Tribes and Telescreens

“Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence
is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe.” 
—–
“Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”
—–

The ideas in these quotations from Ayn Rand made an instructive convergence this past week. I allude to the firestorm and media frenzy in the wake of the Oklahoma University’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members drunkenly singing a racist song on a bus that resulted in expulsion of the fraternity from OU’s campus and two students from the school.

Few organizations in our society are as collectivist and conformist as college fraternities. The “brotherhood” is more tribal than familial affection. Their whole existence is based upon group identity. They dress alike, act in groups, publicly display their identity, and, most important, they exclude from their ranks those who they collectively perceive are not “like them.” As to the last point, “like them” refers not usually to ideas and goals, but social class.

In order to maintain solidarity, the tribe has a bogeyman; that is, an external enemy or threat. George Orwell illustrated that at the global level in his 1984— Oceania was always at war with either one of the two other world states. Racism fulfills that need on a local, personal level. It provides a convenient identifiable “other” that can be perceived as a threat, and thus enhance cohesiveness.

But there is another, perhaps more ominous, aspect to the event and its becoming a national imbroglio. “What were these guys thinking?” is an understandable reaction. These “guys” are in their late teens or early 20s; they are college students, possessed no doubt of somewhat above average intelligence. They grew up with the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras, video recorders, and YouTube. Did they fail to realize that capture and dissemination of their drunken and boorish behavior was inevitable, given the availability of the technology?

Truth is, probably not. They were used to insularity. They did not realize that their convenient communication instruments were eroding the privacy that comes with civilization.

During the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan wrote of the advent of a “global village” fostered by modern communications media. Villages are small, insular societies where everyone knows everyone and everybody else’s business. It is usually not necessary for a village to enforce social norms and attitudes by formal, legal punishments, though many have in the past. Many of those punishments involved shaming. The pillory, stocks, and whipping post were more about shaming than the physical pain involved. In an 18th Century colonial American village, a woman caught in the act of adultery and her paramour were sentenced to twenty stripes each at the whipping post; the woman accepted the whipping but petitioned the judge to set the time of her punishment early in the morning before most in the village arose, thus sparing her the humiliation. Most of the time, public disapproval is enough. Association with a pariah tends to impute some of the same character, so they are to be avoided or shunned.

Nowadays, the global village seems to be enforcing not its behavior standards, but its standards of thought, by viral Tweets, Facebook, and other blog posts. Over a year ago, Justine Sacco, the top communications executive for IAC/InterActiveCorp was shamed on the Internet and lost her job for a supposedly racist tweet. This occurred in spite of her and her South African family’s long time activism for racial equality in their home country.

Many believe that racism is ugly, and eliminating it, by publicly shaming anyone who harbors racist thoughts if necessary, is a good thing. Racism, however, as Rand pointed out, is merely a primitive form of collectivism. It is the judging of a person by their identity as a member of a group that is based on arbitrary criteria rather than by what they do as individuals. So long as a collectivist mind-set exists among humans being, there will be racism.

It is impossible to eradicate completely the idea that one’s skin color that is a result of biological ancestry matters. There are many reasons why that is so. One is that human beings rely on their sense of sight much more than any other. Another human’s appearance defines him as like or unlike the observer. Like is generally friend; unlike is often foe. That is partly the result of  evolution.

We can, however control the effects of racist behavior. For the past four decades or so, we have done a pretty good job of that in this country. Unfortunately, continued official racial classification by our government has fostered, rather than discouraged tribalism. Many remedial measures, such as affirmative action, amount to reverse discrimination, or at least its perception. That perception goes a long way to explaining some of the resentment that is often conflated with racism.

A greater danger lies in the punishing of any ideas, wrongheaded or not. Punishing ideas or beliefs, as opposed to acts, was the function of the Inquisition, and Orwell’s fictional Thought Police. Other speakers’ or writers’ condemnation of loathsome ideas or expression of those ideas may be appropriate; punishment for such ideas or thoughts is not.

The reason for this is that our environment (in its broadest sense) is constantly changing and human knowledge is constantly being acquired. Innovation and critical thinking is necessary for applying that knowledge and coping with the new environment. Critical thinking must examine the unpleasant, the offensive, and even the loathsome thoughts and ideas. Any political or social structures that inhibit thought retard and even prevent progress. There was a time in the not too distant past when such thought-crime was punished by death—in a most gruesome manner. It was called heresy, and heretics were burned at the stake. Galileo narrowly escaped that fate in the 17th Century, but at the price of recanting the theories based on his research and submitting to house arrest for the remainder of his life. As we know, his theories became the basis for modern astronomy and physics, though they were refined by further, less inhibited research and study.

Less drastic disapproval can also inhibit innovation. Even devoted contrarians have to live in society. Being shunned in a village can amount to civil death if one has to stay there. It is impossible to escape from a global village without becoming a hermit.

It may not be possible to eliminate a global village where busybodies and nags gossip about everybody. Thanks to our advance technology, Big Brother’s telesceens are everywhere. Unlike the world of 1984, it is not necessary for the government to set up the means to spy on the citizenry—the people are doing it to themselves. This is so because technology makes possible 24 hour surveillance of everyone. Those in power, like the president of OU, a government institution, can use the information gathered by private persons to expel students from school and shut down their living quarters because they expressed notions that are emphatically disfavored.

The good news is that unlike other nations, where the mere expression of certain ideas is a criminal offense, the United States has Constitutional protection of expressive speech. And it is nearly absolute. The exceptions are narrow. Libel, slander, and direct threats are essentially the only ones, and each bears a heavy burden of proof for the complaining party. That absolutism may well be the only defense against the tyranny of living in a global village.

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