Monday, February 6, 2017

The Conservation of Group Conflict

While I find watching sports generally boring, the psychology of why people watch sports is fascinating.

Not so much the fact that people want to watch exciting athletic endeavors, which doesn’t need much explanation. Watching the X-games or parkour is simply pleasure at athletic skill. But the most ubiquitous sporting events have a strong aspect of tribal loyalty to them. People don’t just like watching football in general, they mostly like supporting a particular team. You might say that this is just local civic pride, and to a certain extent this is true (though it still raises the question of why civic pride is invested in a sports team in the first place).

But the cleanest psychological natural experiment comes from foreigners who move to a city. I had an Australian friend who moved to the US, and wanted to watch American football. Since he didn’t have a team already, he picked one, literally at random. Now he’s a Green Bay Packers fan, and watches all their games. His choice is arbitrary, but I think he’s just more honest about what he wants. The underlying choice of who to support is always arbitrary. What people really want is the thrill of battle, of tribal allegiance and the raw passion of shared purpose. The only real reason to organize this along city or country lines is that it’s more fun to be part of a shared tribe with your friends, who usually happen to be the people living near you.

Sports tribalism is to actual tribalism what masturbation is to sex. The act being simulated is that of tribal battle. Of course, real tribal battle is generally frightening. You’ve got a high chance of being killed or maimed, and lots of people are too old, fat or weak to be usefully involved. So we’ve innovated ways to produce the same feeling by turning up and screaming for men to do ritualized battle on our behalf. There is a reason that live sports games are so much more exciting than televised games, and why televised games in a pub are more exciting than televised games in your home, and why televised games in your home with friends are more exciting than televised games in your home alone. The main attraction is the tribal shared purpose. The more visceral, the better. It’s no surprise that in Europe, soccer hooliganism takes the simulated version to its logical real-life conclusion.

It might be tempting to view this as a critique of sports, as being vulgar and base. Which is partly true. But there’s another, bigger angle at play.

The rise of mass audience participation in sports came after World War II, coinciding with a) the decrease in actual mass involvement in armed conflict, and b) the increased demonization of any racial or ethnic allegiance by western whites.

As the average young western male had less opportunity to actually engage in martial combat, and had no other tribe with which to bond, his appetite had to be sated with ritual simulated combat and arbitrary tribal sports loyalty.

In other words, when tribal allegiance and conflict did not exist, someone had to invent them. Because they fill a very primal need in the average psyche.

You can see this pattern operating in wider conflicts. There seems to be something approximating a conservation of group conflict. Obviously, there's periods of high and low average levels, so it's not a strict conservation. But there does seem to be a rough equilibrium, created by forced pushing in opposite directions. When the background level of tribal conflict gets too low, people seek it out. But when there threatens to be too much, some of the people who were previously tribal enemies become acceptable again.

In terms of the first, there are some wars in history that are simply difficult to explain, even in hindsight. For instance, the War of 1812 between Britain and America. Be honest, have you ever read a succinct account of what the hell it was all about? Here’s Wikipedia:
The United States declared war for several reasons, including trade restrictions brought about by the British war with France, the impressment of as many as 10,000 American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, British support for Native American tribes fighting European American settlers on the frontier, outrage over insults to national honor during the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair, and interest in the United States in expanding its borders west.
 Ooookay. That sounds totally incoherent. Compare it to the far more compelling account from The War Nerd's excellent series 'The 12 Days of 1812'
So why go to war with a great power when you know it’s in a bad mood? And Britain was in a very, very bad mood in the early 19th century, scared out of its wits by France, creeping democracy, disrespectful servants, and the whole revolutionary trend.
Mostly because the US was in a good mood--too good for its own good. We had a big birthrate—rich families were bigger than poor families in those days, partly because more of their kids made it to adulthood—and that made for a lot of young, ambitious “gentlemen” who wanted to add “officer” to their resumes, and “wartime officer” at that.
We went to war because we (meaning, as the academics would say, “a handful of wealthy white males, bla bla bla”) wanted to. The happiest memories anybody had were the stories—not always totally factual, naturally—of how we kicked British ass in Washington’s day. Most of the elite still had a vaguely pro-French feeling, thanks to the French saving our ass in the Revolution, and not in the mood to excuse all the Royal Navy’s high-handed behavior. America knew it was much bigger and stronger than it had been in 1780, and wanted everybody to know it. Nothing like a war to make an impression.
Lastly, the factor you won’t see mentioned in any of the standard list: War envy. You see this a lot when a war goes big: everybody wants to get in on it. Later, they usually want to get out, but it’s too late then. War meant much more to most upper-class Americans in 1812 than it does now. Decent families were supposed to produce officers, and officers wanted battle creds. Everybody in Europe was getting them; they’d been at it for 20 years, in fact. It was just plain time for another war. The Brits were overextended and impolite; Canada was there for the taking, or looked to be; and a whole new generation of Americans who’d had to listen to dad’s and granddad’s stories about Lexington and Saratoga wanted some material of their own, to bore their grandkids with, the way God intended.
Brecher, who knows more about the psychology of these matters than the vast majority of writers on the subject, is dead right. It's not that the listed casus belli weren't somewhat involved. It's just that they don't add up to a coherent explanation without a significant component that basically amounts to 'people just wanted it to happen'.

And on the flip side, among the odd if largely unremarked developments of the second half of the 20th Century is the enormous decline in military antagonism between European nations. Contra the bureaucrats in Brussels, the prospect of a war between the major European powers is incredibly remote, EU or no EU. There simply isn't the anger for it any more.

As the rising tide of diversity brought more and more minorities into Europe, the primary tribal conflict was completely transformed. The nativists who might have previously been agitating for war with France or Germany, who were the traditional tribal enemies, now had their entire focus absorbed by third world populations in their midst. Correspondingly, the globalist left was far more concerned with destroying nativist opposition at home than with fighting other countries. As the progressive elites pushed further and further into continent-wide alliances to advance the EU idea, the conservatives and nationalists realised that they actually had a lot in common with the nationalists from other countries.

Partly this is just a matter of tactics - if you try to fight everyone at once, you inevitably lose. But still, the idea that nativists in lots of European countries would be all allied with each other, rather than agitating for wars against each other, would be highly surprising to Europeans 100 years ago. As indeed would the currency of the idea 'European' itself. One might be British or German or Polish, but nobody was just 'European'. You can only do so when there is a real, non-European group against which to distinguish yourself.

And this suggests something puzzling about the pan-European nationalism of people like Richard Spencer. Specifically, suppose Spencer et al actually get their way, and the European nations revert to being comprised mostly of people ethnically associated with that region - Anglo-Saxons in Britan, Teutons in Germany, etc. Don't ask me how this happens, but just assume it. What do you think would happen next?

My guess is that there's a good chance that the pan-European sentiment would quickly dissolve without the glue of intra-country conflict to hold it together. The European countries would soon end up a lot more antagonistic to each other than they are now. We had a period where Europe was filled with only white people, and 'pan-European nationalism' sure isn't the way to describe the prevailing mood at the time'. Maybe it would be different this time around, but would you bet on it? And if so, why?

At heart, starting up another tribal conflict it would be the only way to keep the game going. Nativists want to fight other tribes. Globalists want to fight nativists, and feel virtuous by defusing the nativist/outgroup conflict (as they see it). But everyone involved needs there to be a tribal enemy in order to be able to enjoy playing their part in the game, which is the only thing they all agree on.

The economists will tell you that we can't have world peace and disarmament because it creates massive incentives for one country to defect and invade everyone else.

But the psychologists might add another reason. We can't have world peace and disarmament because people would get bored and start conflicts up again.


  1. Fandom is not that arbitrary

    1. If you're born into an area, absolutely. If you move areas, and were a fan, you're probably going to still retain your original loyalty. The process of how you came to a particular allegiance, for the native born, is highly predictable.

      But it's not because there's anything inherently Texan about the Cowboys. If the Cowboys switched rosters with the Patriots tomorrow, Cowboys fans would start cheering for Tom Brady. If the Seahawks and the Cowboys switched cities, Texans would (slowly) start cheering for the Seahawks. The allegiance is just to a vague idea that the team represents an area. The teams themselves are random ringers chosen to represent an area so that people from that area can do fictional battle with other areas.

      Which might make you think that all loyalty has to regional. Except that the same sports-nonsense is evident in political affiliations, whose divisions often run within the same household or extended family. Partly, people just want to cheer for some team.