Month: January 2011

The Political Identity Paradox | Evolutionary logic of collective action pt.III

Why do grassroots political organizations sometimes implode right at the peak of their success?  This post examines the double-edged sword of highly cohesive political group identities and explores how to build vibrant campaigns while avoiding going (too) crazy…

natural born people pleasers

Imagine yourself a gazelle in a herd of gazelles.  Aw snap, here comes a hungry lion out of nowhere – and that lion is fast!  Is this the moment you want to be caught on the peripheral edges of the herd?  Ok, now imagine yourself a lone wolf trying to catch your next meal.  It’s freezing out and you’re not having much luck.  You’re just sitting there, hungry and tired and cold, wondering what it was you said that got you kicked out of the pack.

What do we know about prehistoric life in human groups? While there’s a lot of mystery and conjecture, we do know that life was, indeed, in groups.  We’re not gazelles or wolves, but, like gazelles and wolves, we like groups. We are highly social creatures.  As evolutionist David Sloan Wilson suggests, “…our ancestors participated in family groups, gathering groups, hunting groups, raiding groups, and so on. Almost everything was done in a social context; to be alone was to be in grave danger.” [2004: The New Fable of Bees.  my emphasis]

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá also hit on this in their book Sex at Dawn: “If you ever doubt that human beings are, beyond everything, social animals, consider that short of outright execution or physical torture, the worst punishment in any society’s arsenal has always been exile.”

If the thought of being abandoned by the group that you identify with troubles you, congratulations; that’s probably a hard-wired adapted way to feel.  Your cave-person ancestors probably survived in part because they liked, and were liked by, the group.  Those who wandered off alone too far, as well as those who pissed everyone off until they got 86’ed, probably didn’t fare quite as well evolutionarily.

It makes evolutionary sense that we would want to move toward the center of the group, because those who developed this tendency would have a leg up on those who didn’t.  This kind of selection may have helped our predecessors to evolve into a more social, more cooperative, kinder, gentler species.

Where does that leave us now?  It likely equips us with a predisposition to try to get on the good side of the groups we’re part of.  We want to feel safe in the center of the group, not threatened on the margins.

So, in some senses we’re a species of natural born people pleasers.  (As long as those people are within our group – see War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection.)  

This helps explain our capacity for cooperation.  In Part I of this series I argued that, under the right conditions, human beings have the capacity for behavior that serves the group, even at a cost to the individual.  One “right condition” or prerequisite is a feeling of belonging within a mostly cooperative group.  If an individual feels integrated within a group and feels like the group has her back – that she will benefit by casting her individual lot with the group – then she is more likely to display group-oriented behavior.

The degree to which a person identifies with the group will affect how much he is willing to give to the group. In other words, level of commitment to a group depends on the level of one’s investment and identity with that group. For example, an “online member” of an internet-based progressive organization may identify enough with “the group” to open every tenth email and occasionally call her member of Congress when asked; while a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) may identify strongly enough with “the group” to endure beatings, arrest, and worse.

War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection | Evolutionary logic pt.II

“the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly”

If anyone managed to come away from Part I: Humans: not just selfish with an overly sentimental view of human nature, this post will rob you of that delusion.  Yes, we humans have a remarkably developed faculty for cooperation and group-oriented behavior, in comparison to most other species.  That’s an encouraging thing to know.  And it may even become useful, if you start to identify the conditions that tend to set us up for cooperation.  However, as Charles Darwin, David Sloan Wilson, and many others have suggested, the processes of group selection that helped us evolve to be cooperative within our groups probably also encouraged competition (to put it mildly) between groups.

Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson explain in their book, Unto Others:

…our goal … is not to paint a rosy picture of universal benevolence. Group selection does provide a setting in which helping behavior directed at members of one’s own group can evolve; however, it equally provides a context in which hurting individuals in other groups can be selectively advantageous. Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness. Group selection theory does not abandon the idea of competition that forms the core of the theory of natural selection…

And here’s Wilson again in The New Fable of the Bees: Multilevel Selection, Adaptive Societies, and the Concept of Self Interest:

[Multilevel selection theory] has the capacity to explain the behavior of individuals who demonically work to undermine their groups (within-group selection), individuals who angelically work on behalf of their groups (the bright side of among-group selection) and avenging angels who work on behalf of their groups to destroy other groups (the dark side of among-group selection). We might not like the dark sides of animal and human nature, but they exist and require a theory to explain them. …multilevel selection theory has the potential to explain the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

Why do you build me up, buttercup, just to let me down and mess me around?  Seriously though, this just underscores that the purpose of this series is to use the lens of evolutionary theory not to idealize but to examine and better understand how humans and groups work, particularly in relation to collective action – and hopefully make practical use of that understanding.

Humans: not just selfish | Evolutionary logic of collective action pt.I

“not a joiner”

The other day I met up with my friend Mike at a coffee shop here in Providence, RI.  Mike is an adjunct history professor at a local community college.  Across the country, there are a lot more adjunct professors today than there were ten years ago, and there are a lot fewer tenured professors.  Adjuncts are far less costly and more expendable than regular or tenured professors; they don’t have benefits; they’re much more vulnerable; and, with few exceptions, they’re not organized into a union that can represent and advance their collective interests as adjuncts.  Over the past year, Mike has been taking a great deal of initiative in bringing other adjuncts together – to get themselves organized, so that they don’t get screwed!

You’d think that joining up would be a no-brainer.  Here you are, part of a new class of teachers in which getting screwed seems to be inherent in the design of your niche position.  And you aren’t just getting screwed right now at this stage of your teaching career; the novel trend of increasing adjunct positions and, correspondingly, decreasing tenured positions promises to screw you and your colleagues for decades to come!  If presented with the opportunity to leverage a little power in numbers for your own benefit (and the benefit of the group), why wouldn’t you take it?

Well, many folks are taking that opportunity.  Mike and other adjuncts have been making some progress.  But not without a lot of hard work, persistence, and attentive conversations.  Mike told me about some of the negative responses:

“I don’t sign petitions!”

“I’m not a joiner.”

“I don’t do groups.”

Through persistence, Mike finally got one of the foot-draggers-the person who said, “I don’t sign petitions!”-to at least make an appearance at a meet-up with other adjuncts.  At the meet-up they had snacks, they joked, and they talked informally about common experiences they shared as adjuncts.  “You could see something change in her,” Mike explained to me.  “It was like she had been thinking only about herself before, and suddenly she was looking around, thinking in a way that involved these other people in the room.

I think that Mike’s description of that one individual’s transformation says volumes about the human condition, and offers instructive clues for people who are working for pro-social change.

If you’re reading this post at BeyondtheChoir.org or at another progressive social change-oriented website, I probably don’t need to convince you that human beings are capable of cooperative behavior.  You’re probably among those who already believe in the power and potential of human beings working together for the common good.  What may be news to you though are some of the scientific theories and accumulated evidence that support your belief.  The purpose of this series, however, isn’t just to arm you with scientific arguments that reinforce the things you already believe.  The purpose, rather, is to use the lens of evolution to examine and illuminate processes-biological, physiological, neurological, social, and cultural processes-that make cooperative behavior and collective action possible and, in some situations, predictable; so that you, dear reader, and I, and the progressive social change organizations that we are part of, can better understand, recognize and navigate the opportunities and constraints that come along with our evolution as a species.

Why you should vote today (an appeal to radicals)

originally published on November 2, 2010

Paul Rosenberg offered this the other day at Open Left:

A Republican victory this Tuesday will tilt the odds heavily in the direction of retrospectively casting 2008 as another 1968, despite all the numbers of election night pointing to the contrary.  If Democrats hold on to control of Congress, however slightly, that means that we’re in a new era, no matter how discouraging the current lack of vision by Democratic leadership may now seem.

That’s why I find the following video (h/t Dave Johnson) so compelling.  Because as I see it, it’s not a dishonest representation of where the current DLC-dominated Democratic leadership is today.  It’s an honest representation of where we, the conscience of the party, have a damn good shot at taking it back to where it belongs once again.  From the International Brotherhoood of Boilermakers Union:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlBOv8m_Xa8&w=640&h=385]

“World update: Strikes force Lady Gaga to postpone shows” (Wow, France… pt. 2: parroting)

originally published on November 1, 2010

In my post last week (Wow, France… Why can’t we do that here?!??), I asked, as the title suggests, what prevents the kind of broad, committed, collective action that we’re seeing in France from happening here in the United States.  This is especially perplexing, given that their strike is about opposing the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 – whereas here our retirement age is already later than that, our college tuition rates promise a lifetime of debt, our health care system is all sorts of effed up, our hours are longer, our vacations shorter, our social safety net far less comprehensive.  I could go on.

I started to answer my own question, discussing the mechanics of how collective action and protest have been negatively branded here, so as to effectively inoculate many people against participation.  In response (over at Daily Kos), Pesto asked:

The $64,000 question WRT inoculation is why it hasn’t worked as well elsewhere.  It’s not as if multinational corporations in France never considered trying to break French workers’ solidarity or willingness to shut the economy down to win what they want.  They certainly understand the basic concepts of propaganda that have worked so well in the US.  But whatever they’ve been trying in France hasn’t been working very well.

Big question.  Where to begin?  Well, why not start with Lady Gaga?  More specifically, let’s start with CNN’s utilization of Lady Gaga as a cultural intermediary in their “coverage” of the strikes:


World update: Strikes force Lady Gaga to postpone shows

France strike – Some 200 demonstrators blocked France’s Marseille-Provence airport for more than three hours Thursday as strikes and protests continued across the country.  The action comes ahead of a final vote on the country’s Pension Reform Bill.  Pop star Lady Gaga postponed two Paris shows this weekend because of “the logistical difficulties due to the strikes,” her website said.

Stephen Colbert is physically altering your brain

originally published on October 28, 2010

Stephen Colbert’s much-publicized March to Keep Fear Alive tomorrow-and his whole schtick really-may be making a far greater political impact than you consciously realize.  I’m no neuroscientist, but I might even argue that the faux right-wing pundit is physically altering the very structure of your brain.

Such an outlandish allegation requires a little set-up. Ready for an adventure into the political brain?

Let’s start with rats.

In a brilliant Radiolab episode called Memory and Forgetting (I highly recommend listening to the first 21 minutes here), hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich discuss a memory experiment with rats.  They play an audio tone for a rat, just before giving it a slight electrical shock. Predictably, the next time the tone is played, the rat reacts. Here’s Jad:

The moment it hears the tone and then feels the shock, inside its head a bunch of neurons start to build a connection… Memory is a structure that connects one brain cell to another.  So the next time that the rat hears that damn tone, since inside its brain tone brain cells are physically connected to shock brain cells, it’s gonna know that after this [tone sound plays] comes this [shock sound effect plays].  Instead of just listening passively, it’s gonna freeze, bracing itself for what is about to happen.

Wow, France… Why can’t we do that here?!?? (pt. 1: inoculation)

originally published on October 21, 2010

Do you ever look at newspaper articles about worker and student strikes in countries like France or Greece or Argentina-you know, the kind of activity that shuts down the whole country-and think to yourself, “Holy shit, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!  Those people know how to protest!?”

Well, I sure do.

Not to glorify any particular tactic for it’s own sake, but geez, the spirit of collective action and common purpose that’s displayed in those moments-let alone the negotiating power it awards to grassroots movements, unions, and progressive political parties-is something that sometimes, um, feels a little lacking here in the good old U.S. of A.

So what are you waiting for.  Go ahead.  Try that here.  See how many people you can turn out.  See where it gets you.

Likely.  not.  very.  far.

We have a situation here.  We’re stuck in a Catch 22.  As a society, we presently seem to be inoculated against the means necessary for our own collective advancement. (If you’re at the top of the plutocratic order, now’s the time to congratulate yourself on a brilliant system.)  And I’m not talking about any one particular style of collective action or protest – we’re not France or Greece or Argentina, and I don’t particularly want us to be.  I’m fully ready to embrace an all-American style, and I would settle for whatever kind of collective action (within ethical and strategic limits) powerful enough to challenge entrenched power and privilege.  Is that such a tall order?

The Stakes in this Election: Incredibly High | Mike Lux discusses “The Progressive Revolution”

originally published on October 20, 2010

Welcome to the second interview in our series.  This week we feature progressive organizer, strategist, blogger, and author Mike Lux.  Mike is the CEO of Progressive Strategies, the Co-founder of Open Left, and he has been active for thirty years on many progressive issues.

Mike is the “outsider’s insider.”  He has one foot in the door (having worked on five presidential campaigns, and having served in the Clinton White House health care reform war room), and he has the other foot on the outside (having worked on many issue advocacy campaigns and on building independent progressive infrastructure).

Mike wrote a book called The Progressive Revolution which looks at the threads of conservative and progressive thought and action in the United States since the Declaration of Independence.

Listen to the full interview with Mike Lux here:

http://www.google.com/reader/ui/3523697345-audio-player.swf?audioUrl=http://beyondthechoir.org/interviews/02_Mike_Lux.mp3

Read the full interview here:

Rent Is Too Damn High Party

originally published on October 19, 2010

Why aren’t we doing this in races across the country?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4o-TeMHys0&w=480&h=385]

Another illustration of how a moral narrative about poverty and class is so very available today.  It’s ripe, just waiting for candidates who have the courage to speak it; who aren’t afraid of being labeled a socialist; who strike first by calling greed greed and labeling uncaring greedy politicians as such.

Interview: Jose Vasquez on Antiwar Organizing & IVAW

originally published on September 30, 2010

Listen to the full interview with Jose Vasquez:

http://www.google.com/reader/ui/3523697345-audio-player.swf?audioUrl=http://beyondthechoir.org/interviews/01_Jose_Vasquez.mp3

Jose Vasquez shares his journey from Army Staff Sergeant to Conscientious Objector to Executive Director of Iraq Veterans Against the War – and offers some reflections on organizing with veterans and GIs in today’s antiwar movement.

To find out more about IVAW, check out their new site.

You can donate to IVAW here.