Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The honour of faux outrage

In general I really enjoy John Man's books - they're superbly readable light history. Ironically, it's one of my least favourite of his works that has an interesting observation that's been running through my head a lot lately.

In Samurai, Man describes how honour-based societies have to pro-actively seek out offences. A society based around its own honour needs insults to survive. You can't very well go around defining yourself by how you respond to supposedly ill-treatment without actually having some ill-treatment to respond to. And if no-one happens to be genuinely insulting you, an offence can always be invented.

Sadly the rest of the book was (unusually) a humdrum and tedious narrative and I never finished it, but this idea strikes me as important. Consider this speech in Star Trek :


We have not injured you in any way. Why would anyone seek to harm someone who has done exactly nothing to hurt them at all ? There is absolutely no reason, in principle, why people of different sexual orientation cannot coexist happily. They may not necessarily approve of each other - a sense of purity and inherent rightness plays its part - but unless they see the other's actions causing active harm to them in some way, it's surely strange that they should so pro-actively and preemptively attack people who were quietly minding their own business.

The honour-based society helps explain things. Tribalism is important, but it's more than just us and them : it's not that we define ourselves by being a member of a particular group but by not being the others. At a silly level, the Welsh define themselves in no small part by being not English; the Klingons spend enormous time proclaiming how much they hate the Romulans. At a more serious level, homophobes define themselves not by being heterosexual, but by not being homosexual. Atheists define themselves by not being religious; anti-capitalists define themselves...well, that's obvious; a host of political activists of all stripes define their identity by being against the other side and not for anything in particular.

Is anyone really offended by people wearing face masks ? Do they really find this a tyrannical oppression of their essential freedom to wave assault rifles around ? Of course not. It's all about identity-based honour and manufactured conflict.

This kind of honour mentality and "othering" is distinct from the everyday sort of disapproval. Consider Nickelback. They're an objectively awful pile of walking crap that is to music what astrology is to marine biology. But do you see me hunting down Nickelback fans on the internet just so I can tell them how ashamed of themselves they should be ? No, because as long as they don't make me listen to the uber-generic lung exhalations that they apparently enjoy, I'm fine with us leaving each other alone. I hate Nickleback with a fiery passion, but it's not something that I define myself by.

Then again, some seemingly harmless behaviours might lead eventually to harmful behaviour. Music has been oft-proclaimed as one such area; video games are another. In principle, getting upset by these is perfectly justifiable. It's not inherently unreasonable to posit that people spending hours each day in simulated worlds replete with gratuitous violence might eventually become violent in reality... at least until you see all evidence, such as the multitudinous hordes of astonishingly non-violent gamers. It's those who persist after examining the evidence that might be suffering from this honour-based crusade : "I am the person who hates video games, therefore I must continue my quest to wipe them out". So disliking something and being defined by your dislike of it are very different things.

I wonder how deep this honour-based system runs. Importantly, unlike classical tribalism, we need not join an organised group to slip into this kind of thinking from time to time. Might it help explain the stronger levels of (apparent) hatred from some racists, homophobes etc ? Certainly I'm wary of anyone who's monotopically obsessed - if you only ever talk about one thing, you've likely sunk into over-specialisation, which is a perhaps a warning sign of letting external events define you. So I have an inherent distrust of activists - they tend to sink from perfectly reasonable initial positions ("I don't want to eat meat") to rabid obsession ("let's kill anyone who's not a fan of kale").

(And because this is Decoherency, I feel bound to point out that the very last post here was one of political activism.)

Like racism, this is a spectrum ranging from the generally good(ish)-natured Welsh versus English, to entirely honour-driven societies of samurai Klingons, right up to the horrors of genocide; from "I want you to stop doing this thing I don't like" to full-blown "I want you to die for this meaningless difference between us". And it isn't at all easy to spot. Even - or especially - if our cause is just, we can still let it define us to an irrational extreme. It's entirely possible to be right for the wrong reasons. Keeping tabs on how you're thinking is far more important than on watching your conclusions.

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