I listened to a podcast from This American Life yesterday. It was called Tribes. That’s a terribly fashionable topic. I also read
http://flipchartfairytales.wordpress.com/2014/04/12/the-social-media-pillory/ by @flipchartrick which is always interesting.
They made me think how we behave sometimes, especially on social media where our more conscious civilised conventions have yet to catch up with our more instinctive tribal behaviour.
One of the points made in the podcast was about how destructively exclusive tribes can be. How if two members of two tribes meet accidentally in an isolated spot they may be fearful and spend time talking carefully, desperately seeking common ground, say trying to identify a shared cousin. When no common ground is found there comes a point where the two may fight or one may simply run away.
That struck me as an extreme representation of the general case, but properly reflected a situation I found myself in about 25 years ago in a tube station in London.
Me and a group of friends had been to a football match. Crystal Palace vs someone, I can’t remember.
Later, after a few beers, we were approached in a tube station by a group of snarling, drunk Millwall supporters. You didn’t mess with that lot. Even in a more gentrified footballing world, where white socks and Fred Perry shirts have mostly been replaced by an otherwise beige M&S man sporting (ok, inhabiting) a replica shirt with, “Dad”, written on the back, I dare say you still don’t.
“Are you Stoke!?”, they snarled. I assume they’d played Stoke that afternoon.
The implication was clear.
“You’d better not be, or else”.
The thing is, I’m from Leeds and two of the others were from Lancaster and Scunthorpe. We weren’t from Stoke, it was much worse than that, we were northerners and one of us was from Leeds!
The fourth member of our group was from somewhere in South London.
He raised his hand, which we rightly took to mean, “Keep your mouths shut.”, and talked us out if it in the most bizarre way.
It was alarming, but what followed amazed and, later, amused me.
Our guy, John said, “No, we support Leyton Orient, we got thrashed 3-0 by so and so utd today.”
The knuckle draggers, “Shame, so and so utd are **insert extreme insults to ability and parentage**, better luck next week lads.”
And that was that. We wandered off, a little bewildered at the ease of our escape, having lived to avoid fighting on another day.
It turned out that there is / was a non aggression pact between Leyton Orient and Millwall based on some link or other, perhaps Leyton Orient is a feeder club or something, who knows. By invoking Leyton Orient, John had been able to be imprecise as well, so as to avoid any detailed cross examination, and we’d got away with it.
John knew this trick because he was actually a Charlton fan and had used it before. It seems highly likely that that’s who Crystal Palace were playing now I think. I’ve no idea what relations between Charlton and Millwall were like. I guess bad enough to not be an adequate alternative to being, “Stoke”.
Basically, Leyton Orient were the shared cousin.
Rick’s latest blog is about how we behave on Facebook (etc) and the things we’ve yet to learn. It is explicit in our culture that we shouldn’t be racist, homophobic or sexist. We don’t all obey the rules but we know them, and when people break them we can confidently call it wrong when people do.
Other rules are still implicit. One is that ridiculing people we don’t know on Facebook (etc) is wrong.
A confession, if I’m in a pub with friends and someone comes in wearing sandals and socks, I may nudge and wink, we may snigger. He is not of my tribe, the smug tribe. That’s bad but it’s contained in a group in a pub and my tribe will likely shush each other and change the subject so the sartorial buffoon won’t know he’s the butt of our jokes. We’re quite nice really. It’s wrong but contained. We are human yet humane. Tribal yet civilised.
It is in our tribal nature to isolate, humiliate and attack those outside our tribes. People who don’t support Millwall or who wear sandals with socks (though I read in today’s The Times that this is now fine, but then so are unruly beards.).
Overriding that instinct is part of what makes us civilised, with all it’s benefits.
Facebook (etc) is not a pub. If it were, then it would be a huge one, where it would be acceptable to stand on a table with a megaphone and a theatrical spotlight, repeatedly pointing out men in socks and sandals. It might even be acceptable to wear a mask so we could be anonymous while doing so.
Public ridicule and humiliation is wrong.
Espousing views anonymously, unless perhaps you might reasonably fear those you are criticising, is wrong too.
Those rules are obvious and so implicit in real life. On line we will likely have to make them explicit and repeat them for a few generations to make them stick.
Perhaps it’s about time we started adding a few simple rules like that to our culture so as to make them explicit.
Boringly, we might have to add them somehow to our laws too.
I’d love to know what you think, but if you do comment, feel free to be forthright but let us know who you are and try to be polite.
PS I’ve not forgotten the piece I promised on the death of Facebook. It’s got a bit long but will doubtless see the light some time soon.