Ideology and Violence

I often use the term "ideology", so I thought I should explain what I mean by it. The Wikipedia definition is:
A comprehensive set of normative beliefs, conscious and unconscious ideas, that an individual, group or society has.
I use the term in a more specific way. My definition is:

A system of ideas that defines a social and moral dichotomy between US and THEM, GOOD and EVIL.

In this essay I will expand on my definition of "ideology". I will explain the function of ideologies and how their form derives from their function.

I will start with my favorite example of group conflict, Easter Island. I have described what happened there before: population explosion followed by collapse.

Imagine Easter Island just before the collapse. Let's say there were about 5,000 adults and 10,000 children living on the island. The children were growing up and eating more and more food. Teenagers eat a lot. The island could only support about 10,000 adults. There was no conceivable way to expand food production on the already overcrowded and environmentally degraded island. In fact, food production was starting to decline. There was no way to escape from the island, because there were no big trees left to build canoes from, and even if there were, there was no way for everyone to escape from the island. There was no way to get off, and nowhere to go if they could.

Easter Island is a very good analogy to the situation of the entire world today. I think we are getting close to the peak of global food production and population. I don't know that it will happen in this generation, but it will happen soon.

Back to Easter Island. For many generations before the collapse, the islanders were able to expand food production to keep up with population growth, Then, in a single generation, they suddenly went from abundance to scarcity. There simply wasn't enough food to go around, and as existing children grew up, they needed more food. The stark reality was that at least 5,000 people had to die.

What were their options? Well, they could have drawn lots to decide who would live and who would die, but that isn't the sort of thing that people are willing to do. (For a good reason: it is a terrible reproductive strategy.) They could have fought over resources in a scramble of each against all, but anarchy isn't stable. Why? Well, because if two people form a cooperative unit, they can defeat almost any individual. If three people gang up, they can defeat almost any pair, and so on. The most effective strategy for an individual is to join a social unit that is big enough to defeat rival groups, but smaller than the entire population.

So, the islanders split into two groups and went to war. There are no written records of it, but I'm pretty sure that's what happened, or something like that. Previously, they were all part of one society that lived in (relatively) peaceful cooperation. Perhaps there was some competition between men over women, but there was no large scale, genocidal warfare. Once they reached the limit of food production, however, the only feasible strategy for survival was to be on the winning side of a genocidal war.

Like every society, the Easter Islanders had moral norms that justified the power structure of their society. I'm sure they had notions of property, marriage, and crime. They prohibited murder, rape, and theft. The islanders would have believed that those norms were universal truths, not merely social constructs. Once they reached the limit of their population, however, individuals had to violate those norms in order to survive. They also had to form groups that were internally cooperative and non-violent. To survive, they had to adopt a double-standard: non-violence for US, violence for THEM.

Every society must prohibit internal violence, to maintain social cohesion, but it must also direct violence at other societies. How is this done?

The moral double-standard is justified with ideology. Each group has an ideology that provides its members with a moral justification for violence toward outsiders. Each group has a myth -- a moral narrative -- that portrays itself as GOOD and the other group as EVIL. There are various ways this can be done. Perhaps the other group has committed some historical wrong. Perhaps they are descended from an evil ancestor. Perhaps they worship the wrong god, or worship the right god in the wrong way. Perhaps they reject the great prophet Hakapuahama. Perhaps they follow the false prophet Hakapuahama. Perhaps they are just ugly, stupid, and smelly. There will be some reason why THEY ARE BAD and WE ARE GOOD, and thus we are morally permitted to kill them, take their land, and eat their children.

The function of ideology is to give a group of people a sense of moral unity and a rationale for moral hypocrisy. It allows people to believe that their moral norms are universal truths that must be obeyed within their society, while exempting outsiders from those norms.

The Easter Islanders could have simply admitted to themselves that they were, collectively, the cause of their misfortune, and that there was no principled way to divide up the remaining resources. They could have just divided into teams arbitrarily and then fought to the death over the remaining food supply. Or they could have randomly selected half the population to commit suicide. But both of those solutions go against human nature.

Instead, they divided into teams based on competing moral narratives. Each side claimed a greater moral right to survival. I wasn't there, and no one recorded the events of the Easter Island collapse, but I am sure that is what happened. That is what people always do when they are in a zero sum game. They split into groups based on ideology and they fight.

The individuals involved in the conflict didn't have much of a choice. Once people started splitting into factions, individuals had to join one side or the other, or else be a target of both sides. That's the reason why people are such conformists. Rejecting your group's ideology makes you into an outsider, one to whom the moral norms do not apply. Outsiders are morally acceptable targets for violence. So people signal their belief in their group's ideology, to avoid being ostracized. Ideological apostates usually get the harshest treatment of all outsiders, as they are not only outsiders, they are considered to be traitors.

Social identity signaling creates a purity spiral that makes ideologies more extreme and divergent from reality. The more crazy an idea is, the greater its strength as a signal of group commitment. The ability to believe your group's crazy ideology shows that you are really a team player. Questioning it, on the other hand, makes you suspect -- probably a traitor. A selfish competition for status and approval within the group generates a shared delusion of the group's moral superiority. Often, the claim to moral superiority is based on nothing more than belief in the ideology itself. Believers are good and non-believers are bad.

Everyone knows that the other group's ideology is crazy and that the other group is hypocritical, but they can't see those things about their ideology and themselves. Ideology blinds people to reality and makes them into moral hypocrites, and those effects are features of ideology, not bugs. The function of ideology is to justify a double-standard in the application of moral norms: cooperation for us (and the pretense of love), hatred and violence for them. Ideologies are resistant to rational arguments, and again, that is a feature, not a bug. They are social identity signals maintained by conformity, not theories open to debate and discussion.

Couldn't someone on Easter Island have pointed out the unsustainable nature of their society before it was too late? Perhaps, but he would have had to fight against the prevailing, pre-collapse ideology. Ideologies always portray the in-group as good. Even when the Easter Islanders were at peace with one another, their society would have had an ideology that justified their existence. We not only use morality to justify violence against other humans, we use it to justify violence against other animals, and against nature in general. Like every animal, humans have to kill things in order to live. We are reproducing machines that obey the laws of thermodynamics. We extract energy from the environment and dump entropy into the environment.

Before the collapse, the Easter Islanders lived in peace with one another, but they were "at war" with the local environment. They would have had an ideology in which they were special, chosen beings with a cosmic purpose, and so they were justified in slaughtering dolphins to feed their children. They would have believed that their existence was good, not bad, and so they would have been resistant to any claim that their existence could have negative consequences. After all, they were the descendants of the great chief Puahuahapamaha who was unfairly cheated out of his kingdom in Harekalalaii, and they would someday return to reclaim their inheritance yada yada yada blah blah blah. I made that up, but I'm sure that they had a myth about themselves that wasn't too different from the plot of "The Lion King". Most cultures do. Again, the function of that myth, or ideology, was to morally justify their existence and to direct violence (entropy) outside the social circle.

Anyone who tried to point out the unsustainable nature of the Easter Island society would probably have been shouted down, ostracized, or even killed.

Morality does not make us good. We are not good. Life forms are necessarily selfish and violent, because life is a zero sum game. As social animals, we have the capacity to cooperate, but as life forms, we must compete. When we cooperate with some, it is always to compete with others. Morality is a system of values that justifies social arrangements. Morality doesn't exist independently of our minds and our social arrangements. It is something that we create, mostly subconsciously, to govern our social interactions. Morality is a tacit agreement to act in certain ways for our mutual benefit. Because life necessitates competition, cooperation always has a boundary. To be functional, an ideology has to divide the world into US and THEM: insiders to whom moral norms apply, and outsiders toward whom violence is permissible or even obligatory.

We have been engaging in group conflicts over finite resources for our entire evolutionary history, with the exception of a few rare periods (such as the modern era) when production outpaced reproduction due to some new technology or resource discovery. Abundance doesn't last for long, because population growth consumes new resources until scarcity returns. Scarcity is the normal condition of life, for human beings and all other animals. For humans, the normal solution to scarcity is to go to war with other groups. The survivors of those conflicts are your ancestors. Your culture and genes come from them.

Can't we transcend our violent nature by adopting an ideology of universal love and non-violence? That is a standard part of the humanist worldview, and it has become dogma in the modern West. If we just get rid of bigotry and xenophobia (moral double standards) then we can all live together in peace and harmony, right?

No. There are two reasons why that won't work.

The first, most obvious reason is that resources are finite and population tends toward infinity. If the Easter Islanders all held hands, hugged, and shared all resources equally, they would all have died. Loving each other wouldn't have made dolphin sandwiches fall from the skies. Anyone adopting that strategy would have died, while defectors from that scheme would have had a fighting chance. Love does not conquer hate. Life is intrinsically competitive, and the refusal to compete does not make the competition go away, it makes you go away.

The second (related) reason is that we aren't psychologically equipped to be lovey-dovey altruists. Humanism gets the causal relationship between ideology and violence backwards. Violence is not caused by ideology. Violence is built into the nature of life, and the propensity for violence is built into our brains. Hate is natural. Ideology is used to morally justify hate and violence, but it is not the underlying cause of hate and violence. Competition is the underlying cause of hate and violence. Ideology is just a way to organize people into groups to compete.

Humanists aren't really altruistic, of course. They are hypocrites, because humanism is just another ideology. Humanists use their ideology to signal their moral goodness -- to compete in zero sum games for moral status and political power. They also use their ideology of universal love to justify hatred and violence directed at ideological outsiders ("haters" and "bigots"). Humanists are just as selfish and violent as everyone else, because they are human beings.

The only way to eliminate war is with honesty and rationality. We would first have to admit the truth about human nature: that we are selfish and violent. Then we could organize a system of competition in which violence is controlled and limited to specific forms. For example, we could replace war with a market for reproduction rights, in which people compete for the right to reproduce. Imagine, for example, a social auction for a fixed number of reproduction permits -- a cap and trade system, so to speak. Or, we could create a system in which people have to demonstrate a certain level of income, taxes paid, and social responsibility to qualify for a reproduction permit. Either system could maintain a stable, prosperous population without war. Those are two ways that we could rationally organize the competition for existence, instead of dividing into factions and fighting over resources.

Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen, because anyone proposing such a scheme is a heretic who rejects the ideology of his society. Remember: every society has a myth of its own moral goodness. Those who reject that myth are ideological outsiders who will be ignored, shouted down, ostracized, or even killed.