Who are your people?

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader was going to try and finish a post about opening versus not opening our economy in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. (NB: Is it Covid-19 or COVID-19? Your Maximum Leader thinks it should be in all caps, but he doesn’t want to hit and hold that shift or caps lock key. Lazy fingering.) But, he read David French’s column today and decided to write about it instead.

Many moons ago, when your Maximum Leader was in college, he was at a party. It wasn’t a college party with kegs, togas, and lots of grinding on a dance floor tacky with spilt beer. It was a real dinner party with grown adults. Men wore sports jackets and ties (at a minimum). Women wore dresses. Before dinner there were hors d’oeuvres on silver trays walked through the room by servers my age (my age back then anyway). There were cocktails with top shelf booze. Then for dinner you sat at a table where one needed to know which fork was for which course as well as which was a white wine glass and which a red wine glass. Your Maximum Leader was seated next to an aged lady from Richmond, VA. She had that wonderful Tidewater Virginia accent as she spoke. We engaged in friendly conversation through much of the dinner. At one point your Maximum Leader said something that made her laugh. When she stopped laughing she looked at him with a most serious expression and said, “You are such a delightful boy.” She continued, “I must know, who are your people?”

Your Maximum Leader must admit that he’d never been asked that question ever before. He stumbled for a moment and said, “My people? I’m an American from Virginia, like you ma’am.” Then she clarified, “No who are your people? Who are you descended from? I’m a Byrd myself.” Then your Maximum Leader got it. He replied that “his people” were nobodies from Scotland and England who settled in America like many others. (And didn’t move to Virginia until during/after World War II.) This disappointed her somewhat, but not enough to stop talking with him. It seems many in the room were descended from someone of note. (In case you were wondering, it was a dinner party for the Virginia Historical Society… About 1989 or so.)

That little anecdote came do him today when thinking about David French’s piece. French wasn’t writing about ancestry in general, though his ancestry is part of the essay. He was talking about tribes. Political tribes. Religious tribes. The confluence of the tribes of religion and politics. He was also writing about group think and confirmation bias. Here is a particularly salient bit when explaining “group polarization”:

The concept comes from a Cass Sunstein academic paper, published all the way back in 1999. Surveying the relevant social science, Sunstein said, “[I]n a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.”

In plain English, this means that when like-minded people gather, their views get more extreme. Our arguments reinforce one another to such an extent that the entire group will sometimes become more extreme than the most extreme person at the start of the deliberation. Think of it like this—when gun rights advocates (or gun control activists) gather, do they tend to leave the meeting doubting their positions or redoubled in their commitment to advocacy? How many people leave a good Bible study loving Jesus less?

It’s a nonpartisan, human phenomenon, and what’s so seductive about it is the fact that we can’t perceive the sheer tribalism because it’s accompanied by deliberation—by discussion and thought. We fool ourselves into believing our ideas or our intellects are in control when it is often our identity or our history.

This doesn’t mean that group deliberation is always wrong. A collection of abolitionists who met and grew in dedication to the abolitionist cause in Boston in 1860 were right. Unquestionably they were right. But what it does mean is that like-minded group deliberation is suspect, and it can be suspect even in a righteous cause. “The ends justifies the means” is a concept born in unanimity and fervor.

This passage, and French’s whole column actually, caused me to shiver. Shiver due to self-actualization. French writes about his Confederate ancestors taking up arms to defend slavery and he asks himself while he acknowledges the guilt he sometimes feels about his ancestry:

I don’t mean that in a guilty way, I’m somehow responsible for the actions of men who took up arms for an unjust cause more than a century before I was born. Instead, I mean that I’ve often asked myself, “What would I have done?”

Slavery was a monstrous evil. Yet generations of Americans grew up in communities that accepted it, defended it, and even celebrated it. How many abolitionist arguments did a child of the antebellum South ever hear? If they heard abolitionist arguments, did they hear them portrayed fairly, accurately, and sympathetically?

Putting aside the power of argument, did the witness of their own eyes and ears—the brutality that was plainly before them—provide them with sufficient cause to say, “No. I shall not defend such evil”?

That was the specific passage that caused your Maximum Leader to shiver. Often he finds himself asking silently, “what if things were different for me?” Your Maximum Leader recalls with vivid clarity the day he was sitting in a high school history class during a discussion of the Cold War (which was still ongoing at that point). Your Maximum Leader, a Reagan conservative then (and now he thinks - but then was actually during the Reagan Presidency), gave a rather rote recitation of why the USSR was in fact an “evil empire” and needed to be opposed. A dear and close friend, a friend then and now, made a glib remark that “Sure, you’re a good conservative here, but if you’d been born in the USSR you would be in the Young Communist League and be working to get your Order of Lenin before you graduate from college.” At the time the comment shocked your Maximum Leader. He actually took offense to it then. But even way back then (in 1986 or so) a seed was planted. Ever since then your Maximum Leader has taken more time than he cares to relate to you all wondering if his beliefs and biases are an accident of birth and the groups with which he affiliates himself, or if they are due to him actually reasoning out a belief system in which he actually believes.

If your Maximum Leader is being honest with you all, he feels about 60% of the time he has formed a belief system based on his reading, understanding, and assimilation of the ideas of numerous other smarter people than himself. But 40% of the time he does think it is all just an accident of birth.

So your Maximum Leader asks those of you who may still be reading (or may stumble across) this humble - and moribund - weblog to ask yourself this question, “Who are your people?” But don’t think about your ancestry, as Mrs. Byrd did. Think about the broader tribe to which you belong. Think long and hard about who are your people in life. With whom do you associate? Who do you follow on Twitter? Who are your Facebook friends? Who do you go out to lunch with? With whom do you really talk about meaningful things? Then think about what they might have in common and how that commonality is intensified in you. How that commonality is actually polarization causing you to be less open and responsive to others. Try to give “the other side” a kind thought, or at least an open-minded review, from time to time. We live in an age and time which is becoming more polarized. Your Maximum Leader is keenly aware to many those who don’t share their views are misguided, or wrong, or even evil and must be stopped. But consider their views openly, then examine your own with a jaundiced eye from time to time and be open to revelatory ideas.

Be aware of the tribe to which you belong, and recall David French’s words: “The tidal pull of tribalism should humble us all. For many of us, it renders our virtue an accident of history and birth. For others, it gives our sin and vice a terrible momentum that’s so very hard to reverse.” Try to be self-aware of your own sins and strive to overcome them.

Carry on.

PS: And speaking of who you follow on Twitter, follow your Maximum Leader.

PPS: And in case this was a little heavy, here is some related humorous perspective on this post.

2 Comments »
Metropolitan said:

Your Metropolitan finds that the Maximum Leader has done an excellent job of bringing confirmation bias into an understandable idea rather than some buzz word. The Metropolitan also thinks that most people do not discuss issues and ideas very much. Their focus is on sports, work, and family. They are subject to a confirmation bias about life in general. They only think about issues when the issues impact their lives directly. Generally they do not think beyond the immediate problem, rarely if ever to the causes behind it. Yet they have a lot of native wisdom, as witness the famous Joe the Plumber. However, it is the view of the Metropolitan that the education system is doing its best to destroy this native wisdom also known as common sense. That it succeeds is evidenced by a young woman he knows who is highly intelligent, yet actually believes that socialism is the desired state of existence. The Metropolitan has also noticed that people who have a strong bias are almost totally insensitive to the world view of others. The Metropolitan has a close friend that considers slavery so evil that they cannot consider that members of the Confederacy had any honor or morals. nor should they have been treated with the honor they were at Appomattox.

This question of “who are your people” is the basis behind such organizations as the DAR. It is as if the claimed ancestor confers present virtue. Yet they would not consider the exploits of a villainous ancestor as providing any tarnish to their image. (Well some might to the extent of hiding or not claiming said ancestor.)

This has provided some interesting fodder for thought.



Thank you for your comment my friend. You bring up a few points that are worth more thought. I don’t want to blame the education system alone, but society more broadly for not valuing rational discussion. Sadly, we have devolved into a bunch of talkers and not listeners. (And this blog is sometimes no exception.) If we listened, and heard, we may actually have discourse and discussion. But it seems that yelling the loudest or only saying things that will validate someone’s preconceived notions of how things should be is all we do now as a people. Sadly, social media has allowed us to narrow our views rather than expand them. At least, in most cases…

Also, I am very fond of your very keen observation that ancestry confers present virtue… I have an anecdote about that very point that I may now have to share in a separate post…



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