Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Group behaviour and popular narratives

Back in the day the Parliament was a bulwark against the use of excessive power by the king or queen. But once England reached the end of the 17th century, by which time most of the power of the state had devolved to Parliament, two parties formed to organise influence and patronage.

These were the Tories (the party of the king or queen) and the Whigs (the party of Parliament). Different nobles backed each party and in the emerging middle class (the gentry) different families also had their own traditions. Broadly speaking, the Tories were conservative and the Whigs were progressive. The Tories were for tradition and convention and propriety, while the Whigs were for innovation and change and human rights.

Ironically, one of the poster-boys of what we now know as conservatism was Edmund Burke, an Irish Anglican who began his career by publishing a pamphlet on aesthetics and who served as a member of Parliament on the Whig side between 1766 and 1794 in the House of Commons. His booklet on the French Revolution, an event he attacked, was much discussed after it was published. His reputation suffered in the short term because with its publication he appeared to be turning his back on his roots. The revolution of course disintegrated into a series of butcherings followed by the rise of the inevitable demagogue, in the form of Napoleon, so that Burke came to be celebrated by the majority for what was esteemed to be wisdom.

In the 19th century, as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of factories and the factory towns that contained them, labour started to organise and the political landscape changed again. From the end of that century it started to look like what we have now: a party of capital and a party of labour.

None of this should surprise us in the least degree. Humans are social animals so it is natural for them to behave in this way, in groups, with shared interests. We live in communities which provide us with the necessities of life, including fellowship. Not only do we always live in groups but language is innate and therefore the production and sharing of stories is a deeply-rooted species behaviour. People are most comfortable when they are surrounded by stories that sustain them and confirm their beliefs and assuage their worries. Stories help us to understand the world and to know our place in it. They can help us to live a good life but, if they are regressive, they can also hold us back and limit our progress. Instead of alleviating suffering they can prolong suffering.

But changing the ways that people see the world by telling different stories takes time. There is a tendency for people to resist change and to favour stories that confirm their present beliefs. If you tell someone something that contradicts their beliefs he or she will usually either attack you or ignore you. A minority of the population (known variously at different times as the avant-garde, the demimonde, trendies or hipsters) will applaud a new take on the world, but getting the rest of society to agree to it takes decades or even, in some cases, generations.

People actually don't want to be made to think, they want to be made to feel comfortable with their existing biases. This is what makes them adhere to groups in the first place. It’s quite natural. You see this clearly with both politics and with the arts. In the latter case, people gravitate to the familiar and the routine, the thing that most closely resembles what they have already consumed at one time or another. This is because they remember the feeling it gave them last time and they want to feel the same way again. It’s about pleasure, and we are nothing if not pleasure-seeking animals. But it’s also about safety (we feel good when we feel safe).

With politics, what you find is that people will unthinkingly endorse views that conform to their political party's policy platform. People don't want anything "challenging" (although that is a normal way for critics to compliment a work of art, such as a movie or a novel that they like). People want what they had before, except better and cheaper.

With public policy, problems usually arise where you find regressive thinking that derives from people’s tendency to operate in mobs. Demagogues are a problem sometimes but once you have rule by the demos the problem actually derives in most cases from the ways that groups behave.

We actually shouldn't be following party platforms. What we should be doing is choosing the policies that are going to achieve the best results, regardless of which party endorses them. Unfortunately, people are unthinking creatures who like to stick close to the group. So we will continue to swing wildly from one side to the other even while the big problems such as climate change and wealth inequality, both of which are complex and worsening in their impacts, and which require concerted action, resist the solutions we throw up from time to time in a haphazard fashion.

How all of this influences the way that people conduct themselves on social media should be clear from the foregoing. People use stories to create community. They either share stories that conform to their political biases or else they retweet stories they disagree with along with a comment to make their views clear to their followers. This sort of behaviour is conducted in an unthinking manner. If you have part of your views in common with others, they will be confused if you disagree with them on a specific issue that arises in the course of the day. They will enthusiastically endorse views that conform to their own (with “likes”, retweets, and replies) but they will either attack or ignore people who say something that they disagree with, even if it is objectively true, simply because it goes against the policy platform of their favoured political party. The mob rules online.

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