Discover more from living together, somehow
Tailgaters, tailgating: part two (one culture's 'natural' explanation of itself)
"Who now reads Spencer?" (Talcott Parsons)
In the previous post, I was urging that the existence of the tailgater and tailgating might help us think very carefully about what it means to continue to aggress, to enact this widely-held desire to move forward – until what? – and also every gater’s tacit refusal to accept the futility to oneself of what one is nonetheless continuing to try to do, leaving aside, or overcoming, or never even noticing or caring about the feelings of tension and alarm and the increased vulnerability to injury one is inflicting on everyone around them. How can we think about this, as an instance of a practised understanding of freedom in the context of our living together, somehow?
I described some perspectives from sociology and systems theory that focus on tailgating. Another way into the problem comes by way of tracing the emergence of the cultures in which tailgating and tailgaters emerged (next post); yet another goes by way of considering the deeper passions and irrational forces that might drive it (next next post). But first of all, what might one culturally dominant explanation of the tailgater tell us about his tailgating? What might the tailgater tell himself? And how might this telling be telling?
One dominant approach to understanding social behaviour takes the evidence of what ‘studies have shown’ and typically generalises it to the level of the social by applying labels to observed behaviour. For these individualist accounts, society ‘comes about’ as an aggregation of the self-interested actions of rational individuals; ‘tailgating’ names the sum total of individual instances of tailgating behaviour. In other words, this style of explanation tends to adduce a generalisation about social phenomena by gathering up patterns of individual-pathological behaviour that show up in empirical studies and interpreting them using a set of value-laden assumptions (of which more in a few paragraphs).
A strict application of this epistemological model arguably precludes venturing into social theory: if there is only observable behaviour, granted there are patterns at the level of the group and the population, yet although we can give those patterns labels, we’re still not accounting for the social as the social (not as social action, not as communication, not as symbolic expression, not as communions of form, practice, ritual &c). And as everything outside what can be deduced from studies of observable individual behaviour isn’t measurable and can’t be observed, stricto sensu, it doesn’t (yet) exist, or it remains speculation for ‘down the pub’. In the couple of podcasts I’ve heard with Jordan Peterson, he deals with these limits rhetorically, by leaping out of his kind of psychometric-scientific account of behaviour right over to Jung (to deal with stories and meaning) or Plato (to deal with forms and politics). In scissors/ paper/ rock form, when the interviewer would respond with Jung, he would then leap back to psychometrics, &c.
However, there is a culturally prevalent discourse that takes psychologising aggregations and leaps to the level of the social using evolution by natural selection. What I’m trying to get a read on here is how the dominant culture in this country might understand its own behaviour. So what interests me here is less the evolutionary psychologists explicitly peddling these explanations, and more the kind of belief produced by the half-thought musings of one’s metaphorical uncle, the kind of white guy >50 who navigates this world with Stephen Pinker, then explains what doesn’t fit (culture!) by way of what they’ve read in Bill Bryson, knows that Muslims are bad (by reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali), that western civilisation is great (by reading Niall Ferguson), and that everything is going to hell because of immigration, relativism, or Cultural Marxists (by reading The Australian), or what have you.
Nearly everyone I know has this metaphorical uncle. If you’re lucky, you have the variant also knows that things are complex (by reading Gladwell, Taleb) and that ethics are important (by reading Peter Singer). If you’re unlucky, you may have the variant who’s lost faith in ‘all of the above’ and tipped out of this weltanschauung into full-blown white supremacism. If this uncle is lonely and under the age of 50, he probably never even read Pinker or the Australian, and went straight from porn and Call of Duty to Qanon, or Alex Jones ‘black helicopter’ covid scam/plandemic stuff.
Yet if it tips dark so quickly, this is, in part, this could be because it is social Darwinist, at base.
Everywhere I’ve encountered it, this vague but prevalent discourse I’m caricaturing has recourse to social explanation through an inchoate social Darwinist theory that has changed little since Herbert Spencer. In fact, if you read Spencer now (though who now does?), although the word choice, syntax, and thirty volumes are all incredibly late nineteenth century, his basic thought remains basically contemporary for this group, and has lost little of its persuasive force.
These offspring of Herbert Spencer love facts and data and want to claim science nature and reason as their authority, yet they tend to deny contingency and specificity, with recourse to naturalising arguments that remove the stinging weight of cultural, social and historical explanation, usually by denying it admittance. For the ‘uncle’ who is closest to me , the basal move is to claim that his own/ contemporary society’s values are natural, instinctive, adaptive and had/have survival utility. Society is good because it exists; it’s getting better all the time, just like the Beatles said. And if its existence is dominant, it means it survived well, while the most dominant cultures are the ones with the best solutions to the real problems, which are always natural and perennial and take account of ‘human nature’. Those who ‘ignore human nature’ (communists &c &c) are condemned to totalitarianism (Russia, China); those who impose cultural ‘beliefs’ over human nature will continue to be ‘stuck in the middle ages’ (The Middle East), those who respect human nature can be free, within its limits.
Here, progress, that key word of the nineteenth century, is still happening, and we can still see this clearly by observing how powerful the new iPad is, how good the new sensors are at the tennis and cricket, and how much our investment properties and portfolios are now worth. Unfortunately, progress is being held up (perhaps by lockdowns) or dragged down (perhaps by migration from the third world, or Cultural Marxists), but if we get rid of what’s holding it all back, or vote for those who promise to do this for us, then progress will resume, and enjoyment will continue. ‘Freedom freedom freedom’, as one current party’s poster says.
I would need to study this more closely, but intuitively, I feel that especially Australia, and also the Anglocapitalist countries, might have always been more Spencerian than neoliberal or what have you. The majority here never really left the basic assumptions – about progress, property, territory, people, race – of the late nineteenth century. It was just overlaid with postwar suburbia, American consumerism, then cultural variants of neoliberalism – as society, structurally transformed by its dynamic interaction with global capitalism, created winners and losers and gradually eroded a lot of global-racial birth lottery privilege.
How does this social Darwinist belief set render the tailgater’s tailgating? All behaviours, even behaviour like tailgating that seem irrational, are natural. Yet some behaviours are atavistic. One the one hand, all behaviour is natural, the expression of species ‘instincts’. This means that behaviour that appears pathological is actually a persistence grounded in some inscrutable survival-utility: somehow, being a rude prick in traffic is a now-maladaptive recontextualization of behaviours that once conferred some kind of survival advantage that ‘studies could show’. Thus tailgating was behaviour once appropriate to the jostling social structures of the savannah, or it is a ‘throwback’, an atavism that erupts where the tailgater’s inner Paleolith fails to get with the contemporary program. If one wishes to go further down Galton Road to your racist version of this uncle, we could even say that the problems are genetic: the tailgater is someone with a low IQ, an inbred ingrate, an inferior specimen. Galton Road gets dark petty quickly.
Notice that social Darwinism always relies on naturalisation, and this produces two effects for its social theory.
On the one hand, contemporary society’s values are generalised ‘up’ to the point where the very fact that they exist and are common means they must have some natural, instinctive, adaptive and had/have survival utility, even if ‘studies have not yet shown’ why this is the case. This also means contemporary society is paradoxically also archaic, or that the best we can hope for is limited by what the species is capable of, and how it tends to behave. Freud also takes this nineteenth century insight and runs with it in a slightly different direction in Civilisation and Its Discontents, which I’ll get back to in an imminent post.
On the other, contemporary society’s values disappear as such, because pathological behaviour always tends to get defined back ‘down’ to a ‘few bad apples’: tailgating can therefore be explained away as an atavism which can be addressed as individual-level responses, such as through punitive measures, better surveillance, tougher fines. The general manifestation of aggression, meanwhile, however atavistic, is just a tragic expression of a ‘caveman’ stuck in traffic. Again here, there’s still no such thing as society, really, only individual behaviour, species instincts, and gridlock. For me, this is actually a truly surreal way of viewing how we actually live in our cities and suburbs, teeming as they are with practised understandings of freedom that are social, as well as cultural, ethical, and technical. It’s also a curious irony that the very culture that produced and championed the driving norms that produced gridlock also has a way of seeing its pathologies that removes any spur to a reasonable solution beyond building more freeways, paying to use them, and acting out our frustration on a similarly constrained stranger when they don’t work and we haven’t got what ‘we’ paid for.
In fact, Spencerian explanations show an everpresent reliance on this inchoate social theory in which continually confuses natural facts with cultural values. This happens because its espoused by a group with a set of cultural values producing discourse whose objective is to mint natural facts, to naturalise. This is why social Darwinism always tends to flip cultural values back into natural facts. Where this is not possible, it deals with values by relegating them to mere culture (spicy foods and strange dances), or it poo-poohs or even flatly denies the cultural, the social and the historical-contingent any causal-effective place whatsoever. If you’re interested, try asking a Spencerian uncle to explain the survival utility of the music or poetry he likes, why he’s still with his ‘chosen mate’ although they’re less conventionally attractive and fertile than someone younger, or why he ‘married’ them, although it makes more genetic sense to have unprotected sex with as many ‘mates’ as possible.
This confusion of facts and values leads to some crazy contradictions when handling time.
The moment that one is dealing with that temporal order called civilisation, the overall account of the world an emergent effect of some weird combination of ‘rational actions’ (good behaviour now) and ‘survival instincts’ (rude, bad behaviour, from time immemorial), and in which the peculiarities of our social order’s (cultural, historical) dominance tends to be naturalised back ‘up’ to the level of the ‘homo’ and the ‘species’. Structurally, this order of explanation tends to prevents anyone who buys in from seeing capitalism as I explored it a couple of weeks ago: an historical-contingent system that actively produces the cultural values that align with and promote perpetuate identification with the current system. And in fact, the dividend of buying in is precisely that one does not have to see one’s implication in anything contingent: one’s surroundings, like one’s behaviour, are, shall we say, supremely natural.
This leap to the social with recourse to natural instinct always poses further issues when purporting to explain what are – like tailgating – so clearly societal pathologies and culturally patterned unreason to anyone whose experienced or has some other understanding of different cultures and periods of human history. In fact, in every encounter I’ve had (and these are my biases too, to be sure), it shows up anyone employing these explanations as invested in a structured ideological defence of the violence and cruelty of their own society, through a process of self-exculpatory naturalisation, and very unable to see this.
Partly, as I’ll explore next, this is also because of the neoliberalism stupid…