When Steven Pinker named predation, dominance, revenge, sadism and ideology as the five roots of violence (in his book on the decline of human violence) – I immediately became interested. Especially as he wrote that the cause of ideological violence is not any particular part of the human brain – but is distributed across many people.
“The fifth and most consequential cause of violence is ideology, in which true believers weave a collection of motives into a creed and recruit other people to carry out its destructive goals. An ideology cannot be identified with a part of the brain or even with a whole brain, because it is distributed across the brains of many people.
…the really big body counts in history pile up when a large number of people carry out a motive that transcends any one of them: an ideology. Like predatory or instrumental violence, ideological violence is a means to an end. But with an ideology, the end is idealistic: a conception of the greater good.”
When the world is falling under the spell of nationalist populism, and the only spirited opposition are basic income-worshippers – the question of how murderous ideologies spread and promote aggression becomes very interesting.
How can entire societies fall under the spell of an ideology they don’t actually believe in?
With these two monstrous ideas battling for triumph, it is perhaps time to see how support for ideologies spread – especially the ones the majority of people would not support.
“Can the propagation of conformity through social networks actually lead people to sign on to ideologies they don’t find compelling and carry out acts they think are downright wrong?”
Pinker offers a few insights about the environment and the key ingredients that are most conducive for such an ideology to take hold and grip an entire society:
The role of conformity
Some argue that they only source of human evil can be found in our inclination to conform. Pinker adds that – like so many things – conformity has an individual advantage as well as a negative social outcome. It is rational for an individual to conform in certain cases in order to skip learning everything at his or her own individual cost.
Why do people so often impersonate sheep? It’s not that conformity is inherently irrational. Many heads are better than one, and it’s usually wiser to trust the hard-won wisdom of millions of people in one’s culture than to think that one is a genius who can figure everything out from scratch.
How echo chambers get more extreme in their views
“If you’re in some sort of a group that defines itself by its opinions, then people will get more and more polarised over time.”
It is logical if we thing about it, because it would be really weird to participate in an opinion-based group only in order to question the group opinion. But in the long run even skeptical opinions get drowned out in such groups – that would otherwise refine and benefit the opinion the group upholds.
It happens because individuals will always try to conform to what the group mandates. Many join not because they wholeheartedly believe in everything the group says, but because they git hooked and sucked in by one or few elements of the group’s credo. The rest then is either voluntarily accepted or enforced – but raising skeptical voices about the group’s credo is never a good strategy to make friends and gain influence and social standing within a group.
Such groups then become powerful echo chambers repeating the most outrageous examples of the opponent group’s views and behaviour – as well as urban legends and slightly biased and often made up accounts of victims of the opponent group. People within the group will try to get social approval from other members of the group – whether it takes a lie or an adjustment of one’s own views. This quickly becomes an escalating game where they’ll play to the standard that they’re supposed to live up to – and then they take it further because they reason that more extreme endorsement of the group view gets them more approval. This is how the norms of the group shift over time.
This is why the extremes of each group justify one another’s existence. Just observe how red pill meninists keep bashing the most outrageous extremes of feminist writing and behaviour.
The pluralistic paradox, or false conformity
But as “the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes makes clear, all it takes is one little boy to break the spiral of silence, and a false consensus will implode. Once the emperor’s nakedness became common knowledge, pluralistic ignorance was no longer possible.”
This is when enforcement of these ideas comes to the rescue. In the next post…
* All quotes are from Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined – unless otherwise stated