Wednesday, April 13, 2016

On blocking and the pathology of feud

A while back I wrote about a conference lecture I attended on Libertarian attempts to bring back feud culture in the modern world. Basically, Libertarians think that we can throw out most of our state apparatus of law enforcement and rely on a non-violent feud culture to adjudicate social conflict. Instead of attacking each other, belligerents would just sue each other, with the understanding that if they acted violently the state would no longer protect them from violent retaliation.

This is madness for all kinds of well-understood reasons having to do with basic anthropology and sociology. One major problem is that it seems like feud culture has to co-exist with a culture of avoidance; if people can't avoid each other, you get more conflict and a dramatically escalated risk of unilateral aggression. Feud culture is somewhat viable when relatively sedentary people spend their entire lives within a twenty mile radius and only ever run into a couple dozen strangers over the course of decades; it disappears as soon as you get cities and long-distance transportation.

A point I didn't bring up in that post, but that I'd like to consider here, is that avoidance doesn't just enable feud culture - avoidance encourages it.

As Freud argued in Civilization and its Discontents, social conflict is ultimately an expression of the fundamentally psychological drives that animate human behavior. It's only through our interactions with other people that we learn how to manage our infantile aggression, lust, and selfishness. Our relationships with our parents, Freud famously insisted, were the most consequential simply because they were the earliest and the most intimate - but this dynamic also holds at the broad level of society. Civilization is the process of people learning to peacefully interact with each other, directly and on a deeply interpersonl level; otherwise, psychological tensions go unresolved, and inevitably express themselves in aggression.

It's easy to see how avoidance culture can amplify this problem. People who don't interact with each other don't mature, don't develop their capacity for empathy, and don't broaden their perspectives. Avoidance culture doesn't just forestall conflict - it entrenches it through arrested development, epistemic closure and myopia, and atrophied tolerance. The institutions and customs we rely on for conflict resolution don't get built and maintined. Thus, when avoidance stops working, the stakes are considerably higher than they might have been otherwise, which is why feud culture provides little middle ground between avoidance and combat (and why the libertarian dream of civilized feuds is such a ridiculous fantasy).

Civilization, for thousands of years, has largely been a process of overcoming the feud/avoidance binary through the creation of all kinds of systems and norms that help humans live together. Our government institutions, our economic arrangements, our religions, our art, our entertainment - all of this contributes to that project. It's all driven by exponential population growth, the concentration of modern economies around cities, and the attendant increases in population density; all of these things shrink the world and force us to find ways to peacefully and sanely manage the fact that we're always up in each other's business.

So I think there is something genuinely new in the way that telecommunications has reintroduced avoidance culture into modern society. It facilitates not just the psychological process of socialization, but also the whole apparatus of attendant civilization - economic transactions, political negotiation, the dissemination of ideology, and so on - that sprung up precisely to mediate the kinds of interaction that came with the close proximity of dense populations.

But contrary to all of this, it also facilitates the kind of avoidance that is impossible in dense populations. You can now cut off socialization, economic interaction, political negotiation, ideological diffusion, and so on in ways that we haven't been able to for millennia - unilaterally, absolutely, and irrevocably. You can hang up phones, you can ignore emails, you can block social media engagement, and do all sort of other things to completely cut off and avoid interaction that you just can't do with people offline.

On one hand, then, things like astronomical population and economic growth, the rise of the modern nation-state and transnational institutions, the evolution of military technology and the explosion of income inequality mean that the potential and stakes of conflict are much, much higher than they were thousands of years ago. But on the other hand, civilization now facilitates, on a massive scale, a strategy of conflict management - avoidance - that we haven't seen in all that time, and that history and sociology tells us is inextricably linked with feud culture.

If this link is real, then much of our concern about the forces of alienation and atomization that characterize modern society may be too narrow. They aren't just personal problems that lead to things like loneliness and depression - they entrench us in ways of living and thinking that may be deeply incompatible with those of the people around us. Even as they sew anomie, they erode the social mechanisms we have to negotiate and reconcile divergent interests by attempting to finesse the problem through avoidance. This may work as long as controversies are purely digital, but when they have material implications, conflicts can't be finessed forever. Avoidance culture simply defers these conflicts, and guarantees that they'll be far more violent and powerful when they can no longer be avoided.

None of this is to say that (for example) blocking the trolls on the internet is something that necessarily leads to conflict. In some cases, it may do more good than harm. But when avoidance strategies become a crutch for large groups of people who want to avoid the hard and often unpleasant work of material co-existence, they are symptoms of a deeper pathology with clear anthropological implications.