Friday, March 20, 2015

how conformism creates ethnicity creates conformism - there's no solving stupid


hirhome |  In this essay I will explore the important connection between conformism as an adaptive psychological strategy, and the emergence of the phenomenon of ethnicity. My argument will be that it makes sense that nature made us conformists. And once humans acquired this adaptive strategy, I will argue further, the development of ethnic organization was inevitable. Understanding the adaptive origins of conformism, as we shall see, is perhaps the most useful way to shed light on what ethnicity is—at least when examined from the functional point of view, which is to say from the point of view of the adaptive problems that ethnicity solves. I shall begin with a few words about our final destination.

Ethnicity is a phenomenon that rightly occupies much attention in lay and scholarly circles alike, because it is relevant to almost everything that humans do. What is it? From the descriptive point of view, ethnicity is normative culture. That is to say, an ethnie is a collection of human beings who more or less agree on how a human life should be lived: which foods should be avoided, which eaten, and how the latter should be prepared; what sorts of behaviors are funny, shameful, offensive (and which aren't); by what specific ritual displays should politeness be expressed in a million different contexts; what forms of dress and cosmetic enhancement are appropriate for members of either sex; etc. Ethnicity is a collection of 'oughts' and 'ought nots' that get passed down more or less as a package along with the associated social label inherited from one's parents; "I am an X." In some academic circles, the question "Which ethnie has figured out the right way to live?" will immediately be met with the following retort:

"Why, the premise is absurd! Why should there be one best way to live a human life?" Perhaps. But this cosmopolitan multiculturalist complaint belongs to a clear minority. To the same question, most human beings all around the world have a ready answer, and it is always the same; "My ethnie lives life the way a human should." Consequently, members of ethnie A can easily amuse, offend, or shock members of ethnie B merely in the act of conforming to the 'oughts' and 'ought nots' that As feel obligated to pass down from one generation to the next.

Such haughty or offended reactions are usually labeled 'ethnocentrism', or, depending on their intensity and negativity, 'prejudice' and 'racism'. Many academics consider ethnocentrism a "bad" thing in any of its forms. But is it? Yes, it is a bad thing, very much so. The values of science require that we root out from our observational methods any source of consistent, distorting bias; and believing that cultural difference implies error makes it well-nigh impossible for the social scientist to make much progress in the study of cultural variation. Even more important, by my lights at least, is that so long as we are not cosmopolitan and therefore tolerant and compassionate with respect to the ways of our neighbors, we are still moral failures.

Norm-conformism is an adaptive strategy that maximizes the number of potential interactants in the conformist's local population. It makes sense to lament and oppose specific outcomes of particular conformist processes, such as some silent majorities, and ethnic prejudice. But to treat "conformism" and its consequences as a generalized evil in the abstract would spill a narrowly applicable moral evaluation into domains where not only does morality not apply, but where even a non-moral interpretation of the negative judgment "bad" will also not fit, given that norm-conformism does a lot of useful work helping humans navigate their social world. As always, it is best to put our moral goals in charge of conduct directed towards our fellow human beings. If we turn them instead into axiomatic priors of a scientific analysis, we saddle our attempt to understand human perception and behavior with epistemological baggage that makes it harder to understand why people do the things they do. Such ignorance can lead us to hurt people when we meant to help, and it follows directly that this is ethically undesirable. Therefore, if we have a compassion-based obligation to, first, do no harm, then we have a moral imperative to be honest about what causes human behavior, even if we would prefer to have been designed differently. Wishful thinking will not heal a troubled world, but an improved understanding of it just may.