Touching Wires Between Two Seemingly Disparate Ideas

It’s astonishing how quickly the internet has become entwined in our lives.

It’s impossible to function as a normal member of society without it. Our banking system depends on it. Most business assumes you have access to the internet for support, payment, or some other aspect of the transaction. Job seeking? That happens almost exclusively on the net. Even the government expects you to have access to it to file taxes, claim benefits, fill in the census, or do almost anything. You can still fill in a form or talk to a human in some cases, but they’re clearly secondary and less desirable options, and mark you as a second-class citizen.

The technology is fantastically convenient. But it also has a latent dark side. Under what stress would that darkness be realized? We can see examples already. The government is combing though our phone calls and internet records looking for terrorists. It’s hard to argue that they shouldn’t be doing that. But the capacity for abuse is obvious–especially if the terrorists get through anyway. Then it’s double-down time. Worse, if we experience  a severe degradation in our way of life and our spirit (read: if the climate goes kerflooey) and society becomes unstable, then the powers that be will have a ready infrastructure to institute an Orwell-like police state. And we will be scared enough to accept it.

We’ve begun to accept it already. No one had anything but praise for the surveillance cameras and the multi-day pan-urban lockdown that allowed the police to catch the Boston Marathon bombers. We accept personal searches at airports. Most office buildings have some kind of electronic passkey these days. A local town just installed cameras to record every license plate that passes into it along its major access road. I sometimes wonder if this pervasive security is a subtle but substantial cue to the pro-gun crowd that their paranoia is legitimate. Ironically, the one area were it might make sense to have some government control for security purposes—background checks—is the one area where it’s culturally off-limits.

My friend Charles Hugh Smith recently wrote about the psychology of creeping social acceptance of intrusive government in a private-subscription posting that I thought was quite insightful—as Charles always is. He’s allowed me to repost it here.

Civil Society’s Role in Good and Evil
by Charles Hugh Smith

The conceptual wires between two seemingly disparate ideas recently touched in my mind, eliciting an analysis of the connection between good and evil actions and civil society.

The first idea is presented by Philip G. Zimbardo, author of the book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Correspondent Chad D. sent me a lengthy (1:50) video lecture by Zimbardo of the same title.

Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University and instructor at the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School, is an expert in the human capacity to inflict pain and suffering in sustained (i.e. cruel) ways. We call this sustained, intentional depravity evil.

He has built on the research of Stanley Milgram, author of Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, and his own famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which demonstrated how the latent capacity for evil in “normal people” is activated and quickly manifests in sadistic torture, degradation and other shades of evil. [Editor’s note: There’s  a character named Deacon Milgram in A Change in the Weather. It’s not a coincidence.]

Evil is not so much inherent in individuals, Zimbardo showed, but emerges dependably when a sequence of dehumanizing and stressful circumstances unfolds.

The recipe for behavior change isn’t complicated. “All evil begins with a big lie,” says Zimbardo, whether it’s a claim to be following the word of God, or the need to stamp out political opposition. A seemingly insignificant step follows, with successive small actions, presented as essential by an apparently just authority figure. The situation presents others complying with the same rules, perhaps protesting, but following along all the same. If the victims are anonymous or dehumanized somehow, all the better. And exiting the situation is extremely difficult.

Being social animals, humans are exquisitely sensitive to social norms and peer pressure, and it goes very much against the grain to non-conform or actively resist what everybody else around us is doing.

While evil may not be inherent, the capacity to divide essentially indistinguishable groups of people into Us and the Other certainly is a core human trait. Indeed, being able to identify belonging/my group and not us/a potential enemy has roots going back millions of years to all mammals that establish groups. [Editor’s note: This is a core theme of A Change in the Weather.]

The capacity to quickly habituate to horrendously abnormal conditions is also inherently human. In the proper circumstances, i.e. in the constant presence of strong peer pressure, stress and authority, normally kind and well-adjusted humans soon become sadistic guards, soldiers inured to killing others, including civilians, or members of roving mobs exploiting the vulnerabilities of perceived enemies.

The second idea is expressed in a Foreign Affairs essay, The Promise of the Arab Spring (unfortunately it’s behind a paywall. You may be able to borrow a copy at your local library.)  Writer Sheri Berman makes a compelling case that many of the purported “failures of democracy” such as fascist Germany and Italy in the 1930s, and in the Mideast today,  are not failures of democracy so much as civil societies that lacked the key building blocks needed to sustain democracy.

The two ideas intersect in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. failed to establish sustainable democracy despite tens of thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent/squandered.  As a contrarian, I tend to be skeptical of all blanket statements and slam-dunk received wisdom, and it seems increasingly clear to me that the key dynamic in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that both nation’s civil societies were essentially destroyed by decades of warfare, civil strife and ruthless dictatorship. [Editor’s note: I would say that these societies are fundamentally, historically tribal, and colonialism did little to change that except introduce new points of conflict. The “us/them” mindset promotes tribalism—a main motif in ACITW.]

In other words, the capacity for democracy was simply not present, and just constructing the basic building blocks of civil society from scratch takes decades and generations, not years.  In these kinds of environments, tribal warfare is the only available perceived means to an end, as other traditional ways of settling disputes (for example, political debate and compromise) were shredded, suppressed or demolished by war or dictatorship.

We can easily see the connections between these two ideas. If a society has slowly disintegrated under stress to the point that social norms  have become dysfunctional and civic organizations have been crushed or eroded, central authority quickly gains the upper hand. Once that setting of stress, peer pressure and authority is established, evil blossoms.

As financial and social crises become semi-permanent features of everyday life in nations such as Greece and Cyprus (and to a lesser but still chronic degree, in countries such as Japan, France and the U.S.), we see the building blocks of civil society–the open marketplace, the free press, non-governmental social organizations, local government councils, etc.–weaken and fray. As these foundations of democracy weaken, democracy itself becomes vulnerable to erosion and dysfunction.

One feature of this degradation of civil society is systems that once mediated conflict and disorder stop working. Beneath the surface of normalcy, I tend to think this is the case in Japan: the political/financial systems are now incapable of fixing what’s broken, i.e. themselves. And when they stop working, conditions worsen and the options available to people to improve their conditions narrow. This reduction in systems that work soon leaves only desperate measures, which are eventually perceived as the last-ditch way to reverse deteriorating conditions. This paring away of functioning options is the acme of fragility and loss of resiliency.

This suggests that maintaining social structures that are resilient and flexible enough to withstand stress and a deteriorating economy are essential features of democracy and social stability. Since large-scale structures are costly and prone to mismanagement by central authority, the closer the social organization is to the bottom layer of individuals, the lower the cost to maintain them and the greater the benefit to those investing time and money in these organizations.

[Editor’s note: The conundrum of the net is: does it promote social organization at the bottom layer of individuals, or does it promote centralization? This is the essence of tragedy: while my bet is on the latter, I can’t imagine the net disappearing from my life. Here’s where faith comes in. Somehow I have to believe we could rise above it. But in a resource-constrained, climate-changed world, that could be very difficult indeed.]

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