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  • Writer's pictureAzrael Encarnacion


Meditations on Society, Tribalism, and Collective Will

It’s important to remember, society is a human experiment. The general theory is safety in numbers; that working together, caring for one another and redirecting a certain amount of individual energy into the collective, yields benefits back towards supporting individual survival. Of course we weren’t conscious of this societal mission statement as we developed tribes, laws and ethics--Ideas for general order and avoiding mischief just fell in place in response to local needs and experience. Two helpful circumstances that allowed for this experiment were: 1) that groups of people settled into static locations rather than wandering the land chasing resources. And 2) that people were already in the practice of caring for one another.

That first circumstance is basically the invention of domestication; a permanent home or village. And with the parallel emergence of agriculture--The prehistoric lifehack which allowed for farming the land and its livestock--Humans no longer had to chase food. Instead they began growing and raising it themselves. And while the organization of people into groups, working together in constant contact with one another, was not new, staying put created new challenges they collectively responded to. Giving rise to certain customs, beliefs and passing of culture which, over time and generations, began to identify what it meant to be from that specific group. Society actually comes from the fact we began to socialize in more caring ways for one another while traveling in troops governed by the climate and seasons. But limiting our movement and reliance on the unpredictable forces of nature, I would imagine, had a bigger spanning effect on our re-envisioning of what we’re capable of controlling. Especially as a family, which the closest people around you then, very likely were.

So coordination, protecting one another, caring for our young or elders was a natural sell. To this day, the idiom ‘blood is thicker than water’ is still proudly proclaimed, running the gamut from mild loyalty to fatal devotion. The concept of family reinforces the unspoken mission statement of society. And to continue the idea of the village or society then, one needed only to reproduce and raise the next generation under the same customs.

The idea has definitely endured. In addition to children, we’ve also reproduced the concept of family in locality, nationality, religion, gangs, crime syndicates, political parties, fraternities/sororities, corporations, sports teams, art collectives, and many other organizations. All operating under that same initial premise of safety, support, or power in numbers for individual prospect and security.

Despite the benefits of such organizations, where there is a village or tribe, tribalism never trails too far behind, especially if there are other distinct villages and tribes. So while providing remedy from surviving the wilderness of life alone, and healthy diversity as competition also breeds innovation, society can also offer some of the toxins. The suspicion of outsiders, the separation of us and them is born from this enclosure of the familiar and simultaneous exclusion of the unknown. When those who aren’t family are deemed un-familiar.

In addition, those who are family but question/reject traditions and values which collectively are viewed as unchallenged hallmarks of familial identity, potentially face exile. Sent out into the wilderness as they’ve become un-familiar. A stranger to your own village and still a stranger to all the other villages as well...Not subject to any Collective Will and therefore suspected of being against them all. In other cases, dissent from the Collective Will might even result in execution.

Because there’s this condition of familial loyalty or moral aggression between individual and society, there’s sometimes, constant tension between Free Will and the Collective Will.

For the most part, we’re conditioned, via the unconscious human experiment of society, to adhere to custom. To respect our parents and their wisdom; to repeat a cycle that reiterates their life-steps and those of their parents before them and their parents before them and so on. The internal parameters of what’s good/bad, safe/dangerous, acceptable/taboo often originate, for many of us, from the general behavior we were raised to adopt during our most impressionable years as children.

Our parents, through our eyes during that time, are larger than life. Adults in general have this quality of being magically perceived by children as primordial titans. Ancient beings who know everything and can manipulate reality itself. Rulers of the adult world who then determine and enforce the rules children must obey. Sometimes obedience is demanded under no more logic than the seemingly divine refrain: “because I said so.” And the little ones oblige because the treasured approval of some of these Promethean beings is matched only by the fear of disappointing or being rejected by them. The effects of either, like a tidal wave or earthquake, lasting long after the event and likely editing the child’s behavior from that point on.

But as the child transitions into adulthood during the intermediary stage of adolescence, they gain context and new understanding of this adult world which previously mystified them--They finally catch a glimpse of the wizard behind the curtain. The charade crumbles. Suddenly, “because I said so” starts sounding more and more like “because someone told me so” and some within the youth can’t help thinking the design needs an upgrade. So they rebel, which is to say, they attempt to change things. And in this ensuing family drama between child and adult is echoed the tension between individual and society and Free Will vs. Collective Will.

It’s interesting that the rebellious spirit of the ambitious and passionate adolescent arises around the same time the body undergoes changes; hormones surging and emotional contemplations running rampant. To witness these biological changes first hand, as well as changes to our surrounding relationships and activities, it’s no surprise they extend the same potential capacity of change to the entire world. The world of their childhood becomes sharply significant as a point of reference and contrast, because as children they had no memories of being babies but now they have memories of who they were; they see things can change. People can change. The adult world of their adolescence which feels intent on regarding them as children, seems resistant to a kind of societal puberty which nature imposes on the adolescent, and unfairly, through the adolescent’s eyes, society is exempt from a similar maturation.

‘How come I have to change but ya don’t!’ they might bitterly ask.

Of course, in reality society isn’t exempt and does in fact change over time. Being an amalgam of individuals with ideas and interpretations of what society should be, it’s inevitable that when enough people agree and act on a new direction, a new normal emerges. And as frustrating as it may feel to be among those first individuals who are wholeheartedly convinced that this new direction is necessary--When no one else seems persuaded--I am somewhat glad the experiment works in exactly this fashion, with popular resistance. It challenges counter-current ideas to become better articulated, to test them via argument, to exhaust the raucous of passion and get down to the quieter surface of reason--To weed out the restless who just want to make noise from the ones who cannot be exhausted and commit themselves ceaselessly to expressing their perspective in a way which eventually, if useful, changes the world.

Adding to the difficulty of being among those ahead of their societal times, is the innate fear of standing alone. Rocking the boat sorta speak, might get you thrown overboard. But to see the boat’s leak and the water rising to everyone’s ankles, with no one else aware or admitting the situation, might lead to the same conclusion anyway. A damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t situation. This echoes back to being banished from the village. Our awareness of going against the majority and its possible consequences potentially acts as a fine-tuner to reserve the crying out of “wolf!” to only when it’s warranted. Society as a Collective Will is a Goliath, a Galactus who can consume our individual world in one gulp, to choose to be that Silver Surfer who defies its waves requires a determination just as cosmic. Because this larger than life societal parent can cause us to second guess our counter-current beliefs when only a few in fact, agree there’s a contradiction.

Maybe we’re imagining things, we reason, or have misinterpreted what we’re experiencing.

That Collective Will also includes that of the previous generation--In fact, all the previous generations of that specific society who held the same traditions and customs due to their perceived effectiveness. Can they all be wrong? What is it about now specifically that recontextualizes what worked before? Did it ever really work before? How can I explain that? And if it results in chaos (even if only temporary), should I avoid the endeavor altogether?

Stability over novelty seems to be the rule, and novel ideas that shake up stability are naturally going to be vetted or flatout opposed more thoroughly.

That defensive opposition, like antibodies protecting against social contagion, is a formidable opponent. Yet, many of us recognize, at one point or another, an accepted social norm which feels in desperate need of revision. So it’s important we understand we can and should voice our concerns. The Free Will of the individual is at times suffocated by the Collective Will in an unjustifiable way which does require overcoming the fear of becoming un-familiar to the tribe.

But society too can become un-familar as the collective consensus slowly shifts away from what you individually understood as one or a set of core values. And likewise, for that matter, you too can be part of the Galactus majority opposed to the individuals you perceive trying to unnecessarily rock the boat. You’re not always the hero.

Looking at our world today we know certain subjects polarize the collective and if we identify with one specific group significantly because we share some societal familiarity like a common race, nationality, religion, lifestyle, etc. we may feel a pressure to conform to a group-identifying opinion or perspective out of solidarity. The parental “because I said so” again taking precedence. Having not necessarily given the topic much deeper consideration beyond what the most revered members from our group have stated as the reasonable stance, we may go along so as to avoid any boat-rocking conflict. Or we may simply trust and respect the opinions of those whom we believe have our best interest in mind more than we do our own. After all, what do we know? We rationalize: there’s a reason these people are influential and often leaders, and we ourselves are not (at least not to the same degree). And if we have other shit to worry about: day to day responsibilities and priorities that do not include solving societal issues as a profession, then we’re happy to leave that pondering in the hands of those who have dedicated themselves to doing just that.

However, being just a little mindful that our thoughts, beliefs, and customs do not originate from us and are not always unchallenged truths, can go a long way. Same goes for the respected voices within our groups. Holding that kind of space for the possibility that we need to re-think and re-learn certain knowledge as new context and new systems become realities, is helpful in updating society when we need it. The guard against being whimsical or inconsistent is natural but you can still be flexible enough to consider meaningful questions others may be asking of your beliefs. Likewise, you can consider your answers. If you’re the type of person who hates ‘because I said so’’ or ‘that’s just the way it is’ as a response, then it’s worth noting if you’re giving yourself that very same answer.

Because our natural Free Will as unsocialized babies, is re-programmed during childhood via conduct, education, ethics and laws, as well as personal experiences that nudge our behavior this way or that, what we’re left with by the time of young adulthood, is a Free Will very much informed by the Collective Will. All these facets of society and human interaction are like the key to a wind-up toy, twisted round and round, and eventually let loose. Letting the individual run free no doubt, but propelled nonetheless by that key. Because of this and the mysterious origin of thoughts outside the subjective mind, some philosophers argue there is in fact, no such thing as Free Will. Whether that is true or not, what’s important to consider is that we make choices determined by so much of what we believe is true, based on what we’ve been taught or experienced under a specific series of circumstances.

The resulting perspective from these personal circumstances can be thought of as ‘lenses.’ Filters that interpret our worldview in a very specific way. We all wear these lenses, though no two are exactly identical. Being aware of where people are coming from, and by extension, the origin of their views, reminds us no one is just the tip of the iceberg we see. Our own Free Will has been largely co-signed by the Collective Will in our proximity. The more we trace the strings that tug on our actions, the more options we provide for ourselves when contemplation is afforded. These contemplations then influence the vocabulary of our actions. Likewise the more we understand our biases and those of others, the more we can engage more meaningfully in asking questions about our differences. Instead of the default reaction of mentally raising a wall when caught off guard and verbally banishing any idea we disagree with.

Understanding that our views come in as many flavors as there are individuals is a grace we should honor by digging deeper during disagreements. Reverse engineering the un-familiar logic; retracing the life experiences which might pepper an individual’s piece of Collective Will toward that specific seasoning. We may still disagree but having a better handle over what created this person’s reasoning helps us see why we may not share the same lens. And may point to new ways of discussing our differences or a new understanding altogether of precisely where our opinions split, meaning beyond that point, there’s a potential space where we agree. Using that commonground, not as fuel to then insist on ‘solving’ our dispute but rather to honor the neutral zone by respecting one another and sitting with the unfamiliarity for a bit longer than we’re accustomed to.

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