Shame and loathing in Western Democracies

Mike Berger writes on the bullying and intolerance that has come to characterise public debate

In 1982 the brilliant polymath and controversialist, Stephen Jay Gould, co-authored two scientific papers which introduced an important term into evolutionary biology: 'exaptation'.

To short-circuit a fascinating chapter in the history of biological science, Gould and his co-authors suggested that the evolutionary process could use 'neutral' physical features which had arisen by chance as raw material for a new function which served a specific biological need. Later this idea was further enlarged by pointing out that an evolved feature which had served a specific function in one context could be co-opted (exapted) by the evolutionary dynamic to serve an entirely distinct purpose in another.

This idea has interesting ramifications in the political and psychological domains. The phenomenon of 'disgust' may have evolved in humans originally as an avoidance response to the parasites and bacteria present in human waste and rotting flesh. In the course of human social evolution, however, during which time we laid down the genetic foundations of our moral instincts, the 'disgust module' was hijacked to drive the emotional response to behaviours and ideas which we disliked and found repugnant.

Now tie this in with another evolved, paired feature of human social psychology: the notion of fairness coupled to the instinct to punish 'violators'. We are all familiar with this phenomenon in which we find certain behaviours reprehensible and disgusting. Our automatic response is to shun or actively punish perpetrators.

Cultural anthropologists with an evolutionary bent have studied this in various current hunter-gatherer tribes. It probably arose initially to discourage tribe members from hoarding and hiding resources, especially valuable meat, from other members and expanded to incorporate a wider range of deceptive and selfish behaviours. Within the close-knit community of the tribe the process of shaming, which could escalate to ostracism, expulsion or even murder, was a powerful social deterrent and a potent selective pressure on our genetic evolution.

Those who believe these primitive restraints are now outmoded, that we have escaped the narrow moral strictures of the tribe and are free to express opinions or act in ways which run counter to the dominant norms, are profoundly mistaken. On the contrary, the process of moralistic shaming, delegitimisation and punishment has expanded alongside the technological revolution in communication technology and has been eagerly seized on by partisan groups.

This broad topic deserves a much deeper excavation than possible here. In particular, we need to become aware of our vulnerability to politically-inspired manipulation of our moral instincts in the exercise of power. The 'weaponisation' of the fairness-punishment psychological complex is the chief instrument of political war in parts of the post-modern world, especially in the democracies.

The other night I watched this process in action within the relatively benign setting of a BBC debate on the motion that 'political correctness is failing us'. The 4-person panel was divided between what can only be termed the 'progressive-left' and its critics. I missed part of the debate but heard more than enough to discern that all the slurs and sneers came from the warriors of the Left.

Any fair appraisal of this phenomenon across the democratic West indicates that it sets the dominant tone of public discourse. And where shaming and ridicule is insufficient to stifle debate or eliminate pockets of disagreement, intolerance has come to manifest in physical bullying. It is an unpleasant irony of history that the 'Progressive Left' has become the heir to the verbal and physical intimidation which characterised the segregationist and racist Right of early and mid-20th century Europe and America.

In view of the recent, widely publicised student aggression at Berkeley, Middlebury and Claremont campuses in the USA and violent anti-Trump riots in many American cities, it is amazing that one continues to encounter a whiney sense of victimhood on the Left, as in this apocalyptic passage by Stephen Gill: "In many respects, however, it ('Trumpism') closely resembles the extreme inequalities, governing strategies, and reactionary rhetoric that submerged liberalism and democracy in the 1930s." The rest of his article is written in similar vein.

The absurdity of this stance is summarised in a number of recent appraisals of Trump's first hundred days which pillory the overwhelmingly 'liberal-progressive' establishment media's overwrought (and dishonest) call-to-arms response. Here's one précis (and it is an understatement), "After 100 days, all the hysterical claims of incipient fascism and Russian conspiracy have not really damaged Trump; these have only made his opponents look silly. Such nonsense has been a distraction from getting to grips with his administration, and has given Trump some breathing space to fail and keep going."

Such apparent idiocies have, however, a deeper coherence. The blending of moralistic indignation, a free-floating sense of victimhood and apocalyptic visions of a rampant, Hitlerian-style nationalistic fervour serves as justification for intolerance disguised as democratic 'resistance'. Conor Friedersdorf, a thoughtful liberal-left commentator in The Atlantic, quoted (disapprovingly) the radical student rationale for violently preventing the conservative scholar-commentator, Heather MacDonald, from speaking at Claremont College:

"Heather MacDonald is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobe, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live."

What Friedersdorf does not do, however, is to question the origins of such intolerant moralism. If he did, he would be forced to the uncomfortable conclusion that it comes from him and his think-alikes, embedded in the pre-dominantly liberal media. By quickly adjusting their blinkers, vast swathes of his cronies have managed to keep up the tiresome charade and rarely wonder why only over-heated students or radical hotheads bother to listen.

Whether conscious or not, it serves to create a rightwing Golem* of such monstrous proportions to justify acts of aggression and intolerance, totally out of keeping with the respectful discourse which underpins the best democracies. It also provides the social and conventional media with the veneer of moral rectitude while inciting flash mobs in support of their chosen champions.

Such fakery can have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Delegitimising, identity politics evokes the tribal passions of those targeted or excluded. Although the rise of Trump, Le Pen and the Brexiteers in the UK, indeed much of what is condescendingly called 'populist' politics, may be significantly attributed to economic factors and external threats, political choice is rarely unidimensional nor wholly rational. It is highly likely that anger elicited by bullying identity politics and claimed victimhood, is a major driver of the rise of the Western Right.

This reality does not absolve the Right from its own shortcomings. The PWN (psychological warfare noise) emanating from both ends of the political spectrum drowns out substantive issues, vulgarises debate and induces deep cynicism regarding the continued relevance of democracy in the post-modern world.

Despite widespread anxiety amongst the more thoughtful members of the politically conscious, the cumulative experience, cultural norms and institutional safeguards of the established democracies will, in all likelihood, keep seriously rogue politicians at bay. What is more problematic is the emergence of totalitarian and dysfunctional movements and states from the political hinterlands which test the resolve, judgement and stability of peaceful democracies.

As for South Africa, although our own problems are currently almost entirely internal, we have imported much of the over-heated rhetoric from Western democracies to suit the agendas of local political Mafiosi and assorted crazies. We are uncomfortably perched on the precipitous cusp of a very steep learning curve. But that is a topic for another post.

*Golem - mythical, human-created 'monster' from Jewish biblical folklore. It finds echoes in other contexts and reflects important insights.