Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Social Signaling - Not Just For Liberals

I make the frequent accusation that liberalism is driven by social cues more than intellectual ones. The assumption that certain people and ideas are somehow ridiculous, the snigger and sneer (not a dramatic, Snidely Whiplash sneer of course – that would be gauche), the mild condescension in person – more pronounced in writing, these are tools of social control. They are a signaling of who gets it, who is in the group, rather like animal calls. I have been very critical of this. Rather sneering and condescending myself, actually.

I don’t object to social grouping and social signalling. I think it’s fine. I do it myself all the time. My objection has been to the pretense that what is merely social is actually intellectual. I should be a little fairer with that. Liberals are not the only offenders on that score by any means. People identify each other as Christians without having explicitly said that and are likely to say “it must have been the Holy Spirit.” A charming idea, but one that can include a certain smugness, a certain we’re-both-so-spiritual attitude that is a bit dangerous. Within groups of Christians are are admonishments about works and grace, or whether something is scriptural, that are phrased mildly but are spiritual body-slams.

I was taught secret signs in DeMolay, so that we could identify “brothers” in a group, especially in need. More subtly, I was present when a visitor at church approached a member and began to talk comfortably with him and the longtime member responded without surprise. They had identified each other as probable career military officers by their shoes.

You know that Goths do it, Geeks do it,
Neocons and Jesus Freaks do it.
Let’s do it, let’s talk in code.

They say that Danes do it, French do it,
Even plumbers with a wrench do it.
Let’s do it, let’s talk in code.

Your baseball caps do it, pins do it,
Farther outs and farther ins do it.
Let’s do it, let’s talk in code.

I tell you John does it, O does it
Everybody that you know does it
That does it! Let’s talk in code.

Even in a close election, the chances your individual vote will make a difference is small. We vote to participate, to be part of the group that Does Things Right. It gives us a tie to group membership, group identity. As these groups are the places that we find our friends, network for our jobs, even seek for mates, they represent sustenance to us. Most of us belong to many such groups with varying degrees of allegiance. People who know us well can even sort through them, sniffing out which groups are really most important to us by the prominence we give the various “tells.” Wheels within wheels, Ezekiel, and sometimes others read us better than we read ourselves.

When others do not produce the right signals, we rapidly conclude that they are either stupid – unable to discern the signs, or antagonists – active rejecters of our values. As to the former, we have all seen pathetic attempts of people trying to establish group membership by using the right jargon or spouting the right attitudes, but everyone in the group knows they aren’t ever going to really be accepted. They’re too dumb, they know the words but not the music. No one wants to be that guy, though most of us have been at some point in our lives. We have also seen the second group, whose refusal to cut their hair (or grow it), It is deliciously ironic to read feminists sputtering about Sarah Palin’s hair and glasses (Why don’t you write to Vogue about it, dear), but it’s a very standard reading of clan totems. If you don’t display any clan totems, you shouldn’t be eligible to say “glass ceiling.” People are defending their turf as intently as any urban gang, they just do it with social controls instead of violent ones. Why should I blame them when I do similar things myself? When speakers misuse Bible imagery or phrasing to make a more secular point, the fur might rise on my back and I might give a little growl. If you can fake or force your way into my clan, then perhaps my own position is not safe. The credentials I thought were solid may not entitle me to a place by the fire anymore.

My tone is intentionally overserious for humorous effect, because it all really is both deadly serious and ridiculous. This is all very primitive and we should be able to override it once it is brought to our attention. But this desire for group identification is not merely vestgial, left over from generations of living in bands or villages of 70-150 people, it still operates today. We still do signal and bond in this way, and none of us wishes to be left out in the cold foraging for our food alone.

Related issue in an upcoming post.

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