A pretty bad thing, by most objective measures, and more bad things are undoubtedly waiting in the wings.
We need to talk about it. And we need to do a better job of talking about it than we’ve been doing.
In the years since my matriculation in evolutionary psychology, I’ve grown pretty damned skeptical of many of its core tenets, methodologies, and conceptual schemata. One element I continue to find valuable, however, is the notion of environmental mismatch and behavioral misfire: the idea that apparently bizarre or maladaptive behaviors can be reckoned–indeed, explained–as adaptive to some environment other than the one with which the behavers are presently engaged. For the evolutionary psychologists, this other environment is, invariably, the EEA: the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. But it needn’t be this, and in what follows I’d like to consider the idea of mismatch more generally.
That the perceived world often differs from the real world is hardly controversial. But the world-as-perceived never seems to play much of an explanatory role in standard narratives about the resurgence of the radical right. Many of our self-appointed cultural oracles have regarded such as attitudes and behaviors as intemperate but ultimately rationally tractable reactions to their practitioners’ extant material circumstances. So Trump support doesn’t really stem from bigotry but from economic discontent in sectors like manufacturing–this despite the fact that the unemployment rate in manufacturing has been decreasing since 2010 and has been lower than the rate for the country as a whole for the past four years. On the other hand, the alternative, far left, take that this support stems from a deep well of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, etc. is likely quite incomplete—at least insofar as it treats these attitudes merely as long dormant demons only recently enabled, rather than created, by the current political climate.
There are elements of truth to both of these explanations, but only elements. What the conservatives and classical liberals get right is that this phenomenon is primarily reactive, rather than proactive, and what the progressives get right is that it has much more to do with identity than with economics.
The world as perceived by many Trump supporters is a world in which white people—and white men in particular—have become an oppressed minority. A world in which “white” and “man” have become slurs, a world in which one’s pale skin and Y chromosome have become barriers to public discourse and participation, invitations to censure and ridicule. Dr. Arlie Hochschild, a social psychologist who spent five years in immersive ethnographic study of the Tea Party and nascent pro-Trump movements, describes their worldview as follows:
You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs. (Source: Mother Jones)
Now, to any member of an actual oppressed group (and to many others besides), this view will seem ludicrously out of step with reality, or at least grossly incomplete. Regardless, we all need to start reckoning honestly with the fact that, however wrong, this is what Trump supporters sincerely believe. On this matter, I think it is the far left that has too often fallen into the error of explaining (or dismissing) this support by sole reference to theactual material conditions of the supporters. Because these folks, blue collar though they may often be, are still considerably advantaged over e.g., poor urban minorities, their claims of marginalization are apt to be regarded as not merely untruths but as outright lies, as moves in some cynical ploy to shore up existing privilege.
But Hochschild, for one, has little doubt about the sincerity of these people, and I’ve come away with the same impression from my own encounters with and observations of them. When these folks talk among each other, they’re not reveling in their privileges; they’re complaining, much as they do publicly, about the endless perceived threats to their ways of life. Plenty of others have also taken note of this sincerity, but the moral and practical takeaways from their expeditions in Trump’s America seldom go much beyond calls to greater empathy. Empathy is important, of course, but I think we can—and must—do more. The doing, however, will demand we first get a better handle on why and how these folks came to view themselves as such beleaguered underdogs in their world, even–and especially–when they aren’t.
There’ll be plenty of fingers pointed at the usual suspects: Fox News, Breitbart, fire ‘n brimstone pastors. And yes, these parties have been gleefully feeding the marginalization narrative for years, but this cannot be the whole story. And yes, in the weeks to follow, we’ll undoubtedly hear from many centrists and old school liberals that the intemperate rhetoric of the activist left was to blame, silencing and shaming and scaring away potential white allies. Members of the far left, in turn will excoriate the free-speech-before-all-else center for their fetishization of “civil discourse” and the legitimization of bigotry to which it has allegedly led.
For my part, I recommend we all take a step back and look not at the seed or the planters but at the soil. The above are explanations pitched broadly at the social and cultural level; their explanandum is the behavior of Trump supporters as a group, and the causes entertained are exclusively the actions of other groups or institutions. Inveterate reductionist that I am, however, I think we’d be well served to also start considering potential psychological causes operating at the individual or lower levels. Permit me, then, in the spirit of my former field of study, a bit of just-so storytelling (I promise this will all be relevant in the end).
On Hierarchy: A Theory-Sketch
Social hierarchy in H. sapiens actually presents a bit of an evolutionary puzzle. Now, plenty of primates form hierarchies (including even bonobos, despite the romanticizing of certain lazy science journalists), and it’s common to hear from redpillers, MRAs, PUAs, neo-reactionaries, and similar types that this sort of social arrangement is a natural state of affairs, a part of human nature that it would be calamitous to suppress. Prima facie, though, this claim sits rather uncomfortably beside the fact that extant hunter-gatherer societies tend to be fiercely egalitarian. Now, hunting and gathering on the African savanna is how we spent 99.8% of our uniquely human natural history; the challenges posed by this subsistence strategy were chief among the selection pressures that took our brains from roughly chimp-sized to their modern proportions. If any social arrangement could claim evolutionary default status in our species, then it would seem to be egalitarianism, not hierarchy.
Nevertheless, social hierarchies reliably emerge as soon as individuals are able to store substantial amounts of resources (often this coincides with a shift toward agriculture or pastoralism, but it needn’t—the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest were traditionally a sedentary and hierarchical h-g society). So what’s going on here? Why would a species apparently finely adapted for egalitarianism form hierarchies so readily when material conditions allow for it?
I’ll withhold the long argument here, but what the above suggests to me is that both egalitarianism and hierarchy are products of the operations of simpler neuropsychological processes or–though I’m wary of using the word–mechanisms. I think there are many such processes, but I want to draw particular attention to the following three:
(1). We will fight desperately for our “fair” share of both material resources and social approval.
In h-g groups, hunting is usually cooperative and meat sharing is widespread. Now, imagine you’re living in such a group and you notice that your neighbor has received a significantly larger share than you. Assuming you both have equivalent dietary needs and given that your group does not store this resource (making any excess your neighbor receives worthless to him), his getting more than you likely means you aren’t getting enough. Since the lack of food storage means h-gs are never very far from starvation, this is a situation that requires prompt corrective action. I suspect this is why we have such a powerful negative emotional response to even relatively trivial instances of unfairness/injustice. In the environment of our uniquely human evolution, the equitable distribution of resources was a matter of life and death.
And we treat social approval similarly, whether due to natural selection or mere classical conditioning, because it would have been a reliable predictor of resource allocation. If you were in good standing with your fellows, you could reasonably expect to get your fair share and would be more likely to have success in pleading your case when you didn’t get it.
(2). We emotionally habituate to our current circumstances.
Hopefully this won’t be controversial. I don’t wish to commit myself here to any particular model of this process (e.g., Solomon’s Opponent-Process Theory), but only to note that it’s a well-attested psychological phenomenon. Even amoebae habituate.
(3). We assess our material and social standings via comparison to those nearest or most similar to us.
Here too I doubt the claim will raise many eyebrows. The people we’re going to regard as part of our community are the people we see and interact with regularly. In small h-g bands, everyone constitutes the local community, but in larger, more stratified societies, the privileged will tend to mingle most with their own kind; likewise for the underprivileged.
The principal interest lies in the joint operations of these processes. In an environment which allows little to no accumulation of resources, everyone polices everyone else and the aggregate upshot of these individual demands for a fair share will be a social arrangement in which resources are distributed roughly equally. But what will happen when, say, horticulture (and later agriculture) takes over as the primary means of subsistence and substantial amounts of valuable resources can now be stored? For one, adequate food production will come to depend less on the coordinated cooperation of the entire group. The population will also grow as the group of necessity becomes more sedentary. These two developments will make it more difficult for any one individual to monitor and police the distribution of both resources and social approval. Theft will become possible, and so notions of private property to guard against it will become necessary. Sub-communities will form, based first on proximity and later on wealth, and people within a given sub-community will compete with each other for additional resources with all the fierceness and desperation with which their h-g forebears clamored for their fair share of meat. Political reality will come to reflect and recapitulate economic reality, and so there will soon be chiefs, kings, god-kings, lower ruling classes, etc.
I am, of course, abridging and simplifying a great deal. The point I’m trying to make at this juncture is simply that the same psychological forces that reinforce egalitarianism in conditions of scarcity can reinforce hierarchy in conditions of plenty (it’s worth noting, as further proof of concept, that well-structured hierarchies have been observed to emerge spontaneously under certain material conditions even in species that are not typically social).
But let’s flash forward to modern times and see if we can’t paint a clearer picture.
Consider: A white cis-het dude is born into an upper middle class home in an upper middle class neighborhood. He attends an upper middle class school, befriends other upper middle class dudes, gets a business or finance or tech degree, and duly enters the world of white collar employment. On a surface level, perhaps, he knows that he’s in good shape materially, but his emotional calibration is still that of a hunter-gatherer forever only a few unlucky days away from starvation. I don’t mean to suggest that this calibration constitutes anything like an unconscious belief. I don’t think it has any propositional content. It’s simply that case that, under the conditions in which whatever is uniquely human about our brains evolved, those individuals with stable dispositions to respond forcefully and effectively when they perceived others receiving more resources tended to survive much better than those without such dispositions. And there would have been no need, until perhaps very, very recently (too little time, evolutionarily speaking), to augment these dispositions with any sort of contextual sensitivity. The explanation here is roughly analogous to that of why we crave sugars and fats to such a (now) unhealthy degree: These nutrients were sufficiently rare in the ancestral environment that we never needed a motivational architecture capable of anything more subtle than compelling us to gobble them up wherever and whenever we found them.
So our dudebro’s attention will be primarily taken up with those similar to him (i.e., those in his local community) and particularly those whom he perceives to be better off than he is, for these are the people it would have been most ancestrally important to monitor. Raising his status relative to theirs will feel, in some sense, like a life and death affair. And so it will be for each of his competitors as well, and we’ll thus have a feedback loop. Meanwhile, those who actually live with their backs against the void will be, for all practical purposes, ignored by these people.
So it will be, I suspect, for just about any contemporary hierarchy. Those not explicitly structured by material resources will be structured instead by what was, ancestrally, their nearest proxy: social prestige. And the means of attaining social prestige will, of course, depend upon the values of the local community within which the hierarchy is instantiated. What makes privilege blindness so tricky to combat, I submit, is that its basis is not merely a lack of awareness but a powerfully skewed focus. No one feels privileged, whatever the reality of their situation, because the people that serve as the comparata by which one determines one’s social standing are always disproportionately people who are better off/better regarded than oneself.
Now, this was an example from the white collar world. Let’s return to the working class. Consider Dr. Hochschild’s narrative in light of the above. For the blue collar Trump supporter, those better off and better regarded are the educated liberals, the celebrities and media elites, the President, and those they champion—viz., African Americans, women, Muslims, Latin American immigrants, people of LGBTQ orientations, etc. They see these people as the beneficiaries of unfairly special treatment. Remember, they are not looking behind them, at those worse off, at the long histories of oppression and disenfranchisement. They are looking at the Affirmative Action hires and welfare recipients. They are looking at the unfaithful wife or girlfriend whom other women rush to defend from slut shaming. They see special parades held for the non-straight, entire months dedicated to non-white history. There hear “(Only) Black Lives Matter” rather than “Black Live Matter (Too).”
And they hear that it is now their moral duty to step aside for these line-cutters. They hear that their voices (what voices? they wonder) have been heard for long enough and that it’s time for them to be quiet now. They hear that their whiteness alone has made them racist from birth (they didn’t, of course, get the memo about the distinction between structural racism and racism qua explicit attitude). And this is all just so much more insult to (perceived) injury.
This, then, is our great moral quandary. Members of the far right are in a psychological survival mode no less intense than that of so many of the marginalized on the far left. But most of those on the far right are not in fact in equivalently perilous situations (this isn’t, of course, to say they’re all fine and dandy). The perceived world to which they are reacting is incomplete and heavily distorted by the operations of the above-canvassed processes. For their counterparts on the far left it matters little for the accuracy of their worldview that their focus is primarily captured by those better off; most of their fellow citizens are in fact better off. But this selective capture may have just led those on the right to vote in a disaster far greater than the one they think they’re currently facing.
How do we correct this skewed picture? Unfortunately, I don’t have a very clear idea at the moment. We need to better understand how these processes operate if we’re to successfully marshal them to the service of truth and goodness. A younger me would have put his trust in the persuasive power of rational argumentation, but…well. It is possible, of course, that the very real harm likely to be done to marginalized people under a Trump presidency will effect a temporary reorientation of focus and allow his supporters to see their relative position in greater perspective. But the ways in which news and information are now ideologically filtered and curated leave me little hope on this count. For every story of, say, white-on-black violence likely to reach the ears of Trump supporters, they will have heard ten previous stories of black-on-white violence and five on hoaxes and false flags.
While it’s yet unclear how we can best go about fixing this, it’s a good deal clearer how we can make things worse. Unfortunately, this is as much prediction as it is proscription.
How to Feed Disaster
Many members of (actual) marginalized groups are very scared right now, and justifiably so. Centrist liberals, not being in a survival mode of near comparable intensity, will insist on a long-term strategy involving outreach to and accommodation of Trump supporters, a strategy that, as they might put it, eschews the divisive rhetoric of identity politics and restores the free and open exchange of ideas–all ideas–to pride of place in civic discourse. The supreme cruelty of the reality of our present situation, however, is that the costs and risks of any strategy along these lines will be borne disproportionately by the actually marginalized. And the marginalized, of course, know this. For the ideas allowed and legitimated by debate in the public sphere would have to include: the idea that black men really are more dangerous; the idea that gay people are mentally ill; the idea that trans people don’t really exist, and so on.
So the progressive wing will push back against this strategy–indeed, they’re already doing so. And a few of the bolder among the centrists will claim that the far left in fact ought to bear the greater burden of reconciliation because, they will insist, the far left bears the greater share of responsibility for the alienation of Trump supporters. The progressives, already convinced that the right is beyond discursive engagement, will increasingly view the centrists similarly. Suspicions that “white ally” and “feminist man” are in fact contradictions in terms will flourish. The centrists, perhaps beginning to feel as denigrated and ostracized as actual Trump supporters, will duly live down to these deflated expectations and the outcome will be a hopelessly balkanized left unable to unite behind any future candidate.
Meanwhile, Democratic leadership, still hopelessly embubbled, absorbs all the wrong lessons from its defeat and decides that the key to victory is running a famous egomaniacal prick. And so we’ll be stuck with a Trump v. West matchup in 2020 (I hope I’m at least being hyperbolic on this point).
How to Maybe Put Disaster on a Diet
The unfortunate truth is likely that the centrists are right about there being a causal connection between progressive activism and right wing reactionism. But the centrists assume without argument that this is sufficient for blame, and it’s worth remembering that the reaction did not happen in a vacuum but against the backdrop of a powerfully skewed picture of the reactionaries’ true social standing. There’s a question of moral buck-passing here, and I’m convinced it’s actually an incredibly difficult and important one. The question arises in any situation with the following structure:
An agent, A, performs or contemplates performing some action which, assessed in isolation, furthers the moral good. However, a second agent, B, averse to this action, performs or vows to perform some counteraction with a negative moral impact of larger absolute value than A’s initial action. This counteraction is foreseeable by A.
Who bears responsibility for what B does? Different moral theories are apt to give different answers to this question, and I suspect our pretheoretical intuitions will not be unanimous across all real-world instantiations of the dilemma. Considered only in the abstract, this may seem a philosophical trifle, but this abstract structure can be found in a large number of particularly thorny contemporary moral problems, so we need to start addressing it squarely. For the moment, it may be less important that we get the right answer as that we get an answer that the centrist and progressive wings of the left can broadly agree upon. That would at least give us one useful tool for adjudicating likely future strategic or tactical disputes.
Now, centrists may be less than inclined to see progressive activism as an example of agent A’s good-in-a-vacuum action because their prevailing image of the progressive is still the coddled millennial whose obsession with political correctness, safe spaces, and demographic identity is itself an expression of the sort of luxuriant privilege they play at criticizing. To such centrists I can only advise that they practice a bit of the empathy they’ve been preaching. It’s an old cliche that the extreme ends of the political spectrum resemble each other more than either resembles the center. While there are certainly similarities in the levels of psychological desperation out of which Trump support and progressive activism arise, this should not be taken to suggest that the desperation is for each group similarly grounded (or ungrounded) in reality. To speak only briefly on progressive identity politics: the marginalized individual is not obsessing over her identity in an effort to advertise herself as some special snowflake. She obsesses over it because others are already obsessing over it. Since she doesn’t look or behave like the majority, she hasn’t the luxury of a member of the majority of eschewing definitions based on group membership, of letting her recognized identity be shaped wholly by her work, her interests, or the particulars of her personality. She’s going to be put in boxes in the minds of most of her fellows, whether she likes it or not; the most she can do in light of this fact is to claim for herself the choice of which boxes she goes into.
The larger point is that at this juncture it’s probably more important to build and fortify bridges within the left than between the left and the Trumpian right. The centrists ought to be prepared to make the greater share of good faith effort here, for they have more luxury to do so than their counterparts. The progressives, for their part, need to be willing to work with the centrists on something like a common vocabulary (there’s been far too much talking past one another on the issues that divide these camps) and a common set of standards for the evaluation of arguments and policy proposals. We need clearer answers not just concerning moral dilemmas like the one discussed above, but about, e.g., the kinds and extents of epistemic advantage different forms of marginalization are taken to afford. Many progressives have grown wary of attempts to articulate universal standards or principles, having observed that many projects flying the banner of universalism in the past ended up primarily or only reflecting the values and interests of the powerful. This skepticism is understandable, but a de facto relativism is no foundation for a successful sociopolitical movement–or for much of anything else, for that matter. We need a clearer articulation (and defense!) of the moral and epistemic principles that are to animate and guide our efforts against the catastrophe ahead of us, and we need to ensure that marginalized people are equal coauthors of these principles. This needs to be a proper group project.
Alas, I don’t nurture much hope of this happening. It’s hard not to see deeper and deeper division and epistemic isolationism in the years ahead. In truth, the best feasible long-term outcome may depend very little on what the left does. It may simply require that Trump’s presidency be so disastrous that it harms and terrifies even his erstwhile supporters (not a terribly remote possibility), buying us all, after the smoke clears, at least another generation or two soberer politics.