These days I keep a bank of blog ideas (hopefully at least five at any given time) so that when I sit down on a Monday morning, one of the ideas will present itself. I came up with this idea a while back and have wanted to write about it for ages, it’s time has now come.
I actually started thinking about this topic almost 10 years ago and wrote a short article that ended up in my book (here). In that paper, I argued that, often, ties represented a form of ‘faux’ professionalism: using a piece of cloth to signify a person’s value and competence seemed not only outrageous, but ludicrous. At the time, I suggested that organisations move beyond the tie in order to help themselves and their employees move past facile representations of ability, in order to develop more robust ways of determining a person’s capability.
It turns out, however, that ties are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, today, I’m going to use ties as a metaphor for why tradition, conservatism and social conditioning are quite literally destroying the world.
Tradition is a funny beast. Humans can’t seem to get past the notion that continuing to do something just because we believe it’s always been done that way is a good idea (remembering that many ‘traditions’ might only have a history of as little as a few years). Some traditions are quaint and mostly harmless. For the most part, these types of repeated behaviours involve nostalgia, a connection to the past, and a feeling of ceremony. They don’t involve the element of compulsion (at least not to any great or lasting degree), have an ‘opt-out’ clause, and are devoid of judgement – participation is simply something that one chooses to do. Kilt wearing is a great example: Male Scots, and people who claim Scottish ancestry, often choose to wear a rather silly and impractical piece of clothing because it helps them feel connected to an idea (in this case, membership of a tribe).
Tie wearing is another thing altogether. To my mind, it represents a form of intellectual dogmatism, that sets defined limits of thought and action, and that separates the wearer from the real consequences of his or her actions. Allow me to explain…
First, I should point out that I don’t equate the compulsory use of the tie in certain organisations (mostly finance and banking) with uniform wearing. Uniforms can serve a very different purpose, sometimes to identify organisational membership, sometimes to create a sense of uniformity (hence the name) within an organisation, and sometimes to portray a particular message (e.g., don’t mess with me). Ties, on the other hand (especially within banking) are used to denote a level of separateness and aloofness from the rest of the world, whilst reinforcing the underlying notion that effectiveness is connected to a strip of material. They don’t so much identify a unified group, as differentiate a type of thinking that is inhuman. As such, groups of tie-wearing individuals (in government, large organisation, and in the financial sector) often make decisions that are completely stripped of any moral, ethical or humanistic consequences. Instead, these decisions are made to feed the beast of commerce, or to appease the market, or to ensure continued power.
OK – quick sidestep. In case this is coming across as me actually believing that people act inhumanly because of ties (i.e., that it’s the ties’ fault), let me put your mind at ease. I’m talking about how we use symbols to represent a way of thinking and acting (and sometimes to excuse those thoughts and actions). The tie is one such symbol. Others include flags, swastikas, donkeys and elephants (if you’re American you’ll get those), and company logos. We also use words as symbols for certain ways of thinking and acting: words like Labour, Conservative, Liberal, catholicism, spirituality, or ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment’. More often than not, these symbols represent the end sum of a tradition (remember, it’s a tradition because it doesn’t have room for modification, variance or evolution).
So let’s have a look at tradition and its relationship to conservatism and faulty thinking. As I’ve said, traditions can be quaint and benign, or pervasive and malignant. In whatever format they present themselves, they occur (as does most human behaviour) as the result of neurological deficits or vulnerabilities. Humans are vulnerable to certain types of behaviour (read here, here and here for a discussion of viral memetics) based on the way our brains have evolved to work. Deeply embedded in all of us are a few almost irresistible tenets: tribalism (or the need to align ourselves with other persons whom we perceive as similar), survival (increased by aligning ourselves with a group), and the use of heuristics that help us to reduce processing requirement. This last one needs a bit more explanation. Heuristics are rules that help us deal with the world around us. Many of our internal heuristics are there to help us cope in an overwhelming environment, and they work by helping us to take mental shortcuts. Because the brain runs on blood sugar and, for most of our evolution, we needed to conserve blood sugar (because it was hard to replace), it makes a lot of sense that we evolved systems to help us avoid activating processing when we don’t need it. Hence our ability to delude ourselves into thinking that we’re thinking, when we’re actually just pretending. As such, systems that help us to feel comfortable, and not to have to really think about anything (especially challenging things) are particularly attractive. This goes some way toward explaining religion, societies, political parties, and organisations.
So, tradition can be thought of as a form of evolved mental heuristic that helps us to avoid excessive (and from an evolutionary standpoint, costly) thinking. Our brains tell us that if something has been done for a while by a group of people it must, therefore, be both acceptable and purposeful (no further thinking required). It makes sense for us to align ourselves to that behaviour and to attempt to propagate it. As I’ve mentioned, this can result in benign activity (like wearing kilts) but, unfortunately, tradition has two nasty (and related) side effects: conservatism and resultant faulty thinking. Like the neurological vulnerability in humans that predisposes us to traditions, conservatism can probably be explained from an evolutionary perspective. At its simplest, reducing our exposure to risk increases our chances of survival. Combined with language and alignment with a tribe, however, this behaviour probably allowed close group cohesion and cooperation, again increasing the odds of survival – maintaining the status quo became extremely important, and change became associated with risk and danger. Of course, what works well for a small, struggling tribe of early humans, doesn’t work so well when survival is no longer dependent on that small tribe (so probably the last 500 years or so – or a lot further if you want to include earlier civilisations), and the consequences have been severe: think the Inquisition, the Catholic church, Nazism, Reaganism, communism, and sub-prime lending. Put together, conservatism becomes ‘maintaining the status quo’, in which the means justify themselves. Instead of enhancing survival of the species, it results in optimisation of conditions for a small, ruling elite, who maintain control by exploiting a neurological vulnerability in the human brain.
I mentioned faulty thinking, and this also needs some explanation. Humans are poor logical thinkers, although we believe that we’re good at solving logical problems. I’ll write more on this next time, but trust me when I say that we are all spectacularly crap at thinking in a logical fashion. Worse, when me make logical errors, we refuse to recognise the mistake (even when it’s pointed out to us) and create rationalisations to prove to ourselves why we were right all along (again, even though we’re demonstrably wrong), and why those who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, but are inferior to us. This is the end result of tradition and conservatism. Combined they form a way of thinking and acting that allows us to justify not only behaving in a ridiculous way (for its own sake), but also to rationalise and justify thoughts and actions that are demonstrably, incontrovertibly ineffective, destructive, horrible, or just plain wrong. We see this every day, from the insanity of the financial sector that resulted in the GFC (horrifyingly, no one seems to have learnt anything from that episode, so it’ll happen again), to political spin that allows governments to insist that they “meant to do it all along” and, in the process, reinforce the notion that there’s no need to learn from mistakes (unless the mistake was to be honest, in which case they’re great at learning how to lie more effectively), to religious fundamentalism (and associated abhorrent actions), to climate change denial (and the consequent refusal to do anything about it).
So, in a nutshell, we get the requirement to conserve blood sugar that reduces our desire to think, combined with a need to align ourselves with similar organisms for survival. The end result is tradition which, when combined with conservatism and faulty thinking, stop us from moving forward and keep us doing stupid things (often to others).
There’s one more thing I need to add to this equation: social conditioning. Institutions that thrive on conservatism and tradition have understood that perpetuation of their meme requires that people be conditioned from an early age to conform, so as not to question the status quo and to, unthinkingly, perpetuate a belief system. There’s an entire discipline (social psychology) that exists to understand this phenomenon (so I won’t go into any depth here – read my article on the dark side of psychology here). Needless to say, in perpetuation of a given traditional ideology, social conditioning is a major strategy. This means that all of us have been conditioned to think in particular ways, and to accept many things without question. The first step in breaking any type of conditioning, is learning to question.
I’ve mentioned repeatedly that tradition most likely appeared because of an evolutionary vulnerability, based on our need to survive. And that, for a while at least, maintaining traditions and acting conservatively enhanced survival (thus cementing this behaviour genetically and societally). I believe that this neurological flaw will now result in our destruction because it is antithetical to our survival (read here). It’s seems that we, as a species, have been infected by a terminal memetic virus, one that forces us to keep acting in destructive ways by hacking the systems that evolved to help us survive. The irony is overwhelming.
The only way we’re going to overcome this memetic infection is to learn how to question things, especially those things that appear sound because they are based on tradition. I started with tie wearing today, because it represents a tradition that perpetuates an entire slew of faulty thinking. But it’s important that we all go a lot further than taking off our ties, however. Removing symbols doesn’t fix the underlying problem. An ‘open collar’ workplace rule is meaningless if outward appearance is still a gauge of competence or, worse, that organisation still perpetuates other unethical behaviours. We need to learn to question far and wide, and to stop accepting opinion as a substitute for fact.
Here’s my ‘off the cuff’ list of prime areas for scepticism and questioning (all of which are rooted in tradition): eating meat, faux professionalism, declining human value as we age, gender inequality, consumption and the limitless resource, climate change denial, use of animals as commodity, racism, religiosity, and political ideology.
How about you? How about paying some attention to the areas that you’ve been conditioned to accept without question? What are they? How about questioning tradition and conservatism? How about spending less energy sustaining the status quo and more on attempting to ensure our survival as a species? Your thoughts below would be great.