The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Age of Compliance

This is a small thing, but it’s one I keep noticing.

When the crossing light is red, and there are no cars nearby, I am the only person who crosses the street against the light.

When I was in my 20s, back in the 80s and early 90s, I was not the only one.

I find this rule-obeying when it makes little sense disturbing. This just was not the case when I was young. It was even less the case in the 70s when I was a child.

People are obeying rules when the rules make little sense.

I notice this in general, but somehow it strikes me most on the street, perhaps because I’m the one not obeying the rule.

Now this is in Canada, and in Ontario, and doubtless it’s different elsewhere. (I know it is.) But I have noticed it fairly often in better neighbourhoods in the US as well.

It feels to me like we in Canada and the US have internalized the rules in a way we hadn’t before; we obey even when there is no reason to, and no risk of being caught or punished.

That isn’t a good thing, even if you think traffic rules should always be obeyed.

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  1. bob mcmanus

    Okay, I was thinking about stripmalls, but…
    …I live in a residential neighborhood with four schools, and somehow I don’t want a six or twelve yr old watching an old man cross against the light. Am I thinking of or more aware of others/Other than I was fifty years ago, and does the increase in heterogeneity and difference and communication also increase the degree and complexity of the networks of internalized relationships I use as heuristics? By me. I also don’t want to use the word “wog” and consider “Native Americans” vs “Indians” vs “First Nations” although I can barely imagine an encountering a real occasion in which it might matter.

    Fordist Age, age of discipline and punish and surveilance and panopticon, has, as predicted by Foucault and DeleuzeGuatteri, moved into the Control Society where those technologies are no longer needed. Residuals remain, but are no longer effective, and are partly nostalgic. I think everything I do at least online is being monitored and recorded, but nobody has resources time cares enough to do anything about my illegal but social activities, example illegal weed.

    Are we more aware of creating our socials than we were fifty years ago? I feel my saying “You’re welcome” at the drivethrough window as an act of individuality and freedom rather than obedience. But those who say what they want without worrying it like a bone at least have a little more free time.

    (Stripmalls. I live in a suburb of miles of strips in all directions. I was thinking that McDonalds doesn’t create this wasteland, but thousands of franchisers create it with their hopes and dreams and access to resources. After twenty years I have a relationship with the family who runs Jack-in-the-Box. This is not a right wing celebration of entrepreneurship, but a recognition that societies are built groundup. As the OP discusses)

  2. Adams

    I too cross against the light. Also drive through red lights when there is no reason not to, as late at night when no other traffic present. I have done this since learning to drive over fifty years ago. As a teen I also was fascinated by the insouciance and passivity and complicity in Hitler’s Germany. Read Shirer. Speer etc..

    The increase in the number of traffic lights where a stop sign is perfectly adequate, and the proliferation of curbs, medians, etc. to channel traffic seem symptomatic of broader regimentation and bureaucratization. This trend is perhaps related to, e.g., proliferation and militarization of local domestic police. Not a conspiracy but a manifestation of a culture where citizens are not paying attention to where we are going.

    I am currently on a Carribean Island. The roads are narrow and twisty and go up and down over hills and ravines. Everyone drives like a batouttahell. There are virtually no traffic lights, only traffic circles. Traffic keeps moving. Everyone is awake. No one on their cell or texting or putting on their make up. I am sure there are accidents, but I’ve been driving here a week and haven’t seen one yet.

    Perhaps a small thing, maybe not.

  3. Ian Welsh

    Crossed against the light or jaywalked all the time as a kid, too. Never was a problem.

    Probably because adults taught me something even more important than “obey the lights”.

    They taught me “look right, then look left.”

    “Think of the kiddies” is how all sorts of stuff is made to seem OK.

  4. Herman

    Thank you for writing about this, Ian. I have been saying this to people in real life and they think I am nuts because of the belief that we are living in a hedonistic society. I find the opposite to be true. People are much more conformist and rigid now compared to the 1990s and 1980s. People are more domesticated and law-abiding now. Most people like Steven Pinker think this is a good thing but I think it is a sign that people, particularly the young, are being socialized to be compliant and easily ruled.

    The situation is worse among the youth. For all of the complaining about young people being hedonistic today, young folks are actually much less rebellious and much less likely to party than older generations were when they were young. For example, 20 or 30 years ago I remember there were house parties almost every weekend. Even if you were older and not in attendance you knew about them because you would hear and see the commotion. Now they seem to be very rare.

    I think there are a number of factors at play. One is technology. Surveillance tech is now ubiquitous. There are cameras everywhere. It used to be that they were largely limited to places like banks and stores but now they are all over the place, including on the street which might explain why people are more likely to obey traffic rules even when it makes no sense and breaking them won’t harm anyone. People are afraid of getting caught by the new traffic cameras.

    Also, smartphones have made it so that you are even under surveillance from other citizens. It is not just the government you have to worry about, you have to worry about some jerk with a smartphone recording you and snitching on you or posting something embarrassing online that might get you in trouble with your employer or your friends/family. You now have to be very careful about how you behave in public.

    The encouragement of snitching is another issue. People are being socialized to turn each other in to the authorities. This goes way beyond being an altruistic whistleblower. Programs like D.A.R.E., which was started in the 1980s, encouraged kids to snitch on their peers and even their parents if they were drug users. Today we have stuff like “call-out culture” and doxing where people publicly humiliate you online or try to get you fired from your job. This sort of behavior was considered disgusting by most ordinary people until about maybe 10 or 15 years ago.

    Neoliberalism also promotes excessive conformity and compliance by keeping people on an economic hot seat. Young people could afford to be rebellious in the 1960s and 1970s because it was easier to get a good job. You could go through a hippie phase and jump right back into society and you were likely to get at least a decent job. Now one mistake can cost you your entire future. Technology has made it much easier for employers to find out about any blemishes on your record. People know this so they are less likely to rebel and more likely to be compliant.

    I could go on and talk about the impact of helicopter parenting, the idea of “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” which became prevalent after 9/11 and other factors but this post is probably too long already. Readers might want to check out Jean Twenge’s writings on the decline of rebelliousness and social life among young people:

    Also check out this study on the rise of perfectionist behavior among young people following the rise of neoliberalism and social media:

    Again, thank you for writing about this issue. You are one of the very few writers I know who actually acknowledges that we are in an era of extreme conformity and that it is likely a bad thing. If you are hoping for radical political and social change this is a very worrying sign. Conformist, compliant people don’t rebel.

  5. Ian Welsh

    Yes, Herman, I agree on every point, especially about the increase in general surveillance.

  6. Ed

    There’s also much stronger social pressure for conformity than when I was a child in the seventies. Some of it is obvious. Some of it is subtle.

    When I was seven, I walked to school and the streets were filled with kids. We watched out for each other. When my kids walk to school today, they’re the only kids walking. All the others are being dropped off by their parents in a car. There’s a subtle pressure built into that to not let them walk alone.

    But the more overt challenges are intervention by others. When I was seven, I was allowed to take the bus five miles to the library by myself (and this was pre-cell phones, so I only had money for a pay phone if there were problems). If I were to let my own children do it today, someone would call the cops.

    The “protect the children” hysteria that politicians use to impose draconian laws has seeped enough into the culture that it’s very hard to let our children learn to protect themselves. We’re fighting against the culture instead of working with it.

  7. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    “Neoliberalism also promotes excessive conformity and compliance by keeping people on an economic hot seat.”


    This is the real reason reactionary McDucks don’t want universal basic income and/or other means of guaranteeing the necessities of civilized life to all.

    It’s not the pittance of extra taxes they would pay. They’d never miss that money.

    It’s because if you can have everything you really need without a job, and only work for luxuries, being fired isn’t much of a threat. Indeed, you might even decide you don’t need the luxuries, and would rather be free and leisurely, and quit on your own initiative.

    It just breaks their flinty little hearts that they can’t have slaves any more like the old Southern oligarchs, or disposable, technically “free”, de facto slaves like the old Northern oligarchs.

  8. Outsiders play by their own rules. If I find the rules tolerable I tolerate them. If not I do not. I alone am responsible for what I do. That said …

    I agree with Bob setting an example for the younguns’ is not a bad idea in a small city where cars kill pedestrians regularly. I’ve been hit by a car, it hurts. A year ago today my grandson was hit by a car, he’s dead. Yeah, there’s a lot of to my observation readily apparent Pavlovian conditioning out there and this is a rather startling manifestation perhaps even harbinger of the police state but really, I think it self-preservation.

  9. XFR

    In the 20th century foreigners sometimes remarked that Americans acted like robots. But what does that really mean? There are no sapient machines around even now, much less then. How could anyone imagine they knew how such things were want to behave?

    The word “robot” comes from the Czech word “robotnik”, meaning “slave”. Did people get their stereotypical conception about how mechanical creatures would present themselves from the observed mannerisms of slaves? If so…

  10. You are not seeing, as I am every day, the number of people driving 20mph above the speed limit, driving through stop signs and red lights at 25mph, driving with cell phone stuck to their ears, using the shoulder to pass slower cars, cutting into lines at banks and grocery stores…

    In San Diego, if you try to be compliant by driving at the speed limit on the freeway, you are public enemy #1 and are lucky if someone doesn’t wreck you.

  11. XFR

    I have been saying this to people in real life and they think I am nuts because of the belief that we are living in a hedonistic society. I find the opposite to be true. … People are much more conformist and rigid I think it is a sign that people, particularly the young, are being socialized to be compliant and easily ruled.

    It seems to me that the way today’s children often appear to be very frenetic and uncontrollable is misleading, and what has really happened is that they are now being conditioned to see control as something the comes solely from the outside and are discouraged from developing the sort of self-control needed to act usefully on their own initiative, while being taught to unthinkingly comply with the demands of authority–in other words, to be incapable of acting in a productive or coordinated way without someone ordering them around.

  12. I almost never encounter this situation. I live in California. We drive everywhere. I often walk around the neighborhood, but don’t encounter lights there.

    However, I do frequently travel by air and if I can get liquids and sharp objects past airport security, I do.

    I used to often wear suspenders and they set off the security buzzer. So I bought a pair of “no beep” suspenders. I told a coworker and she was shocked. I replied that since I was not planning on hijacking the plane I didn’t see a problem.

  13. atcooper

    I’ve been back in the hospitality biz again, scraping by, and as a result am around young folks again, and have been struck numerous times at how quickly they rat on each other. So many snitches, and often with no apparent advantage to be gained. In a lot of ways they are ok, but in terms of cussedness, they worry me.

  14. Jib Halyard

    Neoliberalism also promotes excessive conformity and compliance by keeping people on an economic hot seat.

    You really think there is a point on the socioeconomic ladder at which people stop worrying what their peers think?

  15. Synoia

    There is much more fear in everyday living today than when I was younger.

    I do not know if this is because “fear sells,” or if there is more emphasis in the media of “if it bleeds, it leads,” or if society has just become less safe.

    I also don;t know is society is less safe, or more controlled. I suspect the latter, but have no way to compare what I remember, with what’s happening now.

    I can say with absolute certainty that there is more TV now, and it appears to be much more sensationalism, than when I was a child in the UK (BBC only), or Africa (No TV at all).

  16. When I first landed in Berlin (Nov 1990) I noticed that crossing against the red was rarely done and could, in fact, get one yelled at. In fact, I was yelled at several times for breaking this rule but my favorite was the time, at c. 3am, on a very cold winter morning, that I was staggering home from a disco, and crossed against a red light on a tiny side-street (Krummestrasse, if you must know) with not a vehicle in sight. When I was half-way across, a window flew open in the apartment building I was crossing toward and a middle-aged man in his underwear, pegging me as a ferner, yelled (in German), “Law-breaker! Is this not the Federal Republic!!?” Of course, you could also be yelled at, in the ’90s, for walking on the “wrong” side of the sidewalk… so…

    Some time around 2000 all this suddenly stopped, and Germans went nuts and began crossing against the red with non-conformist abandon, like beatniks and hippies. Except one amazing incident I caught in 2002…

    …I was rushing down a foot-tunnel toward the departure lounge at Schönefeld Airport. Down the middle of the tunnel was painted a bright dotted line that veered left, at a ninety-degree angle, at the end of the tunnel, to direct to the airport (versus to the right for public transport). I was halfway down the tunnel when a guy in a suit, even later than I was, went zooming past me, briefcase flying, running precisely *on* the dotted line. And when he came to the juncture (I swear this is true) he veered left at a perfect right angle, *no curve*, somehow sticking to the dotted line. Weirdest thing I saw that year.

    As a German film producer once told me, “You Americans can learn a thing or two from us… ”

    I used to think the two cultures were changing places but it now appears that we’re all headed along the same dotted line.

  17. Dan

    James C. Scott makes this same observation and point in Two Cheers for Anarchy — except he was observing it in former East Germany shortly after it quite being East Germany.

    Out here in Edmonton, I see lots of fellow jaywalkers and general rulebreakers. Lots of Americans, that whole western thing, and the streets/signage/signals suck beyond all conceivable incompetence. I would adopt German obedience if we had German-quality urban infrastructure.

  18. Eric Anderson

    I’ve cited Kohlberg here before in regard to moral development.
    Here he is again:
    We obey because moral development in the first world is undergoing atrophy.
    We no longer reach inside (or have the ability) for what is right and wrong.
    Everything is modeled for us through media. We don’t make choices anymore, but simply respond like everyone else. Sheep.
    We are, as a society, stuck at the Level II “Authority and Social Order” stage of Kohlberg’s theory.

  19. Some Guy

    I have noticed this as well (both the specific point about crossing the street, and the broader point).

    Have to agree word for word with Herman.

    “People are more domesticated and law-abiding now. Most people like Steven Pinker think this is a good thing but I think it is a sign that people, particularly the young, are being socialized to be compliant and easily ruled.”

    In my mind, Pinker’s book is titled, “How wolves became dogs and decided that the measure of progress was how much like dogs they were”

  20. Willy

    After Trump claimed his “Lock her up” and “Drain the swamp” shticks were mere political stunts for votes, far too many of his followers remained steadfast believers in his ‘vision’, IMO. I don’t remember as many people being that gullible when I was younger. Maybe this age of tribal compliancy shall pass.

    I’m thinking we’ll always have roughly the same percentages of people who need to be controlled, who want to be controlled, who want to control, and who just plain want to do as everybody else does. I’m also thinking that the kind of people who are naturally inclined to be rational humanitarian ‘big picture’ thinkers will usually be in the minority regardless of the age in which they find themselves. Somehow, that kind of person has to try and figure out how walk around without with a permanent Joe Bauers facial expression at all the idiocracy happening around them. I’m pretty sure Balthasar Gracian wrote his Worldy Wisdom aphorisms hundreds of years ago for that last kind of person.

    But I did get a sense at today’s family thanksgiving that some of the conforming sheep are starting to get it. The amount of control they have over their own lives isn’t what it once was. And a mindless compliance isn’t the answer. Maybe they’ll start thinking for themselves, the way more people did when we were younger.

  21. @Dan

    “I would adopt German obedience if we had German-quality urban infrastructure.”

    I would probably feel that way (or more that way) if I didn’t read, by physical appearance (brown skin/ mustache), like a “refugee” aka NATO-demonized ferner. The natives, being incredibly obedient sponges for (NATO, via TV and tabloids) propaganda, have been giving me funny looks (and worse) since c. 2011. Not fun. Irritating. But it could always (as we know) be worse….!

  22. Daedilus

    Man elevates episode of petty non-conformity to example of worthy singularity. Audience nods gravely in lockstep uniformity, telling selves that very different from those other sheep.

    Sometimes the irony is too much.

  23. Adams

    “I too cross against the light. Also drive through red lights when there is no reason not to, as late at night when no other traffic present. I have done this since learning to drive over fifty years ago. As a teen I also was fascinated by the insouciance and passivity and complicity in Hitler’s Germany.”

    Ditto, though I take Bob’s point about setting a safe example. It depends who’s around.

    No one can advise someone else to take a risk as you don’t know what their capabilities are. Many people drive after drinking or above the speed limit and do so quite safely because they know their own limits and can evaluate the circumstances. Yet the police are quite correct to tell everyone to do neither. The law is set to cope with the lowest common denominator. Even so, we all respect those who are prepared to accept punishment for their beliefs.

  24. bob mcmanus

    I just don’t see “why” anymore. Or “why not” obey a rule. I also drive at least five mph below the speed limit in my neighborhood. I need reasons to make efforts in rebellion, and finding fewer everyday.*

    Many things have become simpler and easier once I determined to make a serious effort at avoiding ever being in a hurry. I am not a busy person, have very little I want to do or places to go, and try to leave myself plenty of spare time around anything I might plan.

    Have nothing, do nothing, be nobody, so useless and harmless as to become invisible, or only noticeable like a tree or neighborhood cat.

    *There are several supporting ideologies. Tiqqun or Theorie Collective call it something like resistance-in-place, Bartleby as anarchic sabotage. Don’t do something, just stand there! And if everyone took a break and smoked a bowl, the machine would crash to a halt.

    Everything else, any action or movement or god forbid work, just adds to the spectacle. Ruins the parade to just be on the sidewalk and ignore the marching band.

  25. bruce wilder

    I do find it disturbing to contemplate the person who would stand shivering late at night on a deserted street corner before a street empty of traffic waiting for the light to change. The submissiveness not just to a person clothed with authority, but to a non-person, to a mechanical automaton (the traffic light), even arguably to a (even an arguably benign albeit possibly circumstantially stupid) “system” implicates a mentality.

    I remember a news report of a terrible accident in which a school bus was struck by a train. The school bus was stuck on the tracks behind traffic stopped at a traffic light as the train approached. Passengers on the bus were screaming at the driver to simply shove the cars ahead of him out of his way, but to move the bus. He apparently could not bring himself to do it. That incident is not the point of my story: the reason I remember it is that I was at dinner with a family I knew slightly and we discussed the news of the tragedy as people do, and a man at the dinner table, a man who had been for some years a Christian missionary in Taiwan, argued quite vehemently that the driver of the bus was blameless. Because he had obeyed the rules regardless of the consequences. (Obviously, the driver had to disobey the rule that requires school buses to stop before railroad crossings and to proceed only when they can clear the tracks. This detail did not come up in our discussions.) It was a point of view I had scarcely imagined before. I was and remain horrified by this real-life trolley problem and the ethics of that religious man at the dinner table.

    We live in complex, hierarchical societies and our behavior is rule-driven. I do not think our ethics, our politics, or even our self-awareness takes sufficient account of the implications of rules and rule-governed behavior. Certainly, economics – particularly the neoliberalism so influenced by Hayek’s serfdom or knowledge in society – is stupid regarding the implications of pervasive uncertainty. And rules, which are a way of using limited knowledge, knowledge that is not present “locally” or in the present moment and situation.

    The contempt for rules and obedience implied in, say, James C Scott’s work — well not his actual researches so much as the libertarian-flavored voice he uses to report on his work — is arrogant. Arrogance is a problem for a society using rules to coordinate, but even more so for a society using rules to learn, because it carries a blindness about what really makes rules problematic. And, so is cognitive fatigue: not even wanting to think about how the rules “add up” into a system and critically assessing the productions of “the system” that results.

    Rules are morphing into algorithms and, increasingly “code is law” under neoliberal domination. Civilization on capitalist autopilot is racing over a cliff. We need to think seriously and I fear we are inclined instead toward self-indulgent tut-tutting that assumes we can easily know the right thing to do.

    Regarding the architecture of traffic laws, there are among professionals competing and contrary philosophies. Some think streets can and should be designed to make drivers nervous. The Netherlands, with a very low rate of traffic accidents, implements such a regime.

    I do not know about Germans. They love their autobahns without speed limits. And, the worst and most dangerous drivers in the advanced world are the South Koreans, living in an otherwise remarkably structured society, deeply respectful of authority.

  26. Willy

    @ Daedilus “Lockstep” and “topic” have very different meanings. Where I live most people comply with the unwritten rules of driving well above the speed limit, having all dogs on leash all the time, and driving their kids 100 yards home from the school bus stop. These things are more than just fads, and the analysis here more than just bitching about ‘others’.

  27. This simply means the Universal Police State has us successfully whipped down and eternally intimidated by their ruthless laws coupled with the potential of the harsh punishments that complement them, alongside the Draconian mindset needed to carry them out.

    Also, the way the system assassinates a person’s character when they run afoul of the laws and rules, always insinuating the problem must be with that person, instead of ever admitting they and their systems might be prejudice or operate on assumptions and stereotypes instead of reality.

  28. Peter VE

    I noticed the same thing, plus I’m always struck by people pushing the button for the crossing signal. I check the light, check the traffic, then go when I can cross safely. My impression is that the button pushers have been schooled in obedience.

  29. Peter VE:
    The button-pushers have been intimidated into submission by threats of penalties and punishments
    …by authority figures who conveniently overlook violations by motorists who disregard the speed limits and don’t use turn signals and don’t slow down or yield when making turns, bicyclists who race down the middle of sidewalks and blow stop signs and red lights, to battery-powered scooters who weave in and out of both pedestrians on the sidewalk and vehicles on the street haphazardly.

  30. bruce wilder

    the button for the crossing signal, in Los Angeles at least, is very often not actually connected or in a working state

    apropos of nothing, i noticed in London recently that the walk signals were oddly timed in relation to the movements of vehicle traffic — like someone had decided there should be a lag built in. Or that was my hypothesis anyway. It could be that there’s no mathematical solution for a 7-point intersection or many other oddities of London’s paved cowpaths.

  31. nihil obstet

    Most Americans, maybe most people, are fairly conformist. I’m not sure that they’re generally more compliant with small rules than they used to be, except that more live in urban environments where small rules govern expectations for dense living.

    There are two changes that I think I perceive, and they’re related.

    First, police forces intervene much more often and more harshly now with more people’s approval. I remember when a police officer commanding you to do something was a mark of Nazi Germany or the totalitarian Soviet Union. Growing up I would never have believed that many Americans would say, “If a policeman tells you to do something, just do it!” And of course this observation is race and class based. I think that minorities and the poor would have experienced police intervention in their lives, but it was kept pretty much out of sight of the general public, who would have disapproved. It’s also time based — in the early part of the twentieth century, police were fairly obviously on the side of the owners against labor. But still, I was stunned when tanks rolled down the streets of Ferguson, Mo. Bull Connor didn’t have full military weapons out against civil rights demonstrators in the 60s. The presence of armed, taser-happy police is far more common now.

    Second, people police each other far more than in the past. It’s not enough that they obey trivial laws or overblown fears. They tell you to do the same. That’s something I don’t remember from several decades ago.

  32. Jerry Brown

    Yeah, it’s weird seeing someone who waits, when no cars are in sight, to cross the street. I never do. On the other hand, maybe they pressed the ‘walk’ button at the intersection and are polite enough to wait at that point.

    I don’t know about Ontario, but in Connecticut a lot of things are different about crossing an intersection from when I was a kid. Drivers can go right on a red light for instance. The ‘crosswalks’ are painted differently now, and I don’t really know why or what they signify. Now, if you push the ‘walk’ button to cross, it stops traffic in all directions for a period of time- sometimes a significant period of time where traffic at the intersection builds up in all directions. Which is fine with me so long as you wait for the light after pushing the button and aren’t doing it so you can panhandle the stopped drivers.

    I do get aggravated when people push that button but then don’t wait to cross. Or when they never intended to cross the street in the first place. Or if they push the button after they already crossed the street.

  33. XFR

    In my mind, Pinker’s book is titled, “How wolves became dogs and decided that the measure of progress was how much like dogs they were”

    I think the old saw of the self-domestication of Man is very likely a fallacy. The genetic changes associated with domestication in dogs are the ones associated with Williams syndrome in humans. Normal humans don’t have Williams syndrome.

    I’d conjecture that when members of a lineage gain enough social intelligence that they can resist aggressive, domineering behaviour by others of their kind on a consistent enough basis that it produces a substantial negative selection pressure against such aggression as the lineage develops, a rather different sort of change takes place–one might call it “humanization”.

    Humanization and domestication might conceivably result in somewhat similar changes in appearance, but domestication would be distinguishable from humanization in the way that an individual reacts to bullying–a domesticated animal would tend to knuckle under, but a humanized one would be more likely to attempt to resist or strike back in some fashion.

    Bonobo chimps seem like an obvious possible candidate for humanization having occurred in a non-human lineage. And cat owners sometimes question whether cats should really be considered domestic animals at all, and I think there may be something to this–while dogs do look distinctly different from wolves, one is rather hard-pressed to distinguish common domestic cats from the wild variety, and cats are famously hostile to human attempts at control.

    I think this matter bears thinking about carefully–if the idea that human development has been somehow substantially analogous to domestication is fundamentally wrongheaded, a programme for society based in it could prove quite disastrous.

  34. nihil obstet

    This (Stress: Portrait of a Killer) is interesting in relation to the idea that there’s some natural development towards a more violent or more peaceful society. Specifically, there’s a short section towards the end about the baboon troop that Sapolsky was studying. It was very hierarchical and the hierarchy was enforced through social violence. Then, ten years into the study, the troop found a source of high value but infected food. The high ranking males grabbed it all for themselves. They died. Subsequently, the troop developed a more egalitarian, peaceful society, and have maintained it through subsequent years. Genetics does not appear to be determinative.

  35. Willy

    I think the old saw of the self-domestication of Man is very likely a fallacy.

    I can’t think of another species that’s more temperamentally diverse than human beings. Nurture has a definite impact, but your inborn nature is fundamental.

    Take a test today. Most who comment here will test in the INxx range (MBTI).

  36. S Brennan

    Good post Ian !

  37. Herman

    On the subject of domestication, I tend to think it is more on the nurture or environmental side of things. Americans used to be fairly rambunctious until maybe the 1990s, so too soon for a major genetic change among the general population. Steven Pinker even called the 1960s the decade of “decivilization” because it produced political unrest, the counterculture and higher crime rates.

    There are many theories about the rise and fall of crime rates but I think we can say that political unrest, the civil rights movement, the counterculture and the general openness about experimenting with different lifestyles were products of the power that working people had in the 1960s. You didn’t have the kind of intense fear of poverty, joblessness and social ostracism that people have today because decent jobs were fairly plentiful and there were still somewhat powerful unions and a working-class subculture that prevented people from becoming totally atomized and weak. Conservatives knew this hence the need to develop a right-wing counterculture of think tanks and astroturf organizations as outlined in the Powell Memorandum.

  38. Willy

    Nobody wants to be a slave (or at least the kind of slave without pleasurable aspects but that sort of thing is well outside the scope of this place). It’s the normalization of any social construct which most people want (but obviously not all of us).

    Personality typing isn’t much of a developed science, but careful observers have for millennia seen some truth in it. I use MBTI parlance here because it provides a common vocabulary. In this handy little chart the five most frequently reported types represent more than half of the general population. Anybody who’s familiar will note that all five of those types are populated by people who strongly prefer ‘conformity with existing norms’. In an age where slavery is abhorrent, they’ll be among the most anti-slavery. In a different age where slavery is acceptable, they’ll be among the staunchest defenders of slavery. They are by nature, conservative, traditional or (dare I say) timid, thinkers. It’s what their hardwiring ‘prefers’ or most ‘wants’ to do. Being otherwise takes more effort, and sometimes much discipline.

    I like the term “atomization” because it succinctly describes exactly what I believe the PTB want. Every power player I’ve encountered in my own little world has “atomization” in their personal toolbox. Divide and conquer, not to mention that a cohesive, angry mob coming after them after being abused by them is the last thing they want.

  39. XFR

    Take a test today. Most who comment here will test in the INxx range (MBTI).

    Hardly disputable, but–by the same token, it seems to me–nearly tautological.

  40. Willy

    The question isn’t that those wired for power want to take advantage of more compliant natures in order to ‘domesticate’ them, but what might be done to ensure a more mutually beneficial balance.

    And I agree that nurture has a large effect. I myself was far more supportive of the system and callous towards ‘the losers’ back in the days when I perceived that it worked for me. I’d been one of the domesticated.

    But then I found out that most in power cheat, that doing whatever it takes is part of their game.

  41. Swamp Yankee

    I noticed a stark regional division on this subject when I moved from my native eastern Massachusetts to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for graduate school. The Boston traffic system is essentially based on the principle that pedestrians will go when they can; the walk and don’t walk lights are only tangentially related to actual traffic conditions when five colonial cowpaths meet at high speed.

    By way of contrast, Ann Arbor was built, as part of the Old Northwest Territory, in a grid pattern. I also noticed, and there were many things I loved about Michigan, however, that Midwesterners obeyed traffic laws as pedestrians in a far more rigid manner than New Englanders. Such that I would walk through a senseless redlight at 8:10 am on a Sunday morning, while the nice older couple would look at me like I was some kind of criminal.

    I do think this has larger, or rather deeper, roots, in regional cultures. At the very real risk of generalization, the dominant ethnic group in southern Michigan is German; in easternMassachusetts, Irish; and these too cultures have entirely relationships to rule-following.

  42. bruce wilder

    I think “institutions” and “community” might be more usefully expansive concepts than “nurture” when it comes to analyzing what is necessary to getting people to behave well in society, individually or collectively. It is easy to attribute too much to individual character or will, but most people need to be part of a social organization to do good or, really, much of anything. And, most will be cast in the role of dependent follower, in whatever organization they become part of. The political psychology and perspective of the follower, of the subaltern, needs more attention, and attention distinct from speculation about the motives of exhibitionist leaders and those oriented toward social dominance in their relations and politics.

    One important theory of political violence is, as I imperfectly understand it, not that it is engendered by oppression per se, but by social overproduction of leaders: societies cyclically preparing too many people for too few positions of elite and technocratic influence. I question how to operationalize such abstract reasoning to account for details of history, but I can see some truth in it, applied to parts of the past I know a little about.

    I can see how to make the argument that the U.S. is in such a cycle of rising violence. But, the details of the narrative nag at me. Compliance is less an issue for me than unthinking compliance. I want people to comply with traffic laws, even when their arrogance argues for the superiority of individual judgment. I just do not think it serves any purpose to carry that to obvious extremes or attach moral significance to violations of rules that do not have, and cannot be reasonably expected to have actual, physical consequences (in accidental damage or injury). Judgment is required to distinguish cases and I think it has to be judgment steeped in humility about individual capacity to judge situations. I do not believe “local knowledge” is likely to be enough; we have rules because it is not, for a variety of reasons, including economic externalities and knowledge derived from experience, including science.

    What I see over my lifetime is that fewer people are involved in the governance of any social or political organization, public or private. They do not have the experience of collectively making the rules. And that affects the quality of compliance.

    As government has become less local as well as less responsive to the economic demands and expectations of the vast majority — less fair, less concerned about integrity in leadership — the quality of political persuasion has also declined. Because it can deteriorate and be effective in achieving immediate objectives of those generating it. Because it is addressed to people who have no sense or experience of actually governing anything or of even mattering.

  43. nihil obstet

    One important theory of political violence is, as I imperfectly understand it, not that it is engendered by oppression per se, but by social overproduction of leaders: societies cyclically preparing too many people for too few positions of elite and technocratic influence.

    Inequality is an issue here. If the positions of elite and technocratic influence provide much more status and wealth than are available elsewhere, then too many people will seek them. If the prize is too valuable and the cost of failure too high, people will cheat, even if it risks destroying the system. If, on the other hand, results are relatively equal, not everyone will seek leadership, as anyone who’s ever been active in a volunteer organization will tell you (you can’t miss a meeting, because if you do, they’ll vote you in as president, and you’ll never be able to get out of the job). The difference in status and income between blue collar (especially non-unionized) jobs and white collar jobs meant more people in college preparing for white collar jobs than there were white collar jobs. The rise in income inequality went along with the rise in obvious political corruption and spectres of violence.

  44. Willy

    There are a lot of variables. Nihil speaks of today’s reality. I think the cheating is always there no matter where we are in any anacyclosis cycle. At the beginning, elites may actually be mostly the best and brightest, most deserving of their status. But this always degrades as the power game rewards others who wish to be elite but don’t deserve such a position from any perspective of common good. True power players have more weapons than honest performers do, and most distant observer/supporters from any generation are far too naive. It’s hard to set aside hope/fear and feelings tribal to objectively determine what some ‘leader’ really is. The prevailing elite corrupts into rewards being mostly for who’s best at gaming the system, which then trickles down into a fail for everybody with inequality and specters of violence.

    I like Robert Michels take on this, except for the part where he became Mussolini’s number one fan. It’s always something with these people. Kinda ruins the street cred. I’m hoping an antidote to that sort of folly would be to figure out any ‘Benitos’ psychology at the beginning, first. Lots of the best motivators don’t really believe what they preach. It’s their way to win the game. I didn’t like Trump after Tony Schwarz made more sense then The Donald did. And then watching videos of his unpaid contractors confirmed it for me – this thing wasn’t going to end well.

  45. KAJ

    Depends on where you live. I am an avid walker, and in L.A. if you cross against the light you’ll probably get hit by more than one car. Cross with the light and you may also get hit, but at least the driver can’t claim you were ‘jay walking’ (that is, if he/she even stops).

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