tisdag 25 mars 2014

On tensions, contradictions and paradoxes

I have an affinity for certain kinds of complexity; I like contradictions, clever ambiguities, paradoxes and tensions. Truisms and platitudes can also be fun as well as rhetorical devices of all kinds and shapes. Who doesn't love alliterations? Or oxymorons? Or epanalepsis, anadiplosis, onomatopoeia, tautologies and Mondegreens ["The cross-eyed bear" vs "The cross I'd bear", "Trygga räkan" etc.]? This is what everyone who gets email from me gets to read in my signature:

- At least the leak isn't at our end of the boat
- Every time history repeats itself the price goes up
- I think, therefore I am. I link, therefore you are
- There are two sorts of people, those who divide people into two sorts and the others

The last one is the best because of its inherently paradoxical nature ("I am the best of liars because I alway tell the truth" etc.). Also there are some great phrases I've heard in lyrics. At one point I kept track of them, but I don't any longer. These two have for some reason been etched into my brain:

- What if misunderstanding is misunderstood? (D.A.D.)
- Money wasn't made for the poor! (Pop will eat itself)

Yogi Berra was also pretty great, here are some of his "Yogi-isms":
- Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded
- It's like deja vu all over again
- The future ain't what it used to be
- Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours
- Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical

Inasmuch as there is a point to my ramblings above, that point is that my love for these quirky turns of phrase also give some indications of what kinds of theories and what kinds of analyses and what kinds of results I am attracted to as a researcher. There has hardly ever existed an "on the one hand ... but on the other hand" that I didn't like. One example is the deeply fascinating Sunstein - Benkler (Internet) and the Redfield - Lewis (anthropology) academic smack-downs I've written about in a previous blog post. And on one would be happier if we could please squeeze in an "on the third hand" here too...

Many people (including researchers) all to often look at something complex and see one thing and one thing only. I guess most people - including researchers - are just too good at discerning patterns - we see them even when there aren't any there in the first place. Or, are people just plain lazy? No, they are curious and industrious! And altruistic. No, they only think of themselves! Life in premodern times was, as well all know, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" (Hobbes). Or was it actually cooperation (Krapotkin, Axelrod) and not competition that made for the success of the human (and other) species? Well, at least we can be sure of the fact that people are different and that we like variation. Or, are we creatures of habit, set in our thought and constantly scanning and confirming what we already believe? All these cock-sure statements are to me signs of a simplified worldview. To me, reality is more complex than X or Y, this or that, good or evil. I'm convinced that Bertrand Russell was absolutely and irrefutably right when he said that "the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubt". Right? Are you with me on this one or are you against me?

In that vein, I would argue that people are neither (only) nice or nasty, but rather that we all harbor the possibility of being both - in different situations. The balance between these two modes (nice/nasty) can vary from moment to moment, and, it could even happen that both are exhibited at the very same time; being nice to (defending) someone by being nasty to (threatening) someone else. Here's a great example that sheds light on some of what I've this far been blabbering about on a more general, theoretical level:

BBC created the in many ways impressive and unprecedented television series “Walking with dinosaurs” in 1999. The programs are confusingly similar to the well-known genre of semi-documentary nature programs, except that they document the everyday lives of dinosaurs that have not walked the earth for many tens of millions of years. These dinosaurs are brought back to life through clever use of models, animatronics and computer graphics. In one of the many follow-up series, “Walking with cavemen” (2003), the more recent history of human pre-history is presented. All of these series are based on background work and cooperation with literally hundreds of researchers in relevant areas.

A key scene in an episode about one of our predecessor who lived around 1.5 million years ago (homo erectus/homo ergaster) illustrates how the small flock – perhaps for the first time – acts in unison to repel the danger that a big carnivorous cat constitutes to one of the weakest members of the flock. It is a scene that hominids like us can be proud of, and terrified by at the same time (apart of course from the fact that it does not document any “real” event but instead present a possible - or perhaps "probable" - event). The scene shows how the whole flock/tribe – constituting a dozen or so individuals –  climb up trees as the big cat approaches - only to climb down again in order to save the small, orphaned, three-year old “child” that did not make it to the trees. The rioting simians start to make a lot of noice and throw rocks at the predator so as to drive it away, and they are “filmed” in full frontal furriness by the virtual camera as they, bursting with adrenaline, cautiously advance upon their adversary. Because of the camera angle, the viewer becomes the adversary who watches the advancing flock, and, they are indeed something to behold and to be frightened of. The sheer and pure aggressiveness and rage exhibited by this "band of brothers" (and sisters) would for sure have been confusing and terrifying for any lone opponent (be it a big cat or another hominid/simian). This nasty party does indeed make the day by saving the "child" and driving the predator away, but they are also a fearsome sight, since they show the extent of the (potential) aggressiveness we all harbour as individuals and as part of a larger group.

I come to think of American journalist Bill Buford's truly amazing book "Among the thugs" (about football hooligans). He spent eight years with or near these primordial football hooligans and came to understand the Fight Club-like pleasure they (and he) can get out of putting themselves in harm's way, and, in exercising random acts of violence against "enemies" of theirs (other hooligans, other football fans, innocent passers-by and the police).

This is a drastic example and I do not want to suggest that we should draw too many conclusions from an episode in "Walking with cavemen" - a fictive television series. Without delving too deeply into the topic of the biological basis of modern humans' behaviour, I still think this scene is interesting and important to any discussion about complex (social, psychological) phenomena. We all of course know that human beings have the capacity for both altruistic and aggressive behaviour. The reason why this scene is captivating to me is because it shows both of these two opposing drives being exhibited by the group at the very same time and through the very same actions. No matter how unappetising the conclusion is to a modern, "civilised" person, this truly terrible, terroristic and terrifying group of "aggressive violent-prone hooligans" save the day, and, save a life by coming together in sheer, unbridled aggression towards “the other”, who in this particular case happens to be a "legitimate" external threat (a big cat).

This scene made a huge impression on me when I saw it. There is something fundamental to be gleaned from this example, namely that the very same group behaviour can be interpreted quite differently depending on point of view, and, that the very same behavior can simultaneously serve several functions at the same time. By protecting itself from, and ganging up on an external threat, the group exhibits the best and the worst features of humanity at the same time. A less appealing illustration of what we are capable of doing would be the same group ganging up against someone from the next tribe over, or one of the group’s own (weaker?) members that rightly or wrongly is perceived to constitute an threat to the group ("she's a witch - let's burn her!"). As apart from when the group protects itself against external threats, it becomes much thornier to decide what is right and what is wrong, or what is fair and what is unfair in such situations. Kathleen Hogan gives an interesting example of the connection between community, (perceived) internal threats and (grossly unfair) consequences:

to help bring about the moral life of the New World, 17th century Colonial cities were laid out so that all citizens lived within sight of the church. Not only did this place them close to the visual representation of the guiding principles of their communal life, and give them a certain amount of safety, but it also made them observable to one another. The community was organized physically to reinforce the ideology of the community. It is not surprising then, that the majority of women accused of witchcraft in Salem had moved with their families out of the center of Salem in the hopes of establishing a second church. Their accusers may have been alarmed in part by the threat of an ideological break in the community signaled by the physical one.”
Kathleen Hogan (1998), in her (unnamed) master's thesis about 

The project of liberating ourselves from parochial prejudices and stereotypes by building societies based on universalistic principles that treats everyone the same is of course a highly commendable task, but, it might so happen that every advance comes with a corresponding (but not neccessarily equally large) setback. By organising ourselves into larger and larger societies, it for example seems logical to assume that we are also weakening the strength of the average relationship between any two random individuals in such societies. The anonymous existence in big cities also makes it easier to fall between the meshes of an expanding emotional safety net. What could be the consequences of that? Alienation? Depression? Deviance? Drugs? Crime? Workaholism? Consumerism? Does there exist a tipping points that can be passed when the connections between people in a society become to weak? Should we then counter this tendency by organising ourselves into smaller, tighter communities (the primordial tribe)? If so, we might make gains in some ways, while at the same time having to submit to implicit and previously better-hidden pecking orders and to leaders who sometimes are enlightened and fair, but at other times can be unpredictable and capricious. These are tough choices and I for one assume that there always are and will be both advantages and disadvantages, winners and losers to social change and to any particular social arrangement.

I believe the perspective I have described here brings with it a certain kind of sensitivity that makes for more nuanced and interesting (research) results compared to more simplified, one-sided perspectives of "how things are". I'm sure there must be academics in some (or several) disciplines (psychology? systems theory?) who have conducted research and written about these issues before, but I am not aware of them.

Nothing is as simple as it seems - there always hidden dimensions that make phenomena both complicated (darn!) and interesting. This is the logical conclusion I have arrived at and you can trust me on this, because like many other rational persons I was born in the sign of Capricorn!

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