The BBC4 sociology podcast Thinking Allowed brought Richard Sennett to my attention in a brief discussion of cooperation in a February 2012 program. WThe BBC4 sociology podcast Thinking Allowed brought Richard Sennett to my attention in a brief discussion of cooperation in a February 2012 program. What he said there was intriguing enough I looked him up here.
The crucial point he had made in the discussion was that cooperation requires unspoken rules, often in the form of rituals. The example he cites is the trading floor of a financial market. All the business that is transacted couldn't be done if the actors didn't follow an elaborate set of rituals, but not only are those rituals not written down, but they can't be.
My thoughts on this: to write down the rules of cooperation would transform them into something new, which occupy a different place in the brain: laws, instead of guidelines. When we perceive legalisms, there is the corollary that what isn't prohibited is permitted, and it becomes possible to game the system by following the letter of these laws while ignoring the spirit. When the "rules" are implicit, we only have the spirit and gaming becomes a form of cheating that is harder to define but easier to condemn.
I'm interested in this perspective of cooperation because our modern society has much more anonymity than the conditions in which we evolved. Much more, I believe, than our ancestors experienced just a few generations ago in their more intimate enclaves of class and ethnicity. Anonymity means people won't have these shared rituals and guidelines and instead rely on laws — which are subject to evasion, which then requires more laws.
On a barely related note, this also ties into my skepticism that we are anywhere near the goals of strong AI — creating a synthetic intelligence that is anywhere close to being sentient. Sennett's exploration of how something as critical as cooperation only functions when it is rooted in unconscious thought reminds me that I don't think we understand sentience anywhere near well enough to start pretending we can replicate it.
This book is also related to my project on exploring the sociology of evil. To quote from one of the reviews of this book—
Caught between the "us-against-them" ethos of our gang, group or community, and the "you-are-on-your-own" individualism of the unforgiving marketplace, we are, he believes "losing the skills of cooperation needed to make a complex society work".
I've only made it through Arendt's book and haven't even gotten a copy of Baumeister's or Simon-Cohen's, but I'm already suspicious that this effect of our modern (and, even more so, post-modern) society also is lowering the threshold for "evil".
Two excellent reviews of Sennett's book were identified by another Goodreads reviewer, and both are laudatory: one by the IndendentUK (quoted above) and another by the GuardianUK....more
Strong recommendation from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. In chapter four, "The Faults of Others", Haidt explores hypocrisy as the resulStrong recommendation from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. In chapter four, "The Faults of Others", Haidt explores hypocrisy as the result of our blindness to our own flaws and over-attention to those of others. One subheading is "The Myth of Pure Evil", and Haidt draws extensively on Baumeister:
Baumeister is an extraordinary social psychologist, in part because in his search for truth he is unconcerned about political correctness. Sometimes evil falls out of a clear blue sky onto the head of an innocent victim, but most cases are much more complicated, and Baumeister is willing to violate the taboo against "blaming the victim" in order to understand what really happened.
While researching this book in relation to another matter, I googled that key phrase, "The Myth of Pure Evil", and came across an excellent commentary on this book here. A key paragraph points out that most of what any one person sees as "evil" is undoubtedly being done by other people who think that same action is "good":
A natural bias towards empathy has resulted in an almost universal identification of evil from the victim's perspective. This book produces many examples of events which if one sets out to be even-handed cease to appear intrinsically evil. Few if any perpetrators ever do an "evil" deed without good reason — from their viewpoint. Very, very few groups or individuals "name themselves in positive affirmation of evil … Most of them regard themselves as good people who are trying to defend themselves and their group against the forces of evil".
One root of the startling discrepancy in people's views of one another is that we are intrinsically a tribal species: we naturally cling to group identities and find it tragically easy to see "the other" as evil. So the next time you sit down to watch television and root for your favorite group of highly-paid professional athletes, employed by a profit-oriented corporation that has invoked a geographical location you are fond of, remember that people have historically killed each other — and called each other evil — for little more than the color of the uniforms and the name of their "team".
The essayist also points out that, at least in America, the "popular paramilitary culture" is a factor in perpetuating and reinforcing this mythic view of evil. "In such depictions the ideal North American culture is pitched against a form of evil so pure that it can be conquered only by counterbalancing violence."
When Reagan named the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire", and George Bush named Iraq, Iran and North Korea as "the Axis of Evil", he fed this myth. The Iranians aren't people like you and me, wanting autonomy and international respect for the country they honor so deeply. No; they're just evil. And if that's true, then why not simply follow the popular saying within the American military, "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out"?
While that points to an important source of the recurring image of evil from the United States looking out at the rest of the world, what about the interior view? Well, just think of the imagery used by those who are "tough on crime": Criminals are just evil. They aren't like us. If you think they are, then you are apparently an agent of evil.
On a personal note, this is one source of personal dismay at popular entertainment. Far too much of it popularizes this myth of pure evil. (Including, sadly, even such wonderful stories as "Lord of the Rings".) The Coen brothers, who I have revered since stumbling on "Blood Simple" when it first came out, committed this error in "No Country for Old Men" (although I suspect much of the blame belongs to the author of the novel, who certainly came across as misanthropic in The Road as well). The world they portrayed was starkly evil, much darker than the one we actually live in. As a horror story, it was gruesomely entertaining — and deservedly won those Oscars — but I'm sure people walked out of the theater a little more afraid of the strangers around them, a little less willing to trust in the basic goodness of human nature. A little more convinced in the myth, in the need to be "tough on crime", and perhaps even to "stand tall" against others that aren't like "us, like those evil foreigners. ...more