Culture

Why the backlash to change as a rational outcome continues to be underestimated and misunderstood

I

Imagine you're an ornithologist. Someone who specialises in looking at and identifying the unique characteristics of, say, finches. Finches are your life. From graduate school onwards, since you saw those tiny beaks, that's been your world.

You corner people at parties and tell them about the family Fringillidae. You talk about how their beaks have adapted to eating seeds and nuts, and that they're often highly colourful. You talk about how they're actually everywhere, except for Australia and the poles. You talk about how there are over 200+ species of finches, and while other bird families also have birds called finches, they're not the real finches.

You talk about how Darwin's sketches of finches is what kickstarted evolution, when he saw them in the Galapagos islands. You talk about the fact that while 'Darwin's finches' are famous, actually he failed to label the finches he collected there well enough, which meant he had to rely on pigeons to develop his famous theory.

You talk about how they were used in the coal mining industry, alongside canaries, although 'finches in the coalmine' never caught on as a phrase. You talk about how this wasn't some ancient history, but happened as recently as 1986.

But late in your career you realise that one species of finch, let's say the mangrove finch, is facing total extinction. They are only present on one island, and they're not particularly prone to further speciation for whatever reason. It might be because of the prevalence of flies in the island. Female flies sometimes lay eggs in finch nests, and induce pathogens that are harmful.

The Galapagos finches started as one species and has evolved to close to 20, around 3 to 5 million years ago. Some of them, like the mangrove finch, are particularly at risk from the parasitic flies.

Imagine you're the ornithologist who spent her life trying to learn about these magnificent birds, and one of them is going extinct. It's not that the one going extinct is particularly cute, or special, in some way. It's not the bird equivalent of the Giant Panda, where its inherent cuddliness makes it a perennial fan favourite.

But there's still this pang that hits you. A feeling of sadness that something is bound to 'not exist' anymore. It's not because extinction by itself is in some sense 'bad'. It's not a moralistic standpoint where subtraction is seen as inherently a horrible thing. There have been plenty of extinction events in the past, and it's an integral part of how life and the ecosystem evolves. Without these events, there would be no growth. But still …

II

Cultures mix together all the time. The political commentary is filled with columns about how there's a cultural war, how the shift and mix in cultures is what causes societal friction, and how various communications platforms amplify the division.

If you were a bacteria, you could look at the growth curve that emerges from various types of mixing, from pure exploitation to mutualism to competition, and see the impact that mixing has on your culture. I'm not sure if I should apologise for the pun yet, but that's part of another cultural mix, though the key idea that growth in a mixed culture can be seen as an outcrop of growth and competition models is a rather apt metaphor.

There's an underlying philosophy that seems like an article of faith that something important has been lost. That the society today is decadent, that there's a big gap between what people feel like they are missing vs what is actually going on.

Since cultural adaptation is supposed to be the superpower of humans, allowing us to live in unnatural habitats like Siberia, the Sahara or New York, the pace of adaptation is naturally critically important. In fact, an analysis by Charles Perreault showed that "Biological rates (black circles) and cultural rates (gray squares) are inversely correlated to the interval of the time over which the rates are measured."

You could look at the pace of cultural evolution and social change, there are indications that some of them like same-sex marriage or abortion might even be occurring faster.

There are a number of possible reasons that people feel this is happening. One hypothesis is that the mixing of multiple cultures creates an internal frisson within the society. Another is that the economic deterioration of a large swathe of the country created a renewed sense of anger and frustration. This spills over into arguments about immigration, into arguments about societal identities, about racial identities, and more!

It feels like a large part of the country feels the way the ornithologist felt about the impending doom of the finches. An amorphous feeling of sadness that permeates their very being. It sometimes feels as if what's being debated are offshoots of the symptoms rather than the underlying cause.

Just like in a domestic argument, a conversation about this tends to create a bunch of sub-branches of topics to explore. One thing leads to another leads to another. None of the individual statements are entirely wrong, even though they all contain, at most, only a nugget of truth that's just covered with a whole lot of emotions.

But it's extremely difficult to unwrap this. You can only look at how the world presents itself to you. Sometimes the symptoms which seem like they are explanatory about the phenomena are nothing of the sort.

For example, we know that a large number of people who voted for Obama also voted for Trump. One's America's first black President. Another is widely looked upon as one of the most racist caricatures to run for office in the modern day. So while it might be true that there are racists who support Trump, that doesn't explain his support. You might have to look a little deeper and see what it might be that led someone who voted previously for Obama to change their mind.

Of course that's not everybody. But it doesn't need to be. It's easy to look at cases like anger, or racism, or even economic reform, as immediate triggers to make a decision. Some people might even believe it about themselves. But it's also worth asking why those who do seem to be voting for these disparate sets of actual policy beliefs all seem to share in a very similar style of anger.

That anger surely isn't a prescription of any sort.

We saw the exact same thing happen across the pond when the UK voted for a completely amorphous ideology of Brexit. Was it because of the fake promises written on the side of a bus? I'm sure it was influential in turning a marginal vote or two. But believing that is also believing that a large number of people were just bamboozled. Or that they are idiots who voted against their self interest.

Again, even if that turns out to be the case, it's not the whole story. It can't be. Because the feeling of despondence amongst the voters is palpable.

Sometimes a feeling of loss can be a powerful motivator, even if it’s not an intellectual policy prescription or an actual remedy. People can, and do, act on their emotions, and not just because they were fooled into it.

III

I spoke with a good friend of mine who lives far away enough from the US about his views on the election. He had highly sympathetic points of view about Trump. Not because he supported his policies, or even liked the man. In fact even when you talk with people who did vote for Trump, or who support him, they realise that the things he says are offensive. They know that as a person he is boorish and malevolent.

But the thought process goes like this - "we're unable to believe in the media to report on things even handedly. They only seem to care about engagement and clicks. So when you see that they are mostly on one side, it casts that side into suspicion. After all, it's not like corruption or venality is the sole provenance of Donald Trump. This has come about because the entire system is corrupt. And even though Trump is corrupt as well, he brings the corruption out into the open, and can be a force to tear down the whole system, rather than insidiously eating it from the inside."

I have to admit, that's an elegant argument. It doesn't even have much that is factually incorrect inside it. But the logic train is one of despair. It puts together a story of things falling apart, and creates a narrative where the options are 'quiet corruption as usual' or 'burn the system down'.

It implicitly assumes that there is no third option. There is no way to build something new. There is no constructive engagement.

It believes that the system is doomed. Maybe it will be forestalled by a sensible administration, but the underlying divisions are deep enough and corrosive enough that there doesn't seem to be a future that anyone feels worth fighting for.

And when there is nothing worth fighting for, when there seems to be no way of actually improving everyone's lot, then of course you fight for taking as much for yourself as you can.

Hope is a strategy. That's the strategy that gave the office of the President to one of the best statesmen of our era. But it didn't seem to be enough. He couldn't reform the system. His best accomplishments were, and continue to be, mere inches away from being demolished, reliant on the goodwill of judges and voices of some activists to stay alive. That doesn't feel like leadership.

Leadership can't just be about asking others to take responsibility and relying on the good nature of fellow beings to make progress. That has never been true. And never more so than right now. When the populace feels hard done by, when there is a clear undercurrent of dissatisfaction amongst a large enough contingent, when there is a feeling of disenfranchisement, when there is a feeling of a vague sense of loss, there is no turning back.

The way out of the morass has to do with understanding this feeling of loss. It doesn't need an elegy, but it does need an acknowledgement. Without that, the way forward will always be impeded by the fact that both sides will impute bad moral reasoning on each other. Neither will think the other is arguing in good faith, and that's just not conducive to a conversation.

There has to be a common base that's established, and it won't be done on the basis of proving the other side lacks logic or have bad faith actors. After all, nobody's perfect, and for most folks it's more important to feel right in most things than to be right. And this isn't even something that's moronic at its face. Our entire human and evolutionary conditioning has honed our instincts to be our primary weapon of discernment. We're not to be blamed for the fact that our tools are inadequate to our situation.

Yes, we need to work harder to overcome those. Yes, we need to do the hard work of trying to bring folks together. And yes, we need to try and build on a foundation built together. But that can't happen when we don't trust each other.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear of loss even more so. Until that's fully internalised, all hopes of reconciliation and common ground will only be a mirage. In good times we can learn to ignore the fear. In bad times it will rear its ugly head back up again. But recognising its existence is a good first step.