Sunday, 2 December 2018

Ego, like tribal loyalty, cements people’s identity

If you don’t have a healthy ego you’re probably suffering from a mental illness. It is what keeps us confident and “happy” (that indefinable feeling of rightness that characterises our waking life, even if we are not aware of it most of the time). You don’t want to be without an ego. In its absence your life would be hell.

But ego has a drawback even while it keeps everything ticking along smoothly: it keeps new ideas out of our consciousness. We privilege what we already know and cleave to ideas that are central to our identity. This aspect of ego makes it a liability in some circumstances. We won’t listen. We reject things outright unless they’re wrapped correctly. We say “No” when we perhaps should think twice.

For groups of people, the function of ego is carried out by tribal loyalty. We might all be individuals, with own tastes and preferences, but we cannot survive alone, without a community to support us. The group has its own language, its common referents, its beliefs even. It has its icons and its leaders and its spokespeople. It has traditions and lore and ways for members to use to conduct themselves so that everyone gets along well. Pledging loyalty to the tribe, however, has, like ego for the individual, the downside risk that it serves to quarantine the group from valuable input from outside. People who are identified as outsiders are distrusted or even mocked and scorned. Their ideas are diminished by sarcasm and other rhetorical methods used to create community, or ignored.

So, good ideas can have trouble getting in. Bad ideas can be perpetuated regardless of their merit simply through common usage. If someone you trust says something that is factually incorrect, you are likely to believe that it is true. This happens all the time in the public sphere, where most people outsource their critical faculties to political parties. Individual tastes only go so far; mostly our preferences are predictable, and our likes and dislikes can be accurately mapped just by learning which group we belong to.

People use news stories to help them to create community, adding commentary on social media platforms to tell others who follow them what they should think about the offering. Approve or disapprove, accept or reject. All in the service of community building.

And the most extreme views are privileged over the more moderate ones. If you are shrill and if your comments are full of hatred then you will win approval and gain rewards from the group. If you are nuanced and subtle and if your messages have to be processed in the frontal cortex of the brain before being accepted as true, then people will most likely ignore you (if you are lucky).

Although, counter to the common belief, people actually are exposed to more points of view now, with social media, than in the days before it was available for use. But we don’t meaningfully discuss things with those whose opinions we disagree with. We use language to cement ourselves more strongly within our tribe and we attack and shame and ignore our enemies with complete disregard for the normal types of social conventions that referee interactions in the real world. Different rules apply here. This is the jungle and we are with our own people, like chimpanzees. Foreigners: get out!

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