really get an analysis of how Weiner’s conceptual issues play out, or even a detailed anecdote showing us what the problem looks like.  I love theory and abstraction more than anyone — I have never before said anything like “this text really needed more examples and illustrations” — but, uh, this text really needed more examples and illustrations.

So yeah.  A key idea and then a lot of empty wordcount.  We’ve all read blog posts that really wanted to be books; Rule of the Clan is a book that clearly wants to be a blog post.

Which is a damn shame.  Because someone should write that book.  Like, for realsies.

*****

The Giant Thing, the thesis, goes approximately as follows:

Individual liberty — and even, really, individual identity — are not naturally-occurring phenomena.  They are incredibly artificial and incredibly fragile. 

Under the vast majority of techno-sociopolitical circumstances, humans form tightly-knit collectives.  These collectives are incredibly useful in a harsh and difficult world: they provide mutual defense, conflict resolution, collective-action-problem solving, crisis insurance, institutional knowledge, all sorts of concretely important things.  They also provide a rich sense of belonging and cultural worth.  They also totally throttle anything that might remotely resemble individual freedom, in the realms of thought and action.  The collective respects only its own collective well-being, not the well-being of its members, and certainly not the well-being of anyone else. 

If you’re a member of such a group, by and large, you have clearly-delineated responsibilities and you spend most of your life fulfilling them.  If you don’t like it, well, tough.  You can’t even quit the collective and strike out on your own, probably, because the operational logic of collective-dominated societies means that loners are dead meat.  And even if you’re not any kind of rebel, you may be arbitrarily sacrificed in some way to meet the collective’s needs.

The only large-scale viable alternative to this terrible system is the sovereign liberal state.  The state spends a lot of its time and energy kicking smaller collectives in the teeth and ensuring that they don’t have the power to enforce their preferences, which translates to “protecting individuals from the groups that would otherwise control their lives.”  And the state engages with its subjects/citizens as generic individuals, not as worker bees with extensive particularized duties.  It may demand things of them, but its demands are not all-encompassing, and indeed (if it’s liberal) it has an interest in letting people do what they want except when there’s some especial reason to do otherwise. 

This is not a “natural” solution.  This is a fragile artificial thing that maintains itself through the constant support of those who believe in it.  Backsliding into the collectives model is really easy.  It happens all the time. 

Thus: if you are a liberal or an individualist, you should be grateful for the state, and you shouldn’t devote too much effort to weakening it even if it’s annoying you.  The alternatives are so much worse.

You’ve heard me talking about this stuff before, sort of.  I tend to use the term “God-Emperor” to refer to my idealized strong liberal state.  Which doesn’t do my rhetoric any favors, but…so it goes.

*****

Weiner is really interested only in one particular kind of all-encompassing collective: the semi-sovereign kinship group, which he calls a “clan.”

The book takes us on a tour of various clan-based and semi-clan-based societies throughout history: the Nuer in Africa, medieval Iceland, the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan, Highland Scotland, pre-Islamic Arabia, modern Libya, etc.  The following points all get made many times:

* A world of clans, with no strong central authority, runs its inter-clan “justice system” through feud and vendetta.  This does actually keep the peace better than your average modern liberal would think, but it means that (a) random not-especially-culpable individuals often die before the problems get settled, and (b) modern weapons mean that even the occasional unsettled feuds become nightmares.

* Clans run on an engine of collective honor and collective shame.  This means that your clanmates will always be up in your grill about everything, and people with deviant tendencies are just fucked.

* Clans tend to be very bad for women.  The collective-honor thing means that their sexual behavior is everyone’s business, and the constant need for ad hoc diplomacy (internal and external) means that they’re usually made to serve more as prizes/resources than as agents.  (Technically this is also true of men, but for a variety of obvious reasons it’s overall much worse for women.)

* Internal clan justice is dominated by small-scale politics and peacekeeping rather than, uh, any principles of actual justice.  Thus, even in the best cases, leaders do what keeps the power players happy regardless of whether it’s harmfully unfair.

See, you’d think that all these points could be illustrated in some really compelling way.  They’re not.  They’re pretty much just…said.

To his credit, Weiner does a good job of showing just how widespread the clan thing is, and how much it dominates many different and diverse societies where there isn’t a strong central authority to keep it down.

*****

When he gets to the prescriptive/theoretical/poetic ending section of his book — and if you read pop politics opuses, you know well that “prescriptive” and “theoretical” and “poetic” all really mean the same thing — his voice becomes weirdly schizophrenic.  On the one hand, as you’d expect, there’s a lot of “individualism is really important and we need the state to save our tiny selves from the clans!”  On the other hand, there’s a surprising amount of “but the clan system is excellent in a number of important ways and we must learn from it!”

It’s not totally clear what he actually wants us to do, on that front.  The closest he comes to an actual “lesson to learn” is “liberalism generates anomie and rootlessness, thus we have a tendency to romanticize clans, thus liberal artists have to learn to make art that harnesses the romance of the clans in toothless liberal-friendly form.”  Which is fine as far as it goes, but…that’s not very far?  This is not really a society-shaping idea, and to the extent it is, we already do plenty of it (as he acknowledges).  It feels odd that he’s so reluctant to go down the obvious polemical path. Y’know, CLANS: A MENACE THAT WILL EAT YOUR CHILDREN.

My best guess it that it reflects a problem with his intended audience that he’s unwilling to address.  Weiner is a sometime Cato Institute writer, and as far as I can tell, this book is written for libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives — the sort of Western readers who are generally skeptical of state power in the abstract.  And the thing about libertarians, and libertarian-ish folk, is that they come in two varieties who are (within the context of a strong liberal state) almost totally indistinguishable.  On the one hand, there are those who are genuinely committed to an ideal of personal freedom, who love the notion of individual humans bopping around doing whatever they want, and who would be horrified to see anything like a clan take root in their world.  And on the other hand, there are the ones who are basically high-ranking clan members themselves…or who dream of being high-ranking clan members…and who just don’t want the state messing around with the (real or imagined) collectives where they wield power over others.

Trying to talk to both of those groups at once, on a topic like this, can’t be easy.  No wonder Weiner ties himself in knots.

*****

The best thing about this book is a throwaway.  At one point, near the very end, Weiner lets himself imagine a world in which the liberal state is sufficiently weakened that the clans have returned to power.  Except that…as he’s forced to acknowledge…it’s not just actual kinship-based clans, anymore.  We have other kinds of collectives to which we can turn.  Religious groups.  Political groups.  Above all else, corporations.  So we get a few short paragraphs detailing a sort of future-history scenario in which we’re relying on corporations for basic public services, and explaining all the reasons that this is problems, in a way that will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s read any near-future dystopian science fiction ever.

But it does acknowledge that all sorts of modern groups, groups with which we rich Western non-clan-members engage all the time, are just as anti-individualist at their core as clans are.

Which is, to my mind, 90% of the actual issue.  In the long run, I’m not actually too afraid of the clans; the corporations, being bigger and richer and full of appealing consumer goods, will crush them and/or coopt them.  I’m afraid of the corporations.  For that matter, I’m afraid of the religious and political groups, and the nuclear families that have risen up to take the place of the clans directly.  I’m afraid of all the many, many little collectives in modern “liberal” society that seek to control their members’ lives on a micro-level to advance their own interests.  I’m afraid of bosses and administrators and parents and the rest of the petty tyrants whose tyranny we haven’t yet learned to fear, not because it might someday hurt us, but because it’s hurting us right now.

And that is why I want a God-Emperor.  To kick all the petty tyrants in the teeth.  No one else will.  It’s not really about state-level power versus federal-level power, although Lord knows I have my own feelings about that kind of thing; it’s about recognizing that we aren’t free, not anything like it, and that’s not going to get better until we empower some entity to liberate us and keep us liberated.

Book Review — Rule of the Clan

Book Review — The Righteous Mind

I realize that I am very late to this particular party, and that almost everyone likely to care about this book has in fact already read it, so I’m going to go very quickly through everything except the couple of places where I had idiosyncratic reactions.

*****

Very briefly, for those of you who haven’t read it:

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is a pop-science-level book on evolutionary psychology, attempting to explain (a) where the human capacity for moral judgment came from and (b) how it works.  It’s largely coming from a place of “we’re going to tell you why conservatives are like this and liberals are like that” — the tagline is “Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”

For those of you who are (understandably) skeptical of all things evo-psych: Haidt, at least, acknowledges and understands your likeliest concerns.  He makes a point, more than once, of explaining how it’s not good science to account for existing human phenomena by telling Just So Stories about how natural selection might have favored them.  And in fact he doesn’t do that.  Which should be a comfort.

For those of you who are inclined to judge a book primarily by its social/political conclusions: well, first of all, shame on you.  That said —

1. Haidt is a social scientist.  He is not a political theorist, a cultural analyst, or a moral philosopher.  He basically has no idea how to engage with anything normatively; he can reveal that systems exist and analyze how they work, but he has no good methodology for drawing useful lessons from them, because his ideas of “should” are all extremely sloppy and ill-defined.  Of course, this doesn’t stop him from trying.  Pop-science books always have to talk about How This Thing Can Change the World For the Better.  And it does grate.  But the book’s meat lies in the brute phenomenal claims, not the normativity, and it can probably be best appreciated if its conclusions are mostly ignored.

2. Haidt’s political/cultural stance, such as it is, is a species of squishy can’t-we-all-get-along-ness.  He’s notionally some sort of liberal himself, but he spends a lot of time talking about how he learned Valuable Life Lessons from more spending time in conservative-style milieus, and he’s far less interested in any concrete policy outcomes or culture changes than he is in people coming together to understand one another better.

(The book is studiously even-handed in a High Broderite sort of way, but it’s clearly written for an audience of self-identified liberals, and there’s a constant trickle of thoughts that amount to “did you know that contemporary liberal ideology isn’t, in all ways, equivalent to human goodness?”  Almost anyone is likely to have reasons to find this irritating.)

*****

The Righteous Mind is a book in three parts.

The first part is pretty much Social Intuitionism 101.  The basic message is: human judgment, particularly in moral matters, is totally dominated by intuitions and pre-coded reactions rather than by conscious cognition / abstract thought.  Your reasoning engine is in fact designed to serve as a rationalization engine, providing post-hoc arguments and justifications for the things you already wanted to think and do.

Evidence is presented for this, in the form of people’s reactions to situations to designed to put intuition into conflict with reasoning.  The evolutionary logic behind this phenomenon is discussed at some length.

If you’ve never encountered ideas like this before, this might well turn out to be the most mind-blowing (and disturbing) part of the book.  But I think that, by this point, we’ve spent a long time marinating in the knowledge that our ability to reason is not as pure and Olympian as we feel it to be.  The internet is filled with people talking about the ubiquity of cognitive biases and how hard it is to expunge them.  Hell, I remember reading about this stuff in Dilbert comics fifteen years ago.  My own reaction was a resounding “yeah, OK, we knew that already.”

(The second edition of this book contains a brief aside to the effect of “under the right circumstances, which mostly involve being forced to step back and wait and think, intuition can in fact be restrained and made to listen to reason.”  Which is a nice fillip of non-defeatism, for all you rationalists out there.)

*****

The second section is Moral Foundations Theory 101.  This stuff is new.  Haidt and his collaborators pretty much invented MFT, and this book was the first place it showed up anywhere (outside academic journals).

The theory, in a nutshell: Our moral sense is not a single cohesive piece of mental software.  Rather, it’s several different mental modules that have been kludged together, each of them rooted in a different intuition.  Those intuitions evolved separately, for different purposes, and now they combine and interact with one another to form the foundations of our moral thinking.  

In its initial formulation, there were five such foundations, expressed as opposed pairs of values/anti-values.  Care/Harm grew out of the evolutionary push to protect our offspring, and reflects a sense that it is better for people to be happy and safe.  Fairness/Cheating grew out of the evolutionary push towards a tit-for-tat instinct in cooperation-based situations (since that is the most effective strategy), and reflects a sense that contributors should be rewarded and defectors should be punished.  Loyalty/Betrayal grew out of the evolutionary push to form strong cohesive coalitions; it reflects a sense that things affiliated with one’s group (other members, symbols, etc.) are inherently morally valuable, and that disloyalty and treachery are especially bad.  Authority/Subversion grew out of the evolutionary push to fit into standard primate dominance hierarchies, and reflects a sense that it is better for leaders to be given obedience and respect.  Sanctity/Degradation…well, we’ll get to that one in a bit.

The important thing here, critically speaking, is that Haidt pulled these foundations out of his ass.

To his credit, he’s pretty up-front about that fact.  He literally sat around and said, “of all the evolutionary pressures that early hominids might have faced, which ones seem like they would crystallize into widespread intuitions about morality?”  Then he wrote up a bunch of studies to test his ideas, and discovered that, yup, people have strong moral intuitions about all those things (and that the intuitive attachment to each “foundation” varies between cultures).

This is the opposite of the traditional terrible evo-psych approach, where you start with the present-day phenomenon and try to conjure up the evolutionary pressure that would have generated it.  But it does present a sort of parallel difficulty.  How do you know that the things you’re talking about are real things, as opposed to artifacts of your own systematic biases and preferences?  The survey work tells you that you’re not just completely disconnected from reality, but it’s easy to imagine the situation in which you’ve artificially divided up two moral foundations that are in fact just parts of the same thing, and even easier to imagine the situation in which you’ve completely missed a moral foundation simply by not thinking of it and not asking questions about it.  If you’re trying to explain how human moral judgment works, this is a giant fucking problem.

And, indeed, Haidt ran into that problem face-first.  The first edition of his book led to him getting a lot of flak from people who’d thought that he had mischaracterized or misunderstood their morality, particularly from political conservatives who were outraged by his initial vision of Fairness (which had a greater emphasis on equality rather than defector-punishing).  This ultimately led him to postulate the existence of a sixth foundation, Liberty/Oppression, which arose much later in human history than the others — after we developed weapons that would reliably allow gangs of non-dominant humans to overthrow physically powerful alphas — as part of an evolutionary push to avoid being over-dominated and thereby suffering bad reproductive outcomes.  His notion of the Liberty intuition is an interesting one; he believes that the same fundamental “you’re not the boss of me” intuition underlies both the libertarian obsession with autonomy and the leftist obsession with fighting on behalf of underdog groups.  It would be nice if he actually provided some concrete evidence for this, which he doesn’t, because this whole thing is discussed in a relatively brief passage that’s meant to serve as a patch.  But it’s cool.

(If you go to YourMorals.org and take the latest instantiation of the Morality Foundations Quiz, you’ll see that Haidt and co. are toying around with adding yet more foundations.)

Anyway.  Haidt goes on to explain that modern educated liberal Westerners have developed a culture that builds its morality on only three of these foundations — we WEIRDoes care an awful lot about Care and Liberty, and a moderate amount about Fairness, but really not about any of the others — while social conservatives and “most of everyone else in the world” uses all six foundations, and libertarians really don’t use anything other than Liberty.  This is why people fundamentally don’t get each other, and also why most previous attempts at moral psychology were bad and wrong.  These distinctions came into existence through divergent cultural cues, which can heavily modify the way in which psychological modules get expressed.

*****

I have a strong sense that this analysis is missing something very important, and I even think I know how that happened.

Is this really the full spectrum of human moral judgment that we’re looking at here?  

At the very least, we can’t ever know that it is.  Haidt’s ass-pull-based methodology won’t ever allow for any kind of completist certainty.  But my suspicions go well beyond that.

My very first exposure to MFT came some time ago, when the Moral Foundations Quiz became faddishly popular on certain blogs I frequent, mostly so that people could say “science demonstrates that I am sooooooo liberal/libertarian!”  So of course I went and took it too.  And I scored very low on all the moral foundations.  In theory, I suppose, that could mean simply that I am not very inclined towards any kind of moral judgment.  But that seems…super wrong.

(On a later edition of the quiz, incorporating Liberty/Oppression, I scored very high on that foundation and very low on all the others.  Which, by Haidt’s thinking, would make me some kind of libertarian.  That is even more wrong.)

I went back and looked over the questions, and realized that almost none of them had anything to do with the things that activate moral-type judgments in me.  There was nothing about truth versus error.  Nothing about distinctiveness as a positive good.  Nothing about internal consistency or self-awareness or psychological strength.  Nothing about beauty, let alone the specific constellation of tropes and techniques that I identify as “beautiful.”  Nothing relevant to sentiments like “I will martyr myself rather than use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.”

For a while, I thought that you could try to unify these things into a single foundation, one that would be labeled “aesthetics” or something.  But that would be a cheat.  Introspection suggests that the values I listed above aren’t all outgrowths of the same intuition; indeed, they’re often in direct conflict.  (My feelings about being totally unbeholden to anyone else’s priorities, and my feelings about English grammar, are very much at odds.)  “Aesthetically pleasing,” in this context, would just mean “things I think are very important in a way I can’t justify through any of the standard moral foundations.”  And if you tried to parcel in someone else’s aesthetic intuitions, which would be different, the problems would just get exponentially worse.  Meaningless catch-all categories are meaningless.

It seems that I’ve got a whole bunch of idiosyncratic “moral foundations” underlying my judgments.

Maybe I’m being a special snowflake here.  But I’m not that special a snowflake, not with regards to this stuff; you can easily find lots of people talking about all the things I’ve mentioned as being morally salient.  And, more importantly, the world is full of special snowflakes.  Especially in the liberal West, where that Liberty value pushes people away from consensus thinking and towards odd ethical priorities of their own.  I’m sure that it wouldn’t take long to find dozens and dozens of eccentrics for whom the “basic moral foundations of humanity” seem mostly irrelevant, or at least wildly insufficient.

(You can write off some of those “odd ethical priorities” as being instantiations of Loyalty; lots of groups demand allegiance to arbitrary weird beliefs as tokens of belonging.  But that works only some of the time.  Often enough, people will cling to their strange values even when it means isolation or disconnect.)

It would be absurd to do the evo-psych thing and try to find a Just So Story for every one of those weird podunk little moral foundations.  Indeed, it seems obvious…to me, anyway…that they’re purely cultural, that they grow out of individual or small-group reactions to specific intellectual or social stimuli.  This doesn’t particularly pose any problems for Haidt’s main contentions; all it means is that, under certain circumstances, people can overwrite their evolutionarily-supported moral intuitions with culturally-constructed value systems.  (I don’t have any data to suggest how this would happen, although my mind jumps immediately to ordinary conditioning.)  Indeed, this might help him flesh out the story of how some of us jumped from “standard morality” to “WEIRD morality.”  But the whole thing just goes totally unnoticed.  At no point does he ever even begin to consider that there might be a lot of moral foundations out there, or that some of them might have arisen differently from the basic ones.

Which is perhaps not surprising, when you realize that he’s using a cheaty catch-all category of his own.

The value that he calls Sanctity is more commonly called Purity, and on its own, it’s very clearly a real thing: the intuition that disgusting things are morally bad, created by the evolutionary push to avoid disease vectors.  But, for whatever reason, he decided that the opposite of this particular variety of badness wasn’t just “cleanliness” or “not-disease” or something like that, but something much vaster and more grand.  He uses the name Sanctity to reflect some extremely nebulous notion of “exaltation” or “glory,” and characterizes all sorts of things as being Sanctified — from the awesome majesty of nature, to the “inherent dignity of human life” as promoted by dudes like Leon Kass, to the abstract value that we place on great art and noble principles.

I can understand the temptation to think that all of these great things are “the opposite of disgusting,” but the idea that they are all literally triggers for the same opposite-of-a-disease-vector intuition is a big bold claim requiring a lot of support, and Haidt gives us absolutely nothing.

Honestly, I believe that this is just Haidt being very sloppy.  He had all these random awesome things that aren’t adequately supported by the standard liberal care-plus-freedom model of morality, and he wanted to show how “traditional morality” could support them better…so he just stuck them in under an umbrella foundation, which was hidden by also being a totally legit foundation having to do with purity.

But you lose a lot of insight when you do things like that.  There are important ideas to be explored regarding the nature of weird culturally-constructed moral judgments as opposed to widespread rooted-in-human-nature moral judgments.  We don’t get to have that conversation, though, because NOPE IT’S ALL ABOUT NOT GETTING SICK.

*****

Finally we get to the part about “groupishness.”  The tagline for this section is “we are 90% chimp and 10% bee.”  The essential idea is that, under certain conditions, we can be driven to drop our self-obsession and become almost-fully-engaged members of a collective superorganism, like bees who are totally devoted to the hive rather than to themselves.

The first subsection here is the has Haidt explaining under what circumstances this “hive switch” can be thrown (collective crises, psilocybin, bonding rituals like raves or rallies) and how it could have come to be (which requires some defense/rehabilitation of the idea of group selection, which took a heavy blow in the late twentieth century due to gross misapplication).  All good stuff.  Much of it is pretty obvious if you know anything about anthropology, but a useful summation nonetheless, and I knew little enough about the fight over group selection to find Haidt’s discussion valuable.

Then we get to the subsections on religion and politics, the last fifth or so of the book.  I spent the entirety of this part in angry tears.

…which is dumb, I know.  Like I said earlier: Haidt is not a philosopher.  There’s really no reason to take his thoughts on this stuff seriously.

But.  But but but.

Pretty much everything he says revolves around the idea that this groupishness is an almost- unilaterally good thing, and that we should be structuring our society around triggering the “hive switch” as often as possible, because Community and Togetherness and Losing Yourself In Something Greater etc. etc.  And, like…this is evil, right?

Or maybe you think it’s not.  You have your own values.

Speaking for myself, though — I value individual identity above almost all other things.  I value the fact that people have different, competing preferences and priorities.  I value the narratives that emerge from multiple perspectives engaging with one another.  The thing that happens in military units and pep rallies, where you cease to regard the boundaries of your own selfhood as important, is a bad thing.  It may be a necessary bad thing under some circumstances, because hives are pretty good at warding off existential threats, but it’s not something you invite into your home.  Interacting with other people is often good, but the best interactions are the ones that emphasize the distinctive non-overlapping natures of the various parties involved.

To be clear: the thing I’m saying here is not “groupishness can be abused for dark purposes!”  (We might call this the “fascism argument,” and Haidt does at least try to address it.)  It’s something much bigger and more fundamental: “groupishness is a dark purpose.”

And seeing someone just absolutely steamroll my values — not argue with them, not even vilify or sneer at them, but just take it for granted that everyone must think the opposite — is kind of terrifying.

Especially coming from a book whose subtitle contains the phrase “Why Good People Are Divided.”

Book Review — The Righteous Mind