What do punk rock, ancient Greece and MAGA America have in common?
As the U.S. careens towards mid-term elections that may determine the fate of western democracy, it is more urgent than ever to understand why groups of people often intentionally choose to become the cultural opposites of their neighbours.
In their brilliant book The Dawn of Everything, the late David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that human history includes numerous examples of spontaneous schismogenesis — where adjacent peoples adopt divergent customs to better define their own communities in contrast to their rivals.
The ancient city states of Athens and Sparta seemed almost purpose-built to be the anti-image of each other. Athens embraced a limited democracy; Sparta was ruled by an oligarchy. Athens celebrated arts, sports, theatre and architecture. Sparta was… well, spartan. What if this stark cultural contrast was by design?
The authors suggest that peoples throughout history crave a sense of identity, and that the kaleidoscope of cultures that have sprouted from this innate need are defined both by what they are, but also what they are not.
As history accelerates, propelled by factors like disruptive technologies and globalization, so too does the process of schismogenesis.
Teenagers responding to the hypocrisy and austerity of class-conscious Britain during the 1970s invented punk rock as a custom-built counterculture specifically designed to disgust the brittle sensibilities of Margaret Thatcher’s England. Those offended by punk rockers likewise found commonality by warming themselves around their shared revulsion of unruly youth sporting dog collars and mohawks.
Both groups strengthen their own sense of community by rejecting the other — a process of cultural bifurcation that may be picking up steam in our rapidly evolving world.
Perhaps the most unlikely cohort to sprout from history’s cultural experiments with schismogenesis is the current MAGA wing of the Republican party. Openly hostile to the very concept of a shared rational truth, many embrace an anything-goes ethos of convoluted conspiracy theories with a spiteful emphasis on “owning the libs.”
Like punk rock or ancient Sparta, the motivation is not so much to vanquish cultural rivals, who are in fact needed to define their own identity. The point instead is to embody their inverted reflection.
If Democrats seem obsessed with identity politics, MAGA will oblige with targeted intolerant provocations. Sen. Ted Cruz enjoys telling cheering crowds “My pronouns are ‘kiss my ass.’”
If the so-called elites are enamoured with science and expert evidence, MAGA will embrace “doing your own research” or counsel ingesting horse de-wormer to treat COVID. If liberals bemoan the loss of democratic institutions, some allegedly patriotic Republicans will find undermining the American constitution an irresistible pastime. Even protesting outside hospitals during a pandemic found many enthusiastic provocateurs as long as it enraged perceived enemies.
Republicans have gone so far down the rabbit hole of schismogenesis that the party of Ronald Reagan now seems openly allied with Russian expansionism. As one commentator noted, if you don’t speak Russian you can listen to the latest Kremlin talking points on Fox News from Tucker Carlson — who is regularly rebroadcast on the Russian state TV network.
Schismogenesis is of course being intentionally accelerated by the online troll farms of hostile foreign powers. These campaigns are a continuation of decades of active measures to undermine western democracies, one of the core mandates of the former KGB. Such targeted misinformation has proved highly effective, analogous to adding sugar to the gas tank of societies that value freedom of expression.
However, these nefarious efforts are only able to widen divisions within societies that already exist and seem to be getting worse.
Wealth disparity, inflation, the climate emergency and a shifting cultural landscape all leave us unnerved and seeking safety in numbers. Workers being displaced by the technology economy are particularly at risk of being radicalized. The two cohorts that occupied Ottawa in the last three years were oil workers and truck drivers — jobs that may not exist in the near future.
The hot tubs in front of Parliament Hill and three weeks of obnoxious horn-honking were not intended to win hearts and minds. It was instead a celebratory cultural gathering of contempt towards a perceived enemy of elites. It may not be a community you agree with, but at its core it is a community nonetheless.
The left has likewise coalesced around a shared rage towards what they rightly see as a dangerous eruption of ignorance, while making their own values of atomized identity seem ever more exclusionary to those who aren’t invited to the party. Both camps enjoy a common cause of conflict, making our existing divisions wider still.
Perhaps the deep political divisions in North America are not really about politics. These rifts may instead be rooted in the anxious need for a community to cling to, particularly as the world becomes increasingly unrecognizable for many.
Democracy is predicated on the assumption that voters at least share some core values. But what if the dominant political camps despise each other more than they desire a better world?
History is not slowing down. If we have any hope of navigating the stormy waters ahead, we urgently need to transcend divisions largely of our own making and define a collective higher calling than merely opposing our perceived enemies.
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