Social Cohesion

Evolution has equipped the human species with a fairly strong herd instinct. We all want to be part of a close-knit group. The craving may be stronger in some people and weaker in others, stronger at certain points in life and weaker at others, but it’s seldom entirely absent.

It’s not hard to see why. In the environment in which our ancestors lived, being part of a group meant both more physical safety and more access to potential mates. Those who went their own way faced greater dangers, and had less chance of passing their genes to the next generation. So genes that promote social behavior would inevitably have flourished.

From what I’ve seen, fitting in with a group is far more important for most people in the modern world than thinking for themselves. For a great many people, this is a sensible strategy: They’re simply too stupid to understand or operate successfully in the world they live in. Deferring to the collective wisdom of the group (however flawed that may be) helps them make adequate personal decisions and avoid assorted dangers.

But the social instinct is so powerful that it can blind and hobble people who are otherwise quite intelligent. In certain areas, their intelligence will simply shut down. They will defer to the group. We even have a catch-phrase for this: “Go along to get along.”

This imperious instinctive urge makes a royal mess of both politics and religion. A cohesive group of some sort arises, for whatever reason, and thereafter the group perpetuates itself. Its values may drift, because there is no system of checks and balances that would prevent it. The drift is seldom in a positive direction.

People join the group because it feels good to do so. They fail, thereafter, to question the dictates of the group, no matter how bizarre or cruel those dictates may be. Sooner or later, all hell breaks loose. And the people who have created and are perpetuating the hell are entirely oblivious to the nature of what they’re doing. Their response is not usually to question the “wisdom” of the group. On the contrary, their first impulse, in a stressful situation, is to reaffirm their unshakeable loyalty to the group, thereby making matters worse.

This was true in ancient times. It was true in the Middle Ages. It’s true today. And it’s not just true of Moonies and other assorted cultists, though they embody the tendency in a pure form. It’s true of mainstream religions; it’s true of the Republican Party; it’s true of the entire mechanism of the Federal Government in the United States, both Republican and Democrat; it’s massively true of the Armed Forces; it’s true of all large corporations.

Because of certain childhood experiences, I seem to have escaped the worst of this. It’s not that I’m blind to the joys of being part of a group — I’d love to find a group with whom I felt at home. But I place a high value on the ability to think for myself. I could never join a group that demanded, even implicitly, that I shut off this faculty.

I think I’d probably thrive in a university environment, but for practical reasons having to do with age and income, that’s not an option.

That I live on a planet so plentifully supplied with zombies is wearisome, frustrating, and lonely. Some of the zombies are superficially or selectively quite intelligent, but most of them are just bone-stupid. And I tend to forget that. When I meet someone, the fact that their socks match, their hair is combed, and they’re able to converse in complete sentences deludes me into thinking that I’m dealing with an equal.

This is very seldom the case.

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3 Responses to Social Cohesion

  1. Conrad Cook says:

    Well, you could as a part of your routine cultivate compassion for all of the zombies who aren’t your equal. Compared to the wearisome, frustrating, and lonely thing you find happening a lot, compassion does quite well!

    • midiguru says:

      Yeah, compassion is a good thing. I mean, none of us gets to choose our instincts. We’re all victims.

      In practice, I find that I have far more compassion for squirrels, possums, raccoons, and even rats than I do for human beings. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because I have no social expectations or hopes with squirrels and raccoons. Maybe it’s because squirrels and raccoons have so much less scope for screwing things up, and in consequence bear less responsibility for the mess we humans have made of the planet.

      • Conrad Cook says:

        Yes, disappointment is one thing about having high hopes.

        Most of us do have a base level of compassion we might feel under certain circumstances. Fortunately, because we have more understanding than animals do, we can choose to develop that in ourselves. As with any virtue.

        We’re not stuck with our existing responses.

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