Neeper: What Drives A Culture Insane?

Portola Valley, Calif.
Former Los Alamos resident
In the Los Alamos Daily Post of June 20, V. B. Price asks whether a national culture can go insane. Price sees recent mass shootings as evidence of a developing mad culture within a fear-laden population that could tip into a disguised civil war or dictatorship. I suggest that Nazi Germany of 1939 and ISIS of 2017 provide examples of insane cultures that answer Price’s question. However, I also suggest that the crucial question is not whether a culture can go insane, but rather what drives it crazy.

Price cites studies on complex entities, but his essay does not examine society by the known characteristics of a complex system. A complex system is many actors (things that can react) interacting by non-proportional rules—like cells in an organism or fish in a school. Society is a complex system. We interact by many rules—from the tax code down to what clothes to wear and how to set the silverware on the table. Our society has grown much more complex due to the increasing speed and number of communications—the interactions.

My computer or cell phone lets me shop for wine in Korea and demands attention to 25 emails a day, while cable TV bombards me with information adjusted to support my prejudices and social media connects me to unseen associates whose prejudices match mine. One result is extreme polarization between the people that I believe are like me, and the people that I believe are not like me. Everyone lives in a social angst. Those who feel excluded turn to a politics of resentment, or worse, turn to violence.

Our American ideal is absolute freedom, a nice ideal but an impossible myth. Living in a society, each person is guided by written, unwritten, and even subconscious rules of behavior that restrict freedom. That works well in those few societies where winning is not a major rule. However, in a society modeled on winning—getting ahead—there must be losers. Societies with unrestrained freedom, societies without equalizing components (such as anti-monopoly rules, clean water, and public lands), the division between rich and poor can collapse the society1.

Historian Crane Brinton said the strength of a society is not measured by either its ideals or by its reality. Rather, the weakness of a society is measured by the size of the gap between the two.

Our society has a large gap between the ideal of freedom and the necessities of working together within modern complexity. We have an ideal of democracy but congressmen are regarded as disloyal if they cooperate with a member of the opposing party. Seeking to win, seeking power through polarization of tea-party conservatism or socialist liberalism, can ultimately bring about the sociopathic culture feared by Price.

An unwanted emergent behavior of a complex system can’t be eliminated simply by prohibiting the behavior. You have to alter something in the rules of interaction. I cautiously suggest that altering the overriding social assumptions regarding winning would help to avoid catastrophe. A football game, in which winning is the supreme value, does not provide a good model for a culture.

1. Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, Simon and Schuster 1968, paperback edition 2010.

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