Tuesday, July 25, 2017

On Culture, Church, ISIS, the Alt-Right, AI and Self Worth

Why would a kid, born and raised in one of the richest, most peaceful and tolerant countries in the world leave to go blow himself up in a desert on the other side of the world?

Why would another kid born in the same country abandon all the evidence of the successes of a modern global marketplace and champion protectionism and racism?

Why are some of our children choosing to buy into such disastrous ideologies?

Perhaps it's because the one we're selling seems, a tad broken?

I've just finished reading Lou Keep's discussion of James C. Scott's "Seeing Like a State", this is the third review of the book I've read, though I'm ashamed to admit that I have yet to actually read Scott's work. Still, from Keep's article (Which I really do recommend), I've picked up some new thoughts about the challenges facing our culture, and how we can work towards fixing this.

It's occurred to me for some time now that the hard Alt-Right has a lot in common with the Westerners ISIS recruits, and that a large part of the vulnerability of liberal society to these groups has to do with the weakness of our cultural institutions right now. I'm going to propose that there have been three main forms of cultural institution in the Western world over our last few millennia, war based, faith based, and economic based. What is important about these institutions for this discussion is how these institutions provide psychological well-being (or not) to the members of their community, most importantly, with a sense of purpose and identity that members can be proud of.

War Based.

Many of the social institutions we've developed over the centuries centered on defense. (Or offense depending on the time and the place) The entire feudal system was based around war. Nobility and Aristocracy evolved from the upper echelons of military service, those who were the best at war were afforded titles and status, and then trained their children to fill the high echelons of their liege's armies and retain those titles and status. In the early medieval era this provided a direct social cohesion between the members of a Kingdom. If a King decided to raise his armies he would call upon all his vassals to raise their levies and they would call upon their vassals to raise theirs.

These levies would mostly consist of ordinary villagers, raised as a militia in times of crisis. The nobility would lead their own forces on campaign, and this produced a sense of loyalty and camaraderie both between commoners, and their lords, which also contributed to loyalty, and a sense of belonging.

As technology has advanced, the use of levies has disappeared. If we go to war tomorrow, you will not be expected to stand beside your neighbour and fight for your country, (unless you both happen to be part of the  0.002% of Canadians serving in our Forces) You'll be expected to go to your desk, do your ordinary job and pay your taxes so that we can buy 1/1000000th of a fighter jet. Somehow, that just doesn't have the same bonding effect as sleeping on the cold hard ground next to your mates after marching 40km in a day. It's more efficient for winning wars, and it saves the vast majority of the population from the horrors of war, but it removes one way in which we have historically bonded and kept our societies cohesive; as well as allowed the testosterone of young men to bleed off in a way that is at least not destructive to their own society. (I highly recommend "The Professor in the Cage" by Jonathan Gottschall for more on male pattern violence)

Of course, for war to work as an effective bonding agent you need to have a threat to face off against. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were, for a great time, lacking any serious enemy against which we could rally. The Global War on Terror gave us battles, casualties, and bad blood, but not really an enemy we could fear or bond against. Terrorists have always been too small of a group to be a threat; too few, too hard to find, which I suspect is why so many have been keen to associate groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Al-Nusra and the like with all Muslims. If we were under threat by Muslims in general, we would indeed have a significant adversary, a tiger the tribe could band together and fight, instead, we have a few malaria carrying mosquitoes, they do have the capacity to kill a few of us, but we can't really all pitch in to defeat them. At least, not in a direct way that "Feels" like we're doing something. (Your taxes paying for a .tenth of a kilo of the explosives dropped on ISIS positions is probably one of the most efficient ways the average Canadian can fight terrorism, but it really doesn't "Feel" like you did anything, especially since the government doesn't send you a receipt telling you.)

I think this is a large part of why so many in the Alt-Right are willing to demonize all Muslims so quickly and brand them all as terrorists. Alienating and defaming an entire religious group for the actions of a tiny few is entirely irrational: unless you WANT an enemy. But it turns out, having an enemy can be useful.

Luckily(?) it seems we have our old enemy Eurasia  I mean Russia, back to face off against. While the return of the Cold War is less than ideal for economic growth, it does have side benefits. By aligning ourselves against a powerful, nuclear armed state, we don't just have a tiger to fight, we have a goddamn dragon. Attempts to portray "Muslims" as some sort of existential threat will be more clearly seen as a petty attempt at infighting, and fear will in some ways bind us together. Of course, the fact that we have our own dragons in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States should* keep this threat entirely theoretical, allowing us to reap the social benefits without the cost in blood, though with some expense in treasure.

*Fingers crossed.

Faith Based

I am probably one of the least qualified people to write about religion or the church, having been an atheist since about age ten, but Lou Keep's observation on this institution is what triggered this post. Keep argues that churches and church attendance actually has an awful lot going for it, from increasing marriage rates, to incomes, to local GDP. Keep goes as far as to assert that "they’re probably the single most important economic institution in rural America. Period."

Religion likes to hold itself up as the major social glue that holds our communities together. They have a point. For centuries the church(es) have been a focal point of our communities, a meeting place, a home for charity, you know the arguments in general. But what Keep points out is that most pastors are terrible at selling their churches on a worldly basis, they don't say "Come to our church, you'll meet a lot of great people, we'll help the poor together, have picnics, and work together to be better people." they appeal to the supernatural, quoting from a 2000 year old tome or offering to save a soul you're pretty sure is in no danger.

I'd like to at this point draw a comparison between the Monarchy and the Church. Both claim their authority from the same supernatural being with the same level of credibility, which, initially, was very high, but has steadily declined and continues to do so. That makes the original argument for both rather weak, so how have they and their defenders responded? In the case of the monarchy, the original supernatural justification has been almost entirely dropped, we acknowledge that there's no particular reason the Royal family of the House of Windsor deserves to hold the throne, we know they are, in essence, simple humans like us, yet we continue to go along with the whole thing, almost suspending disbelief in their superiority if you will. Why? Because there are practical benefits, the Queen, as our head of State, provides a unifying figure above politics, an incredibly tight connection with our cousins in other Commonwealth Realms, and a part of our national identity. Yet this is only possible because the suspension of disbelief is just that, a suspension. No one is asking you to actually believe the Queen's family has been chosen by God to rule, instead, we all just accept that it's a tradition, one that works well for us, a bit of national Metis if you will.

Our brains are happy to accept the suspension of disbelief, if it were difficult for us there wouldn't be such a market for fiction. But suspending disbelief in something is quite different from believing it. And the church is still selling itself as an institution you have to "believe in" in order to be able to reap it's benefits. People can suspend a little disbelief in their own self interest, especially in the name of tradition; asking them to full out "believe" something they feel is silly is unlikely to bring them into your pews.

If religion is to survive as a major institution, one capable of stabilizing itself and regrouping, it will need to market the worldly benefits of attendance far more strongly, and market the supernatural elements as what they are, the legends and parables of a tradition that has stretched over two millennia. I want this change to happen, as I think that there are a lot of problems today that could be better addressed with a more tight knit community that churches help to create. (Particularly the problem of social isolation, which is nearly always a precursor to acts of mass violence.)

Of course, if I'm discussing church reform, I also need to mention that they need to drop the whole "Anti-LGBT" thing, it's pretty clear that rule was originally there to ensure that the tribe grew as fast as possible, (if 5% of your population is opting out of procreative sex it's going to have a major effect on your population size over a few generations, and a tribe that insists all members have procreative sex will soon outnumber a tribe that allows it's members to follow their hearts into same sex relationships;) but as I pointed out above, large amounts of manpower are no longer needed to win wars, and as I point out below, soon it won't be needed for commerce either, leaving this rule glaringly outdated and pointlessly harmful.

Economic Based

The third and final of my three categories of cultural institutions is economic, this is where we've made amazing strides more than anywhere else. People are far, far richer today than ever before. There are more people employed today in rewarding work that they are passionate about than ever before. Our investments in making education accessible have allowed a great many people to follow their dreams and work in careers that interest them, rather than whatever factory happened to be nearby. Many, maybe most of us, find our sense of identity and self worth in our employment. We find our self value in our economic contributions, and the subculture of our workplace largely becomes our culture. In times past a young man might have identified himself an archer in his liege's service when required, a member of the local Catholic congregation, and a farmer. Today, those first two pillars have crumbled and he is left with only his occupation for identity.

This becomes more troubling with more and more automation. As well build better, smarter, stronger and more agile robots, more and more tasks will be automated and less and less manpower will be needed to do work. This is a good thing economically, it's almost the definition of economic growth, but it's also going to mean a lot of obsolete workers who don't have much in the way of an Emotional Safety Net, if your identity and sense of self worth is tied up in being a welder, and all of a sudden your welding skills are useless because of the new Welderbot2400, you don't have anything left to fall back on, to feel proud of.

At that point you're in a very vulnerable state, either you accept that you are now worthless (and work to try to change that, which will be increasingly difficult as automation takes on more and more complex tasks) or, you blame someone else. In a situation where you have no value, anyone even vaguely charismatic coming around, telling you that you're the victim, and that you should strike back is quite appealing, and hating someone is a lot easier than trying to retrain for an economy that spit you out and rejected you.

This last one troubles me the most, especially because of the collapse of the first two as unifying factors. I worry that over the coming years, extremists of all flavours will have a buffet of angry, identity-less young men who have no way to prove their bravery,  no strong social support network, and few economic opportunities, from which to recruit.

I don't know how we can fix this, I don't even know if my diagnosis of the problem is accurate. What I do know is that having a large chunk of disheartened young men who don't feel like they have a place in our society is dangerous. It's exactly what both ISIS and the Alt-Right are banking on, and the only way to prevent them from selling their ideology to our kids is to sell them something better, not just better in a general sense, but better for them personally and attractive to them emotionally.

For Critics

1. Response to the inevitable "But so and so terrorist WAS religious and went to church" A. I'm not trying to oversimplify people's motives, there are some terrorists who are just straight up evil, and some who's families pressure them into it. B. I suspect that in a lot of these cases you might find that the individual became a "True Believer" type because of the lack of cultural identity available elsewhere in our society. Could be wrong.

2. I didn't touch on family as a cultural pillar, now that I've written this, I bet a lot of people would, and I can see how it could be a major actor in all of what I'm talking about here. That said, I left it out, mainly because I want to explore it in particular in more depth later.

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