Until now, all readings in this off-and-on (lately, muddlingly off) series have derived entirely from my interest in TIMN. This reading relates more to the other theoretical framework that interests me — the one about people’s space, time, action orientations and their importance in shaping cognition and culture (acronym STA:C).
In working on STA:C, I’ve noticed that people's space-time-action orientations often get assembled into particular views about “boundaries” and “horizons”. Furthermore, sensitivities about boundaries — about identifying, respecting, and defending boundaries — seem to characterize conservative far more than liberal / progressive thinking. Conservatism seems fundamentally concerned with boundaries of all sorts, especially traditional boundaries, while liberalism and progressivism seem oriented more toward horizons, especially new horizons. Indeed, if a policy or principle is not based on some sense of boundaries, it is questionably conservative.
While I’ve yet to do much with this observation — just a couple blog posts a few years ago — it explains my interest in today’s reading: futurist David Brin’s “Our tribal natures, the 'fear effect' and the end of ideologies” (2006). It’s an old but still-stimulating still-relevant post about how people’s sense of “horizons”, and to a lesser extent “boundaries”, figures in shaping their “tribalism” (and vice-versa).
TRIBALISM AS KEY FORCE THROUGHOUT HISTORY
Brin starts by identifying “tribalism as a deeply motivating force in history” that extends from ancient tribal through modern civilized societies. He is dismayed (as am I) that few social theorists have noticed tribalism’s importance, instead preferring to dwell on other social forces. Yet, wherever “devotion to a group, clan, or nation, has overwhelmed what might otherwise have seemed to be the individual's self-interest”, that’s where tribalism takes hold, deserving recognition from analysts as both cause and consequence.
Thus, Brin writes:
“In fact, while the models of Freud, Marx, and Machiavelli (also Madison, Keynes, Ghandi etc.) have attracted legions of followers, clearly influencing sociological, historical and psychological events, I believe a much stronger case can be made for tribalism as a deeply motivating force in history. After all, should not any theoretical explanation of our nature apply across the long span of time when human nature actually formed? Also, if you can find a pattern or patterns that seem to have held across all continents and almost all pre-metal tribes, isn’t there a much better chance that the trait really is natural? That it is not an artifact of later cultural imposition by contrived societies? …
“So, what might tribalism tell us about human nature, that was missed by Marx and Freud and Rand and all the others, with their post-literacy myopia? What traits seem to be shared BOTH by tribal and “civilized” societies? Are there any deep, ongoing themes?
“Over and over, we see how devotion to a group, clan, or nation, has overwhelmed what might otherwise have seemed to be the individual's self-interest. Nor should this be surprising, since, for most of the last million years, human beings lived in clans. Any man or woman who lost the faith and confidence of his or her tribe was in great danger. Often effectively dead.”
THE FEAR FACTOR AND PEOPLE’S PERCEPTUAL HORIZONS
Brin’s theme is that people’s “ambient fear level” is what drives them to cluster into tribes. The higher the fear level, the more people cling to their fellow tribal loyals close to home. The more the fear level declines, the more people become willing to broaden their “tribal boundaries”, even to include strangers. Thus his contention is that there is an “inverse correlation between ambient fear levels and the distance … of the “horizons” maintained by average members of a given culture.”
In his words:
“Human beings can be very flexible defining what is "my tribe." More often than not, the major determining factor is fear.
“When the ambient fear level is high, as in civil war-riven Lebanon, loyalties are kept close to home. Me against my brother. My brother and me against our cousins. We and our cousins against the world. Alliances merge and are broken quickly, along a sliding scale that appears to be remarkably consistent.
“The general trend seems to be this: the lower the ambient fear level declines, the more broadly a human being appears willing to define those tribal boundaries, and the more generous he or she is willing to be toward the stranger. …
“My contention is simple, that there exists an inverse correlation between ambient fear levels and the distance — in terms of space, time and kinship — of the “horizons” maintained by average members of a given culture.”
THREE KINDS OF FEAR-RELATED HORIZONS
Brin identifies three kinds of horizons that matter to fearful people: a threat-related “worry horizon”, a future-oriented “time horizon”, and an “otherness horizon” that also correspond to an inclusion horizon “since it is partly about deciding how many people you want to deal with as worthy negotiating partners, and where you draw the line, calling others foes.” The three horizons constantly expand and contract for various reasons, but overall, Brin stresses, they “seem to depend most upon the ambient level of fear.”
In his words:
“1) There is a "Worry Horizon" ... what threats concern you and your neighbors …
“2) There is also a “Time Horizon” having to do with how far into the future you devote your attention … either in dealing with threats or seeking opportunities …
“3) Another horizon might be called the "Otherness Horizon” — where one looks not for danger but for opportunities, adventures, new allies, new mating partners. … This could also be called the “Horizon of Inclusion” since it is partly about deciding how many people you want to deal with as worthy negotiating partners, and where you draw the line, calling others foes.
“What seems clear, examining historical records and a broad range of cultures, is that all of these horizons expand and contract in the manner described above. … But overall, these horizons seem to depend most upon the ambient level of fear.”
DYNAMICS OF INCLUSION AND EXCLUSION IN AMERICAN HISTORY
Brin lauds America’s “unprecedented society” for having generated so much fear-alleviating prosperity that traditional tribal bonds could relax and allow ever-widening horizons and circles of inclusion. But lately, he says, many Americans have shifted away from inclusion, toward exclusion, hardening into the differences we see between “blue states” and “red states” on issue after issue. Thus, he concludes that his “model” about the movement of horizons (and boundaries) helps explain the growing red-blue differences and may be “the best one, yet … far better than any insipid “left-right political axis” or words such as “conservatism” and “liberalism.””
In his words:
“By these lights, most contemporary Americans live in an unprecedented society, where the vast majority of families have not known starvation or even significant want for so many generations that those kinds of fear are almost abstractions.All to the good so far, but then matters took a turn, Brin observes:
“This, in turn, has allowed traditional tribal bounds to relax and spread so far that "tolerance" and "otherness" are words of totemic power in this culture! Indeed, it is interesting to view the expanding circle of citizenship and inclusion as first the American colonies and then the Republic began experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity and fear-reduction. The battles over inclusion that were fought in each generation (first against class division, then slavery, sexism, religious intolerance, racism...) tend to seem obvious to their children, who grow up within the newly-widened horizon set ... then wrestle with the next stage of the process. Continuing the widening of the circle.”
“ … Certainly Timothy McVeigh had very different concepts of "inclusion horizons" than many of the fellow citizens he slew.
“Indeed, might one diagnose some recent phenomena in these terms? Why is it that citizens of New York and Washington DC — direct victims of 9/11 terrorism — remain utterly “blue state” in their fealty to expanded horizons — in time, threat and inclusion — while “red state” attitudes (perhaps oversimplifying) seem to draw closer in: e.g. higher enmity toward non-natives and immigrants, less concern about environmental degradation, more concern over “war” on terror, less interest in science and more in a pending end of the world?”
“Is this model the best one, yet, at explaining such differences? Certainly it is far better than any insipid “left-right political axis” or words such as “conservatism” and “liberalism.””
WHETHER PEOPLE CAN WIDEN THEIR HORIZONS
Brin says his readers should make “No mistake, I approve of this trend toward ever-widening horizons. … I am impatient for it to go much farther.” But he worries whether Americans can keep widening their horizons. More than that, he argues that the “doctrinaire left” is as “loopy” as the right in this regard, in that “One side [the right] resists the widening of horizons while the other [the left] would force it with a patronizing, oversimplifying sledge hammer.” But, for Brin, this is not, and should not be made into, a left-right matter. “Rather, this is about the true “liberal” notion of ever-increasing inclusion within the tent of human decency, while allowing a lot of give and negotiation and bickering and creative competition within the tent!.”
In his words:
“ … It is ironic, though, how few seem to realize that the new era of Omni-Inclusion is based upon prosperity and lack of fear brought on by prosperity, and that our morality of universal tolerance would have been considered terminally sappy and dangerous by every other culture in human history.
“This is — in my view — the deepest smug insanity of the left. Yes, the “right” obviously suffers from shorter horizons. That is their dire craziness. But the doctrinaire left is just as loopy. Because they take expanded horizons as a deeply fundamental ‘given’ of human morality. Like Rousseau, they simply ASSUME, as something basic, a value system that is actually extremely recent and entirely contingent. …
“On the other hand, if one takes history into account and cheerfully accepts the incremental progress that it portrays, then the Modernist Agenda of pragmatic improvement makes a great deal of sense. Face it. Rousseau was a sap. All of this is about Locke. The sooner the “wide-horizons” people realize it, the more effective they will be at pursuing their agenda, of widening horizons ever farther!
“In fact, this process of horizon-widening is not INTRINSICALLY a feature of the left ... though it is intrinsic to liberalism in the older and truer meaning of the word. It is utterly compatible with the four accountability arenas, for example (science, markets, democracy, courts... and the candidate for becoming a fifth arena – the internet. …
“Hence, once again, we see that this is not a matter best handled on a left-right basis. Both dogmatic extremes ignore history and are effectively quite mad! One side resists the widening of horizons while the other would force it with a patronizing, oversimplifying sledge hammer.
“Rather, this is about the true “liberal” notion of ever-increasing inclusion within the tent of human decency, while allowing a lot of give and negotiation and bickering and creative competition within the tent!
“The crucial issue is this — can the long process of expanding human horizons be studied in order to determine crucial narrow points and bottlenecks that inhibit horizon broadening, among both individuals and cultures?”
A FEW AFTER-THOUGHTS OF MY OWN
From STA:C and TIMN standpoints, I am delighted to see Brin recognize that the tribal form is essential and recurs all across history; that people’s orientations toward boundaries and horizons are central to their political (including tribal) views; that conservative thinking tends to be associated more with tight boundaries, liberal thinking more with loose horizons; and that perceptual fluctuations in either boundaries or horizons may cause changes in the other.
Yet, I have two tentative criticisms of his write-up:
(1) It essentially advises conservatives to expand their horizons, when they might be equally-well advised to reconsider their sense of boundaries. How people think about horizons and boundaries should be analyzed and addressed jointly — or so I’m supposing today.
(2) When I first started to read David’s post, I was ready to note that he emphasized horizons to the neglect of boundaries. But as I read deeper, I saw that was not really so. Nonetheless, I’d propose that his “model” would benefit from including as much about boundaries as about horizons, and from drawing sharper distinctions between the two kinds of cognitions and their implications for how people think and act.
To read his post in full, go here:
For more about boundaries and horizons from a STA:C standpoint, browse these two blog posts:
For a later analysis by Brin about the significance of horizons of inclusion — “All of those are epiphenomena of the battle over horizons -- whether we're a culture that looks ahead toward future times, that confidently explores newness in knowledge, technology, goods and services... and one that expands horizons of inclusion.” — go to his blog here:
[I posted an earlier shorter write-up of this post on my Facebook page, on Nov 24.]