Over 25 years ago I read Daughter of the Empire, a political fantasy that prefigured elements of the “grimdark” genre. The protagonist was involved in various machinations where she had to sacrifice aspects of her humanity so that she, and her house, could survive in an amoral game of competition between nobles in the Empire of Kelawan. One of the plot points is that she makes a “calls to clan,” the clan being a collection of noble houses united by notional descent from a common ancestor. Because she has to fight another house that is far more powerful, she makes the appeal to those who are part of her lineage group to come to her aid. The other houses normally are reluctant to intervene, and there are all sorts of manipulations required to prompt the other houses to show solidarity with her.
Nevertheless, the idea exists that a group of houses bound together by kinship, fictive or real, operate as a unit against common external threats.
This is not hard to understand in terms of why these phenomena develop.
Recently, one of my readers at Brown Pundits has been vocal on Indian political events, which have gotten heated. Though he is American, he has family in India, and there has been an instance of social media harassment (or at least contact) with his cousin in that country, relating to his political views (and apparently some accusations of anti-Sikh prejudice on his part). The motives here are not important. The point is that my reader spoke out as an individual, and that has triggered a collective and coordinated action.
One of the implications of The WEIRDest People in the World is that the individualistic social context of the West must rely on rules and norms, rather than interpersonal relationships that extend to lineage groups. But, this means that there must be some element of fairness in meting out punishment.
What if punishment and attacks are capricious? What if they come en masse from a group against an individual? Over ten years ago there were issues relating to Barack Obama’s relationship to Jeremiah Wright, and some liberal journalists on an e-list were thinking about how they should defend Obama. One journalist basically proposed going on offense:
I do not endorse a Popular Front, nor do I think you need to. It’s not necessary to jump to Wright-qua-Wright’s defense. What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.
A decade out this seems high-minded as it serves some purpose. The reality is the way “cancellation” works today is that there is an element of capriciousness involved. There’s a positive feedback loop as major players send their “forces” against nobodies for no reason, except that the mob needs to feed. As an example of this senselessness, consider what happened to a college student in South Dakota, when a bunch of young adult fiction authors and various influencers attacked her on specious grounds. You Google her and this ridiculous controversy comes up, which basically struck her like lightning.
The problem is that people face these forces and coordinated attacks as individuals. What if that woman had a lineage group, a clan, who she could rely on that? The clan, in its turn, could seek out cyber and reputational revenge against those who attacked her. Of course, this sort of behavior erodes the norms and social capital which allows for a high trust society, but I don’t think it’s feasible for individuals to keep worrying that they’ll get sucked into the undertow and take reputational hits indefinitely. For example, I know an academic who is a conservative who donated to Donald J. Trump. Though passions have cooled, he found out last fall that some of his neighbors were thinking about making his political views an issue, likely attacking his reputation and asserting he was a racist and a fascist. Should he just accept this? The neighbors have numbers on their side and feel they can act with impunity. They won’t suffer any reputational damage or feel discomfort. But every action has an opposite and equal reaction.
Perhaps to maintain some semblance of our current culture we should take steps toward more explicit pillarisation.