Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Tug of War

What a funny name. It could be a hand-job that you get when you are on R&R, or that feeling that young people get when they think about joining the Army. Of course the other tug-of-war is where two teams hold on to a rope and pull as hard as they can in opposite directions. Ideally there is a mud pit in the middle. With or without mud pit, this is the one I’m thinking of today.

Now if you were expecting a segue from the mud pit tug-of-war to whatever is coming next, give it up. I promise I’ll connect back to it later. For now, get ready for a jolt. *Jolt* Ever since 9/11 I’ve been thinking a lot about the Big Ideas that divide my culture. Scientific Thought vs. Religious Dogma. Consumption vs. Conservation. Pacifism vs. Aggression. Globalization vs. Protectionism. Multiculturalism vs. Xenophobia. Security vs. Civil Rights. There are plenty more but those are some of the big ones.

Something I have noticed is that at any given point in time, each individual seems to come down squarely on one side or another of each of these spectra. Now because it is late, and I’m full of caffeine, and I am feeling particularly imbalanced from the fact that there is deodorant only under my left arm, I’m going to take a detour here. It has no deodorant because my cat licked it off while I was trying to write. For some reason my oldest cat considers licking the deodorant out of my right armpit one of the greatest pleasures in life. Eating deodorant can’t be good for him, but damned if it isn’t hard to write and fight him off at the same time. I guess that means that I’m going to use the TV as a babysitter later in life. I wonder if you can use the V-chip to block everything that isn’t R- or NC-17 rated. I clockwork-O my kids to make up for how my little sister raises hers. We could average out to normal. Or not. Maybe I could just stick with the armpit theme, smear honey under both arms and let the kids go to town while I enjoy the quiet and concentrate on my writing. I’m an optimist, obviously.

Okay, break’s over. So why do we not just take – but also actively encourage such polarized views? We even have sayings that glorify this. One of the most oft-repeated is “You either stand for something, or you stand for nothing.” Something or nothing? With me or against me? Check out this one from ol’ Teddy Roosevelt: “The pacifist is as surely a traitor to his country and to humanity as is the most brutal wrongdoer.”

Yargh. We are not only extremely polarized, but we kind of hate people that aren’t. Why would this be? And that is when I started to think of tug of war. And I remembered something my brother-in-law said about group estimates being particularly accurate. Here is what I think. Our crazy penchant for extreme views is by design. It is an evolved and probably very efficient way of reaching stable equilibria given the restrictions in the way we think and act. But forget that for a bit.

Let’s look at some other facts. Young humans are great at absorbing large amounts of data. That is kind of stage 1. We always learn from our direct experiences, but when we are very young we also pay a lot of attention to what our caregivers believe. In the absence of strong personal experiences young people typically draw their learning from primary caregivers. As we get a bit older - probably starting at 7 and ending around 11 or 12 we do a 180 degree turn and we focus our learning on our peers and social network. Almost obsessively. This starts to ebb for most people by age 17 or so. We then begin to formulate a largely persistent worldview. It can take up to 10 years or so but rarely takes longer. The timeline varies for each individual, but the order is the same for most. First we learn from our family, then we learn from our friends. All the while we learn directly from our environment. At the end of the primary learning we decide what makes sense give the set of direct and indirect learning, and there we tend to stay. An elephant never forgets.

From the point of view of social equilibrium, we learn to pick some tug-of-war games to focus on, and then we pick a side. Once we pick a side we rarely switch, and we tend to resent those that do. Look up the word traitor. But it is okay, because the game is constantly held in balance by new deciders choosing a team.

Now here is where my analogy gets muddy. The mud pit kind of represents the optimal societal equilibrium, because if the game is balanced to benefit us, the center of the rope is over the mud pit. But over time, the center has to move. For example, at one point in time peace is good (say in 1918), and at another war is good (1941). At other times, it is not clear at all (1971). So in 53 years the location of the mud pit shifts around, and the rope has to be pulled harder by one side or the other to keep the center of the rope above it.

It is 5:10AM, and even in my sleep deprived, catlicked, coffee-addled state of mind I can attack what I have written from several angles. But I’m going to finish anyway. I am now at my main point, which is an examination of this question: Why do we “decide” to structure the game of maintaining our society on tug-of-war games? The answer is that strong opposed forces not only balance each other, but they render relatively weak the influences of radicals.

If most people weren’t really interested in playing the Pacifism vs. Aggression game, for example, then one maniacal individual would have a much greater influence when he rushed up, grabbed the rope, and with a PCP-inspired intensity pulled until he dislocated both shoulders. But when there are 100 million people on each side it only takes a miniscule effort on the other side to counterbalance even a group of maniacs.

While individuals are trivial, individual leaders can be very important, because leaders convince other people to act in unison. In this model, some obvious exceptions to the trivial importance of non-leader individuals are creators of ideas, and assassins. Depending on the place and time, we can idealize or hate both idea-creators and assassins. An idea-creator can quickly or slowly change the balance of a game, or even break up a game – in effect he or she changes the model. An assassin interrupts the program that is running on the “computer” that is society by removing a leader. A leader is an important mechanism of computation in determining equilibrium.

It is late. I’ve barely supported a thing I’ve said, but light = late = done. I hope it made you think at least.