The Extreme Stratification of American Society is in Our Blood
Are humans just smooth primates? Yes and no. It’s complicated. We have an inherent, biologically driven nature and a socially constructed nature. The relationship between them has been debated ever since biology was first defined as a science. In the late twentieth century it became a tired, cliched discussion known as the nature-nurture debate.
In the early twenty-first century, it seems that the reality of human biological nature is far, far more complicated than most thinkers in the last century suspected.
When philosophers get involved, the discussion gets heated. But I’m jumping in anyway.
An overview of human nature
Humans are hardwired to seek status and power. We want control over our lives. Often, we see having power, control, and advantage over our fellow humans as a way to have control over our own circumstances.
We’re not that different, really, from chickens in this respect. Or chimpanzees or gorillas.
It is chicken nature to have a pecking order and it is human nature to establish status over other humans. It is gorilla nature to have a silverback dominating an entire troupe. It is chimpanzee nature to establish dominance with violence.
It is also human nature to use some form of violence, whether physical or verbal, when we are feeling threatened.
We can’t help it. It’s a universal tendency. But it’s a tendency, not an inevitability. And the tendency can be magnified by unbearable social conditions.
Nineteen-Eighty-Four doesn’t have to come true.
It doesn’t mean that human society is inevitably destined to be unequal, competitive, and uncooperative. We don’t have to embrace the horror predicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.”
Those are the words of O’Brien, the leader of the cynical, oppressive “Party” that dooms the world to live in misery at the hands of a war-mongering state in this classic study of political oppression.
We don’t have to hand all of our power over to the “Party,” the powers of inequality and oppression; we can take back our power. We can decide to cooperate. Maybe we will always have hierarchies. But oppression is not inevitable. We are not hardwired to oppress each other.
We can also be like our other ape cousin, the bonobo. We can diffuse our tendency to create violent, rigid hierarchies.
We embrace these extreme hierarchies out of fear. This tendency can be magnified by a society that nurtures a culture of fear.
Canada versus America
The society I’m talking about is America. Canada, my home country, for lots of historical and socio-political reasons, is less fear-based and more cooperative than America (if you are interested in why this is so, see Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century by Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul). We are far from perfect. But we Canadians look at extreme American behaviour with astonishment. We’re racist, we’re violent, we’re riddled with inequalities. But the American version of our societal problems is, to us, well, breathtaking.
It’s a magnification of a distortion of a caricature of a parody. In Canada, we have a lot of American-style problems: we have nutcases storming our parliament buildings (we shot a lone gunman in Ottawa in 2014). We have mass shootings like the horrific 1989 Montreal Massacre. I was present for another one in 1975 which you can read about here:
We have van attacks. We have disgusting racism (we just happen to hate indigenous peoples even more than we hate Black people). We are homophobic and anti-immigrant. Our police are corrupt and incompetent. We are bad. We need to do better.
But America? Just wow. It actually makes us feel better about ourselves and our societal failings.
It would be easy to become smug. But the difference is one of degree, not of type.
Faces of the enemy
Because American culture, even more than Canadian culture, teaches that “others” (other races, other genders, other language speakers, other nationalities) are dangerous. Others need othering out of fear that “they” (others) will infect “the people” (whomever is at the top of the pecking order). “They” will take the few things “the people” have for themselves.
The desired, status enhancing things might be good school districts, elite private medical care, or a preferred tax status.
Then “they” will come for our homes, our children, our husbands, our wives, our sons, and our daughters like old-time Vikings raping and pillaging our sacred homes and places of worship.
They will subject everyone to the same low standard of living. We will be living inside a simulation of a nightmare of a dystopian novel.
All because we let “them” have something we wish to reserve for ourselves. Something that proves we are “special.” That we are not subject to the forces of nature.
We might even live forever if we defeat “them.”
This is chimpanzee thinking overlaid with paranoid, delusional human thinking.
Sam Keen got it right in the 1980s.
Sam Keen spelled it out so well in his classic study of human behaviour, Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination (1986).
Here is how Keen explains it. Unlike apes, humans are capable of nurturing delusional fantasies. Deep in our subconscious minds we believe that “we” (special people) are destined for immortality. Nonspecial people are destined to die. “We” must not let ourselves be infected with this damnation. God is on our side. The devil can have those others who are not like us in some essential way.
There will never be enough of everything for everyone, so only “we,” “the people” should have it. There is only so much life to have. “We” must take it.
To extrapolate from this in a post-Cold War, twenty-first century world, things like universal healthcare will take away “the people’s” nice, private, for profit healthcare.
It’s one of the few things “we” have. We don’t want to ruin it by giving it to “them.”
In fact, American-style, privatized healthcare was invented, partly, as a way to make sure that Black Americans couldn’t have healthcare. If White people were no longer allowed to enslave them, then at least they damn well weren’t going to pay for them to go to the doctor.
If this seems far fetched, read this article from the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/universal-health-care-racism.html
And Canada, with its socialized medical care for all, is not innocent of this kind of thinking. Back in the twentieth century, Canadian doctors experimented on our Indigenous peoples with what were then experimental vaccines. Not surprisingly, many Indigenous people in Canada are now suspicious of the new coronavirus vaccine. They have retained this abusive cultural memory.
In America, any kind of non-private healthcare is seen with suspicion. People are afraid of it in a deeply visceral way. Afraid that it will lead to some kind of universal collectivism that will erase all individuality. Americans, not just those from New Hampshire, must “live free or die.”
And those people like Bernie Sanders and his followers, who want to impose this unacceptable system of healthcare on good American individualists?
“They” must be stopped. With guns. With legislation. With anything that restores the balance in favour of “us” over “them.”
“They” must be smeared by propaganda, edged into poorer school districts, sent home to their “shithole” countries, or, if all else fails, shot with AK47 assault rifles. In Starbucks if necessary.
Anything to protect who we are. And if who we are includes outrageous, violent behaviour, then so be it.
Our primate heritage comes back again and again.
Humans have a drive to compete along with a drive to cooperate. We’re both chimpanzees and bonobos. Both are part of our genetic and psychological heritage.
What is this genetic heritage of which I speak? I speak of our two closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Yes, humans are animals. Primates. Apes.
What is the difference between our two close relatives, both of which mated with our early common ancestor over a million years ago?
Aggression. Chimps are far more aggressive than bonobos. Their brains are different. Their behaviour is different. Chimp society is more stratified than bonobo society which is more cooperative, but still hierarchical. Chimps are much more violent. Each troupe has one dominant male who instills fear in all of his male rivals and can forcefully have sex with any female he likes. He leads war parties against males from other troupes, egging on his compatriots to what can lead to what can only be described as war.
Murder and rape. War. Oppression. Rigid hierarchy. That’s part of our genetic legacy. But it’s not the whole story.
Bonobos are more peaceful, less irritable, less violent than chimpanzees. Their societies are dominated by females. But the dominant females cooperate with high-ranking males. They are also part of our genetic heritage.
Also, bonobos are obsessed with sex. They have group sex, polyamory, and same-sex encounters. No bonobo knows who his or her father is. This leads to a cooperative, free-love, promiscuous kind of society that basically has no time or energy for war (see Wikipedia: “Bonobo”).
I am not suggesting that we should go back to some kind of primordial bonobo or chimpanzee reality. Orgies are not going to save us. We have more conscious control over our behaviour than other apes. Supposedly, unlike bonobos and chimps, we have free will. We can assess the consequences of our actions.
We just have to decide to embrace our bonobo nature more than our chimpanzee nature. And build on our human nature, which is even more complex, flexible, and changeable than either. We can decide, unlike either chimps or bonobos, to cooperate and create a rational, fair, and equitable society.
The storming of the capital, or Planet of the Apes
People storming the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 were embracing their chimpanzee nature.
They were all at once frighteningly aggressive, horrifically self-righteous, and comically pathetic, like trained chimps in an old-style circus.
But the chimps in the outdated circuses were abused and coerced into imitating humanity. These people decided to perform their own humiliation willingly. Humiliating themselves for their chimpanzee master, Donald Trump. While he was probably laughing in a back room somewhere or staring at his phone by the pool at Mar-a-lago and smirking. He no doubt enjoyed the performance.
Ridiculous and pathetic. Their outlandish costumes made them look as insane as their actions. People imitating people. But chimps underneath.
Parodies of humanity.
They were humanity at its worst. Desperately grasping at a kind of forceful power they saw slipping away with the defeat of their proud leader.
So, so afraid of the possibility of equality promised by President Joe Biden and his team.
Pathetic, really. Such displays of “strength” are actually cries of weakness and impotence. Like the last lament of an old, dominant silverback gorilla giving in to his younger rivals after years of violent maintenance of the gorilla pecking order.
Reluctantly giving in to death, our universal fate.
Power shifts, and that’s always scary. Violent force cannot be maintained indefinitely. Just like life.
We all need to distance ourselves from our chimpanzee nature. It’s within all of us. Within you, within me, within Americans, within Canadians.
It can be done. It requires self-reflection, confrontation of fear and a letting go of self-righteousness. Those things are not easy. They require the healing of an entire dysfunctional, sick social system.
This possible future society will likely never be the paradise promised by mythologies and religions.
But it could be so much better than what we have.
To self-reflect on our unconscious, aggressive human behaviour will be the beginning of compassion, to paraphrase Sam Keen’s famous words. The beginning of a vision of a more equal society.
We can do it. But we have to work together. Like the hippies making love, not war. Like the bonobos having sex instead violently attacking each other.
And maybe, just maybe, we can begin to evolve from our primate nature.
Anything would be an improvement on the violence and hatred we have been embracing for the last four years, for the last century, for the last five hundred years, all over North America.
Violence may be in our history and in our blood, but we can still change it.
Maybe it’s time to give peace and cooperation a chance. Time to live side by side in mutual support. Instead of this relentless conflict between classes, between races, between religions, between genders, between sexual orientations. Enforced by violence.
Our love of conflict will eventually destroy us if we let it. If we are to survive, we must give up our fear-based attitudes. Our insane paranoia and distrust. Our desire to be more important than our neighbour.
As this world pandemic seems to be telling us, it is almost too late.