Schismogenesis, Cultural Appropriation, Conformity, and Identity

James Wallace Harris, 3/4/22

I’m reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow but I can’t review it as a whole because it features hundreds of interesting ideas and I have no way to assess them all in a small essay. So, I’m going to review some of its ideas in a series of blog posts. Each one will deal with a unique concept that I think is useful.

Overall, the book speculates about societies in prehistory and in three places uses the word “schismogenetic” referring to the term schismogenesis, a word coined by anthropologist Gregory Bateson. This is not a common word, but one that I had to look up, and it’s used in various ways in the social sciences that isn’t exactly how Graeber and Wengrow use it.

Graeber and Wengrow use the concept of schismogenetic to identify a human trait that is very worth recognizing — the urge to belong to a group by defining distinctive wanted traits. This explains children and adolescents who like to conform, to subcultures and hobbyists who love sharing a common interest, to ethnic, cultural, and nationalistic groups who fight cultural appropriation to preserve their unique identity, to political groups who want to maintain unity, and so on.

Schismogenesis can be seen as the cause of xenophobia, but it could also be seen as the inverse of xenophobia. Xenophobia rejects others by traits we don’t like or want, and the schismogenetic urge defines our group identity by specific traits we embrace. This is just me speculating and I’m no expert. I want to embrace this concept because I feel it’s very useful. I see examples of it everywhere. If the term became popular it might help us understand ourselves.

Take conservatives and Republicans. It seems in recent decades they are defining themselves more and more exactly. They have generated a schism by clearly defining who they want to be issue by issue. Take mask-wearing. They’re against it. They see mask wearers as a liberal trait. Ditto for vaccinations. If liberals and Democrats had been against masks and vaccinations, the people on the right would have been for them. If the left is for Critical Race Theory, then the right is against it. If the left believes in climate change, then they don’t. And the details don’t matter to most people.

I use this political example not to be political, but I think it’s obvious that the schismogenetic urge is stronger in conservatives. They really enjoy defining themselves and being part of their group, and it seems they fear being seen as not conforming. For example, being called a RINO is a terrible insult. And this has worked out well for conservatives because they are better at organizing and defining themselves than the liberals.

But I believe we all have schismogenetic urges. I saw this photo on Facebook and it reminded me of how back in the 1960s we all wanted to be individual free spirits, but in reality, the hippie counter-culture was very conforming.

Graeber and Wengrow used the concept of schismogenetic to explain why the hundreds of Native American tribes created very distinctive and diverse societies. I think everyone uses the trait to join the groups and subcultures they want to embrace as their identity. I believe this is why the concept of cultural appropriation has developed in recent years — subcultures want to protect their identity, their brand. And that’s cool. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad trait, but it can lead to schisms divided by hate.

Some of the reviews that are deeply critical of The Dawn of Everything attack it because they consider Graeber and Wengrow of being historical revisionists. And I see this as a schismogenetic trait too. There are those who define themselves by the histories they embrace and they really don’t like the idea that what they’ve learned and accepted is being revised. It challenges their identity.

Science and history are constantly revising their disciplines with new data. The social sciences aren’t as exact as classical physics, so they go through more upheavals. Those upheavals cause new schisms and threaten old ones. Trying to fully grok The Dawn of Everything is difficult. Graeber and Wengrow keep bringing in politics by using studies of prehistory societies. I think this clouds what they are trying to do. At one point they say, “Since this book is mainly about freedom…” but is that true? I thought it was about prehistory. That makes me wonder if the goal of this book is to be schismogenetic.

JWH

The Psyche of Blind Faith

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, January 9, 2021

This essay is not about Donald Trump or politics, but I’m going to use the January 6th riot at the Capitol as an example of blind faith. In the days following the riot several news reports have appeared where followers of Donald Trump have denied he was the instigator of the riot, and in some cases, that the rioters were not the real followers of Donald Trump.

The evidence for Trump instigating the riot is overwhelming, and growing, as law enforcement and the media assemble a timetable of events and clues. I can easily see January 6th becoming the subject of future congressional hearings like those covering the JFK assassination where we heard weeks and months of testimony. In the end, most people will believe that Trump was the inciter-in-chief in the same way the congressional investigations concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. But like lone gunman deniers, there will always be deniers to Trump’s guilt.

This kind of denial comes from a psychology of blind faith. I find that psychology fascinating. We see blind faith everywhere. What allows some people the ability to tune out aspects of reality to maintain their faith in a particular belief? One good example is the free-market capitalists whose faith keeps them from seeing pollution, climate change, wealth inequality or any other negatives to capitalism. They must deny all evidence to the contrary to maintain their faith in the purity of Milton Friedman’s teachings.

The ultimate example of blind faith came just after the crucifixion of Jesus. The followers of Jesus saw that he was dead. However, they couldn’t accept that death, so they invented a faith to prove he still lived. Their blind faith created a new view of reality that they see but others don’t.

The only way to maintain blind faith is through denial. I now see denialism everywhere, which implies blind faith is everywhere.

Donald Trump inspires blind faith in his followers. What causes that? How does it work? Why him? It’s obvious that no amount of evidence can penetrate such faith. It’s a survival mechanism. Believers obviously benefit from other positive mental states once they let go and accept a faith. Once a faith is accepted any threat to that faith is also a threat to the new sense of wellbeing.

This blind faith is why I’ve given up talking with my conservative friends about Trump. The wall between us is impenetrable. To talk with them feels just like being John Cleese trying to convince Michael Palin the parrot is dead.

The inspiration for this essay.

JWH

Which Came First: Political Personality or News?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 19, 2016

My wife Susan found this infographic on Facebook. It was created by Vanessa Otero and distributed on her Twitter feed. You can click on the image to see a larger version.

Vanessa Otero News Graph 2016

My news sources are NBC, CBS, PBS, The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate, Vox, and sometimes The Economist and The Wall Street Journal when I get free links. In other words, I stay close to the center of things, and by Otero’s reckoning, use sources of high standards, that can be analytical and complex.

Do I have the kind of personality that is drawn to those news sources, or did those news sources create my political personality? If you grow up reading news from sources on the lower left or right of the graphic, do you program your personality by them? In recent years I’ve met a number of people who watch Fox News all day long. These people have different personal personalities, but they often feel like they have the same political personality. They are usually paranoid about the government, believe in various kinds of conspiracies, are passionately anti-taxes, and hate when people get money from the government without working.

Do people in childhood develop particular beliefs and then migrate to news outlets that promote those beliefs, or do they get hooked on various news sources and adopt the beliefs of the news programs they watch?

Would people who watch Fox News morph into new political personalities if they switched to watching PBS news programs? If I started watch Fox News all the time, would I become conservative? I remember favoring JFK back in 1960, when I was in the third grade, and that was well before I watched the news. I’ve never liked any Republican candidate – is that because of my innate programming, or because of how I acquired my news?

When I did start watching the news, it was the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, probably around 1962-63. In 1960 when we moved from New Jersey to Mississippi, I learned I didn’t like racists. As a shy kid, I was always afraid of people with strong emotions, and the racists scared the crap out of me with their raging anger. I had no idea what they were talking about. They were for Nixon. Maybe that influenced my political development. I remember getting into a playground fight with a kid who was pro-Nixon. Did that experience lean me towards the left?

When I went to tech school for computers in 1971, they taught us a phrase, GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). That implies the news we consume does change us. But then, I’ve read books like The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker that counter that philosophy. I’ve also read books like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman that explain how our consciousness minds aren’t too swift when it comes to making decisions. I’m almost finished with The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis that profiles Daniel Kahneman, and his colleague Amos Tversky. They were two Israeli psychologists that made careers studying how we make poor choices and misunderstand reality because our gut reactions are usually wrong.

JWH

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