If you live in the US, or anywhere in the West, really, you might have noticed that our political categories have become a bit more difficult to pin down in recent years. We still have a left/right axis, but it doesn’t mark the same distinction it did even 20 years ago.
Twenty years ago, Libertarianism was a smaller movement that straddled left and right, maybe leaning a bit to the right. Today it is quickly becoming the right.
Twenty years ago identity politics was a smaller movement, mostly in “studies” departments of the universities. Today it is quickly becoming the left (though, from where I sit, academia doesn’t seem to be driving this action).
Twenty years ago the fights were mostly over economics and religious morality. Today the fights are over free speech (with the album-banning, profanity-proscribing Right now defending it) and disproportionate group outcomes.
Twenty years ago the right was all about fighting crime and implementing a tougher form of individual justice, and the left was taking pride in the completion of big expressions of collective autonomy, such as the Human Genome Project. Today it’s the left concerned with (collective) justice, and the right with (individual) autonomy.
Why the shift? I propose that these shifts occurred (in large part) because changes in communication technology changed the way we collectively deal with normative complexity.
A Model of Normative Psychology
At least as far back as Plato, philosophers and psychologists have proposed tripartite divisions of the soul. Though none is satisfyingly scientific by today’s standards, the main utility of these models is that they help us understand internal motivational conflict in ways that resonate with personal experience. And, until Science gives us something better for that purpose, we might as well use them to help us understand what’s going on in our internal and social landscapes.
The scheme I want us to consider involves a “lizard control system”, a “herd control system”, and a “justification control system”.
The Lizard Control System (LCS) motivates the individual to satisfy individual drives and desires.
The Herd Control System (HCS) causes compunction about actions, words, and attitudes that would be frowned upon (or objected to) by others — especially those who control social roles that the individual occupies or would like to occupy. We can call this group of potential objectors the individual’s “normative audience”.
The Justification Control System (JCS) tries to adjudicate between the LCS and the HCS whenever they are in conflict. It’s goal is to justify self-serving actions, words, and attitudes to those in one’s normative audience who might otherwise object.
These three systems are similar to Freud’s id, superego, and ego. And it might be tempting to assign: LCS = id, HCS = superego, and JCS = ego. But the mapping is inexact, and the Freudian categories carry a lot of extra baggage, so I ask the reader to resist this urge.
One might also imagine that these evolved in sequence in the lineage between humans and the common ancestor we share with, say, lizards. This is fine as a memory aid, though it is not being offered as a serious evolutionary hypothesis.
Social Roles and Normative Complexity
Most human beings need to occupy social roles in order to meet their needs. And stakeholders guard many of these roles. A person must satisfy stakeholders to get the roles, and, if they displease the stakeholders, they can lose the roles.
For instance, if you want the role of so-and-so’s romantic partner, you must convince so-and-so to put you in that role. And, at least in theory, you must keep treating so-and-so reasonably well, or they will swap you out for another.
This applies to our roles in corporations, churches, schools, social identity groups, and society as a whole (even our role as “free citizen” can be revoked if we break certain rules, or if the wrong people object to our actions).
It can be difficult to satisfy all the expectations of all the stakeholders in all of our roles. It’s tough enough with a single role with a single stakeholder. But when there are hundreds of stakeholders spread across several factions, it can be nearly impossible. In general, the more “normative complexity” we have in our lives, the harder it will be to satisfy all expectations.
The good news is that we don’t have to actually avoid all prima facie objections to our actions, words, and attitudes in order to stay in the good graces of others. As long as we can justify our actions in response to objections, we can still maintain good standing. But justifying our actions, words, and attitudes takes effort and cannot always be guaranteed ahead of time.
In general, then, the higher our normative complexity, the higher is our burden of justification, and the more risk we are at of losing an important social role.
Dealing With Normative Complexity
There are three main ways to deal with the risks (and opportunities) that come with normative complexity. One is LCS-dominant, one is HCS-dominant, and one is JCS-dominant. Each has upsides and downsides.
The LCS-dominant strategy (the “free agent” strategy) is to reduce normative complexity by reducing the amount of dependence one has on any one social group. LCS-dominants will interact with many groups, but will tend to avoid roles that require conformity to group norms. They prefer “free agent” roles that allow them to “keep their identity small“. And, if they do need to give up a role, it will be the kind of role they can pick up again with some other group in short order. This strategy works best if a person has a set of skills that are valued by many groups, and which can be used in roles that don’t require much in the way of group loyalty.
The HCS-dominant strategy (the “tribalistic” strategy) is to reduce normative complexity by limiting the number of groups to which one is beholden. An HCS-dominant person will often restrict interactions to one main social group. And they will further reduce conflict by bringing their own lives into conformity with the norms of this group.
If an HCS-dominant person does occupy important roles with more than one group, they will tend to keep their roles in a strict hierarchical relationship with each other. (“unit, corps, god, country”).
Because HCS-dominant folks are “all-in” with their most-cherished in-group, they not only conform, but enforce conformity on other members. They try to avoid the slightest impression that they are not loyal to the group, and react strongly to the slightest possibility that another member is disloyal to the group, or that an outsider is attacking the group. The HCS-dominant strategy is commonly called “tribalism” (though this is an unfair oversimplification of actual tribal governance).
The JCS-dominant strategy (the “bridge builder” strategy) is to embrace normative complexity by developing and constantly refining a personal worldview. They constantly shape and reshape this personal worldview until it allows them to justify their actions, words, and attitudes well enough to every group to maintain their roles with those groups. This makes JCS-dominant folks good bridge-builders and allows them to take on roles that an HCS-dominant might avoid (because they are out-group roles) or an LCS-dominant might avoid (because the burden of justification is too high).
The downside of the JCS-dominant strategy is that it’s a lot of work, comes with risk and uncertainty, and can keep a person beholden to roles and groups they’d be better off abandoning. The bridge-builder must re-evaluate her world-view every time she changes roles, and every time there’s a shift of sentiment in any of her groups. And, since some of her important roles might be at risk, the situation can be highly emotionally charged. This often manifests as anxiety and other forms of brooding and self-conscious rumination.
In general, LCS-dominant folks prize autonomy. HCS-dominants prize loyalty. and JCS-dominants want to build bridges and reduce unnecessary conflict between the groups with which they affiliate.
Scaling It Up
Zooming out to the societal level, it makes sense that LCS-dominant folks might coordinate with other free-agents around an autonomy-promoting agenda (such as Libertarianism). HCS-dominant folks might coordinate (though only with like-minded tribalists) around a group-preservation-type agenda (such as modern social justice activism, religious fundamentalism, or populist nationalism). And JCS-dominant folks will try to create social institutions that will balance the needs of everyone.
At one time HCS-dominant strategies were the only game in town. Lineage-based clan justice ruled almost everywhere. Individuals longing for more personal autonomy mostly had to reign in their aspirations and toe the line.
A few hundred years ago, some nations started moving toward a system that allowed both LCS-dominant and JCS-dominant strategies more room to thrive (though only among fully enfranchised citizens). This was the period of Enlightenment Individualism.
The HCS-dominant strategy did not go away during this period, but the energy of those who adopted it was channeled into maintaining nuclear families, churches, and nations (instead of a multi-level clan lineage structures). Thus, the period of Enlightenment Individualism overlapped substantially with a period of Nuclear-Family Nationalism.
During this period, and especially during the 20th Century, the tension between individual liberty and individual dignity, on the one hand, and honor, loyalty, and collective justice, on the other, was mediated by JCS-dominant journalists, scientists, and politicians. For better or worse these folks curated political discussion and nudged the nation toward support of policies that struck some balance between individual liberty and collective justice.
Starting in the 1980s, with the repeal of the fairness doctrine and the simultaneous rise of talk radio and cable news, JCS-influence started waning. When the world wide web started re-directing our attention away from broadcast media and toward the internet, it waned even further. And, with the advent of smartphones and social media, it became weaker than it had been in a very long time.
Some good things have come from these changes. More people have a voice, and, as a result, more legitimate grievances can receive at least a sliver of public attention. We also refine our policy ideas more quickly, because the global brain has many more “neurons” working out the details.
A big downside, though, is that the share of attention commanded by fair-minded, scientifically-literate journalists is at a many-decades low, while the shares commanded by people untrained in the norms of science, journalism, and reasonable discourse are at a many-decades high. And the link between attention and ad revenue is chipping away at whatever good journalism is left.
With the weakening of the JCS-influence, the tone and quality of our discourse has degraded. But we have also seen a realignment in our politics. Society is in the midst of refactoring itself into various HCS-dominant group-justice poles and an LCS-dominant individual-liberty pole, with a bunch of disorganized JCS-types trying to propose solutions that might work for everyone.
As a nation the US is no longer aspiring for “liberty and justice for all”, but rather “liberty or justice for all”.