A good start would be masked vs. helmeted hooligans dressed in really bad 90's video game attire. Waging war on weekends in the public squares of Charlottesville, Seattle, Oakland, New York, and lately, Boston.
Those of us watching at home are asking why is this happening in America in 2017? According to The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, blame it on the way our magnificent brain is wired.
It might help if you think of our brain as a multiplex.
On one screen, a neolithic jungle creature competes for the high point of a skyscraper or a warm spot by the fire. He will destroy anyone who gets in the way. The individual is the hero.
In the second theater is a beehive going about its assigned duties. Should an invader threaten, anyone within striking distance is swarmed. The hive has the organizational ability of the Roman army. Productive in peace, devastating in combat. The group is what matters.
We Fear, Therefore We Survive
Thousands of years ago, in desolate habitats, nature had reason to endow us with fiercely competitive instincts. Survival depended on our ability to summon ruthless behavior. Today, we call this losing our temper.
Fierceness in battle isn’t natural. It requires hateful rage we learned in the jungle to coexist with helpful cooperation of the hive. One intensifies the attack, while the other makes us competent. According to Haidt, to ensure survival, nature made us ape like and hive-like.
There was a trade off for our vaunted survival skills. Without any irony, under the right circumstances, our species is capable of producing Adolph Hitler in 1889, and Nelson Mandela, 29 years later in 1918.
Fear and Loathing
There was a famous commercial with the tagline, “don’t argue with mother nature,” but here is an exception. She neglected a way to distinguish real danger from bravado. If everything is treated as a threat to our survival, there are stark consequences.
It explains why Kim Jong Un provokes such raw emotion. We feel rage because he is disrespectful and because he threatens our country, we fear him collectively.
Then, of course, it might be the haircut.
The Mob Has Spoken
While our ‘hivy’ness carries a sense of ‘we are all together,’ but it also leads to holocausts. Stalin and Mao’s decimation of over 50 million of their own people was brought about more by ‘hive’ than ‘jungle’ hate.
Like its jungle cousin, a beehive lacks control. Once the mob sets its sights on a challenger, inside or out, it will seek total destruction. When Bernie Sanders chose to endorse rather than compete with Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary campaign, you can be sure the hive was buzzing loudly in his ear, “you better do this for the party.”
When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, he was not trying to change the world. He was hoping to end the sale of indulgences or box seats in heaven.
The Pope was investing in an infrastructure project much admired today, called St. Peter’s Basilica. The only way to raise the money was through the sale of indulgences, just as they also paid for the artwork of Michelangelo and Raphael.
Buying your way into heaven did not sit well with a young German professor of theology named Martin Luther. He wasn’t getting anywhere with his complaints so he nailed his 95 theses on the door of University of Wittenberg. (A side note, Martin Luther King, Sr. changed both his given birth name and his son’s, the great American civil rights activist, from “Mike” to Martin Luther).
The Church, like all groupthinkers, wanted to discourage contrary opinion and excommunicated Luther. The Reformation led to an alternative belief called Protestantism and ended the Church’s 1,000 year monopoly on Christianity.
The story proves a salient point: the hive will do anything to ‘out’ nonconformists, including risking its own survival.
Initially, it seems like a smart thing.
Haidt points out that groups like the Spartans in ancient Greece or the German Wehrmacht were sublime soldiers largely because they were taught cooperative behaviors by the group. The hive gave them the skill to destroy any opponent. What it didn’t give them was an ability to think for themselves when the hive was wrong.
Even more alarming, the ‘hivy’ feeling also blinds the group to moral conflicts. The value of the hive is its sensitivity to the safety of its people, but that leads it to treat everyone outside as an existential threat. And in the role of defender, it is capable of unthinkable acts of atrocity.
Which is why it is so good at winning, at least initially. Group discipline brings early success over unprepared opponents, invites more recruits, more carnage, and yields early victories. It is miracle grow for jihadists like ISIS, and explains why they are so hard to defeat after gathering scale.
It Takes a Leader
When we act in concert with others to achieve noble ends, it leads to happiness and well-being without discrimination or antagonism. Engagements such as family philanthropy, community and school activities or college football and many religious groups achieve these ends while being bound to a group. You can love your team without hoping the other team’s bus crashes after the game.
The trick for our species is learning to control our natural tendencies of hive centered compassion and jealousy of turf towards outsiders. By doing so, we can energize profoundly useful outcomes, find our collective moral compass, and as Lincoln said, discover the better angels of our nature.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela and other greats led in this way.
Under that kind of leadership, we can safely get hooked on being us.