Great Divides

When troops must be motivated to fight, “go team” speeches often invoke an ancient conflict, along a great divide:

Our fight, of [A] against [B] over [C], is but one battle in the ancient war over [F], along the great divide between [D] and [E]. Many do not realize how many of our apparently mundane conflicts are, in reality, battles in this ancient war. Today is a crucial day in this war, so we must not give up, and we must not lose hope, or someday [D] may lose [F] forever. Fight, fight!

Some classic great divides: tyrants vs. freedom-lovers, rich vs. poor, faithful vs. heathen, urban vs. rural folk, men vs. women, intellectuals vs. ignoramuses, artists vs. undiscerning, greens vs. greedy, civilized vs. uncivilized, east vs. west, farmers vs. herders, hill vs. valley folk, Aristotle vs. Plato followers, jocks vs. nerds, extroverts vs. introverts, neats vs. scruffies, makers vs. takers, communitarians vs. individualists, young vs. old, [can add more here].

Some questions, which I rarely see adequately answered:

  1. How is this division a key division, underlying many others?
  2. How do people acquire their sides in this conflict?
  3. How has this conflict lasted so long, without one side winning?
  4. How could one side finally win such an old conflict?
  5. Why is one side better than the other in an absolute sense?
  6. Why can’t those folks be persuaded that their side is bad?
  7. Why can’t peaceful compromise replace conflict?

Consider rich vs. poor as an example. Its devotees might say:

People really do most things for money, and so money is what most conflicts are about. Your position in this conflict comes from your wealth; the rich oppose the poor. This conflict continues because wealth can be inherited and random fluctuations in economic outcomes continually add to wealth variance; “the poor you will always have with you.” Today’s poor are worth fighting for, even if the fight must be renewed every generation. The rich are bad because inequality is bad, and the rich could reduce inequality by giving to the poor. Self-interest blinds the rich from seeing this fact. Peaceful compromise is possible but weak; with cash transfers, one person’s gain is another’s loss.

These are at least first-cut answers to my questions, though I doubt we do most things for money, and so doubt this divide is behind most disputes. Also, peaceful compromise can encourage the creation of more wealth, money inequality isn’t worse than other kinds, and whether inequality is bad depends on where it came from.

Who will answer these questions regarding their favorite “great divide”? I’d love to see a review of many great divides, comparing their answers and persuasiveness.

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  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    I wrote about a week ago:

    There is the tension between jocks and nerds in movies, another trope TV tropes has probably dealt with. It seems good to have some variety in a population, so if one type of trait is weak against a novel problem, not everyone has it and gets wiped out. So maybe some humans rule nerdily, and others jockily. It’s interesting there might be antagonism between these types—because…well, because usually you don’t feel antagonistic towards someone who isn’t a threat to you, right? So why would a jock feel threatened by a nerd? Maybe because the nerd has intelligence, which is attractive to women, and the jock doesn’t (stereotypically), whereas the jock has strength and self-assertiveness and usually high status, so…I guess the jock is attacking the nerd to demonstrate the uselessness of the nerd’s intelligence. But nerds sometimes get the upper hand in some verbal back and forth and making the jock look stupid, and showing a certain boldness.

    I mean, ancient societies ruling elite were usually priests and warriors, right? Probably more warriors than priests I’m thinking, but that is just a guess. Nietzsche argued that the two were antagonistic, and the priests were able to beat the warriors by turning their warrior morality into an evil, and the priest’s wimpiness into a virtue. The priests arguably could be thought of as nerds, and the warriors as jocks. The nerds get the jocks all mixed up with their intellectual manipulations, like Iago with Othello. The jocks attack the nerds out of fear of them.

    Witch-doctors and tribal tough guys, priestly and warrior castes, nerds and jocks.

    • A dude

      A nerds vs jocks example could be ancient India: jocks (warriers, Kshatriya) caste was at first above the nerds (priests, Brahmins) but by the end of the Vedic age the nerds somehow won.

      • Adrian Ratnapala

        ” A nerds vs jocks example could be ancient India: jocks (warriers, Kshatriya) caste was at first above the nerds (priests, Brahmins) but by the end of the Vedic age the nerds somehow won. ”

        Hmm, interesting take. When you put it like that it looks like the “jocks” never had a chance. Yet in the Roman empire, it long seemed the other way around. Until the Christians came along. I can see a common factor here.

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  • Nick Walker

    Conflict makes life fun and interesting. The rules change in sports if one side gains too much of an advantage: 24 second clock in basketball, offsides rule in soccer, mound height in baseball. In real life, there are victories, but new battles are drawn up to keep both parties engaged. 200 years ago slavery was a popular thing to debate, but today it’s abortion.

  • A dude

    I can’t help it, the letters just fit too well:
    Our fight, of [America] against [Bad guys] over [Christ], is but one battle in the ancient war over [Freedom], along the great divide between [Democracy] and [Evil].

    Like the previous comment suggested, conflict is just a form of organizing human activity.

    2.How do people acquire their sides in this conflict?
    — by being indocrinated in their side from birth, so it forms their identity and values.

    3.How has this conflict lasted so long, without one side winning?
    — because the dividing line adapts.
    — If Christians start winning, religion fades from their radar screen as a focal point, while the losing side intensifies its focus because it becomes existential for them.

    4.How could one side finally win such an old conflict?
    — Old is relative.

    5.Why is one side better than the other in an absolute sense?
    — There is no absolute sense in nature. There is relative sense seen as absolute from the perspective of one’s identity.

    6.Why can’t those folks be persuaded that their side is bad?
    — Because the mental effort is too great. Only a shock can stimulate it.

    7.Why can’t peaceful compromise replace conflict?
    — There is natural sloth in humans that blocks information — “maybe I will like the movie, but I don’t know that for sure, and I am too lazy to find out”. Conflict overcomes the sloth. Without the Cold War we would not have the internet, computers, space exploration, etc. Without WWII aviation would not be where it is today.

  • C

    I, for example, contrarily to my national Polish indoctrination through many years of upbringing came to a conclusion that Polish national identity doesn’t make sense on this planet in the long term. 🙂 And I act accordingly although propaganda continues aside.

  • y81

    Isn’t it “urbanites (or townies) versus farmers (or country dwellers)”? Urbanites and townies are the same thing.

    • http://radicalignorance.com Josh Weil

      Townie has a much more rural connotation than urbanite.

    • ed

      Townie has a very specific meaning in college towns throughout America, of which there are many. Townie is the permanent resident — as opposed to the students and academics who come and go. It’s especially a low-status term for young people from that town who aren’t smart enough to be admitted to the school in their hometown.

      Big cities don’t have have “townies”. The stereotypical townie is the 20-something waitress or autoshop tech who has to service the more upscale, smarter, and upwardly mobile college kids.

  • Josh

    poor vs. rich

    1. How is this division a key division, underlying many others?

    Almost anything can be traded for money, which means that the wealthy can acquire and retain huge amounts of political and social status. Acquiring status is a strong human motivation.

    2. How do people acquire their sides in this conflict?

    by birth or luck.

    3. How has this conflict lasted so long, without one side winning?

    It hasn’t. The conflict bubbles up constantly, time and time again. Revolutions by the poor are sometimes successful. Even without violent revolution, wealthy families can lose their fortunes and poor ones can make theirs.

    4. How could one side finally win such an old conflict?

    see above.

    5. Why is one side better than the other in an absolute sense?

    Neither is better. It’s just that one side is taking far more than it is entitled to. No one deserves to acquire hundreds of times as much as an average, hard-working, intelligent human being. There’s simply no possible way anyone could be providing that much value. Rather, they are engaging in economic rent-seeking; beyond a certain point, their activities are purely parasitic.

    6. Why can’t those folks be persuaded that their side is bad?

    They can be, and in fact I think most people who take more than they are entitled to are aware of it. Some give their fortunes away. Others try to rationalize their behavior. Still others simply trade a clean conscience for more wealth.

    7. Why can’t peaceful compromise replace conflict?

    It can and does. It just depends on how insistent the parasites become and how violent their methods of control are. Inequality is not a state of being. It is a constant struggle for control and dominance. This struggle results in both conflict and compromise, stasis and action.

  • y81

    Here’s an answer for the conflict between “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne/Yet that scaffold sways the future, and beyond the great unknown/Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

    1. How is this a key division? Since 1588 (or so), Protestant egalitarian democracy has contended against various forms of hereditary privilege. This was the fundamental struggle which animated the fight against the Spanish Armada, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, and the coming Civil War.

    2. How do people acquire their sides in this conflict? The Spirit bloweth where it listeth; the elect are called to one side while those whom God has not chosen end up on the other.

    3. How has the conflict lasted so long? 1588 to 1865 isn’t so long; our side is about to win and abolish slavery, just as we defeated the Spanish, the Stuarts, and the Redcoats. (This applies even if you date the start of the conflict to 1066 or 1215.)

    4. How can one side win? God is on our side. Also, our value system is more compatible with industrialization, and industrialization wins wars even more than it did in 1588 (or 1066 or whatever).

    5. Why is one side better? God is on our side. Also, history is on our side. (The latter at least is demonstrably true for the conflict here discussed.)

    6. Why can’t those folks be persuaded? See number 2. Only the elect can see the truth, because of the innate depravity of the once-born.

    7. Why no peaceful compromise? They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.

  • michael vassar

    Is there an intellectual’s version of this where one calls out to people to *end* these endless conflicts through dialectic?

  • A dude

    This being Friday, here’s men vs women:

    1.How is this division a key division, underlying many others?
    There are fundamental physical differences in anathomy, psychology, motivations, and values.

    2.How do people acquire their sides in this conflict?
    By birth.

    3.How has this conflict lasted so long, without one side winning?
    The two sides needed each other for procreation.

    4.How could one side finally win such an old conflict?
    With a scientific break-through that makes in-vitro procreation viable.

    5.Why is one side better than the other in an absolute sense?
    Because it is esthetically more appealing, and emotionally more mature and flexible to compensate for lack of physical strength. More likely to lead to a harmonious civilization in a resource-constrained world.
    OR
    Because it is better fit to survive the struggle with the elements and other life forms. More likely to result in human civilization spreading outwards rather than imploding.

    6.Why can’t those folks be persuaded that their side is bad?
    Because they can’t change sides without grotesque consequences.

    7.Why can’t peaceful compromise replace conflict?
    Because each side has physiologically dictated need to lay claims on other side’s resources. Those claims can’t be reconciled in a common system of values.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    This seems to be coming at the issue from the wrong angle.

    The basis for collective violence is tribal conflict, which is not in general “about” anything more deep than Us vs. Them. Ideological justification for conflict is a more recent invention.

    Think of chimpanzee bands, which have war-like skirmishes and presumably don’t do it on the basis of any grand ideas. Then think of the Nika riots, where a conflict between the Blues and the Greens (roughly similar to today’s tribes of soccer hooligans) destroyed half of Constantinople in 532.

    The formation of such groups has been studied by Charles Tilly, who talks about the processes of polarization and boundary activation.

    • John Maxwell IV

      I did some research on the Nika riots. As far as I can tell the riots weren’t caused by Blue/Green rivalry. It seems that the Blues and the Greens united under an unpopular ruler.

  • Todd Thompson

    I think neither side is right, in any of those examples.

    I think usually they get there interatively, small offences or words against the other nudges the other further from the middle. Back and forth until eventually they polarize increasingly irrational extreme positions.

  • Robert Koslover

    The study of war, including its causes, is not new. For detailed analyses of both past and present cultural differences that lead to warfare, as well as the kinds of warfare they generate, you really can’t go wrong by studying the works of the always-brilliant Dr. Victor Davis Hanson (note: no relation to Robin, apparently — except for the brilliance). See http://victorhanson.com/Books/index.html

  • Constant

    This structure is borrowed from real struggles, so while it may be illusory when it is exactly as presented, similar struggles, from which it derives, are not illusory. For example, suppose there is an actual war between two countries. Then particular battles really are but battles in the larger war. It is easy for a participant to lose sight of the larger war. Many battles can be crucial to a war, and even more can be potentially crucial from the point of view of participants who are not omniscient.

    Generalizing to anything we humans do (where the struggle is against failure, maybe against “entropy”), there are larger goals and smaller goals, larger goals are often accomplished by defining and accomplishing a series of many smaller goals, it is easy to lose sight of larger goals, and failure to achieve any one of many different small goals could lead to failure to achieve the larger goal. This is the problem of project management. It is also the problem of organizations, especially large ones, whose members have a tendency to serve their own narrow interests at the expense of what they were recruited for. It is also a problem of many of our made things: a computer (a larger functioning entity) has many small functioning parts. The failure of any one part (a single transistor malfunction) could make a whole chip with millions of transistors worthless. A single small bug hidden in millions of lines of code could crash a whole program. It is also a problem of life: cancer begins with a single cell.

    It also applies to play conflicts. While I don’t know games very well, it seems likely enough that a single poor move by one player at any point in the game can cost the player the whole game – making every turn in the game a crucial one. It also seems a likely enough pitfall that an inexperienced player will focus on one small part of the game while neglecting the larger game. He may struggle too hard to save an unimportant piece (in chess, say), allowing his opponent to maneuver him into a bad position overall.

    So considered as a general problem of human action the problem seems real, common, and important. Large goals often underly small goals, it is easy to lose sight of the large goal, failure in a small goal can lead to failure in the large goal.

    • ThePenileFamily

      “It also seems a likely enough pitfall that an inexperienced player will focus on one small part of the game while neglecting the larger game. He may struggle too hard to save an unimportant piece (in chess, say), allowing his opponent to maneuver him into a bad position overall.”

      “Generalizing to anything we humans do (where the struggle is against failure, maybe against “entropy”), there are larger goals and smaller goals, larger goals are often accomplished by defining and accomplishing a series of many smaller goals, it is easy to lose sight of larger goals, and failure to achieve any one of many different small goals could lead to failure to achieve the larger goal.”

      In other words: Tactics vs Strategy and/or Micro vs Macro.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    These divisions are like all divisions. They result from the magnification of arbitrary and unimportant differences so as to produce a social power hierarchy with one group at the top and in power with the other group at the bottom and out of power.

    The purpose of the social hierarchy is to “other” those at the bottom, and in the limit to “other” them so much that they are no longer considered “human”, and so they lose the right to be treated humanely and so may be killed, tortured or enslaved at the whim of those higher up in the social hierarchy.

    The differences don’t matter, what matters is the hierarchy with those at the top exerting life-and-death power over those at the bottom.

    The power of being at the top corrupts because moving up the power hierarchy requires brown-nosing those higher up. The person at the top is brown-nosed by everyone underneath him/her and so they develop delusions of grandeur.

    The Abrahamic religions are an archetypal social hierarchy. At the top is God, then His Prophets, then His priests, then followers, then believers, then non-believers, then atheists. This is why the Catholic Church was (and still is) unable to deal with priests raping children. Children are far below priests in the social power hierarchy of the Church. Children are far enough below priests that harm to children from being raped doesn’t matter compared to the harm to priests from having the rapes acknowledged and more importantly to the power of the Church and the social power hierarchy the Church has established which would be weakened if the raping of children by priests was not kept secret.

    What is most important is the maintenance of the social power hierarchy with a maximization of the power differential. Maximizing the power differential means making the people at the bottom have the absolute minimum power (as in children who cannot protest when raped), and absolute maximum power at the top (a Pope who is infallible).

    It is the requirement of the hierarchy to maintain itself and to maximize the power differential across the hierarchy that makes it so dangerous. The neocons under Bush did everything they could to maximize his power, saying the Constitution gave him the power to violate the Constitution as Commander in Chief. They said he could torture anyone he decided should be tortured.

    This is the very dangerous game the conservatives are playing, fawning on their “leaders”, the wealthy and demonizing their enemies, Muslims, liberals, immigrants, the poor, those without health care, the unemployed.

    This is the path to fascism. Once those at the bottom are “other” enough to be killed, they are killed and are then no longer at the bottom, a new group is then at the bottom, the formerly second-to-bottom group. The new bottom group is killed and then the formerly third-to-bottom group. And so it goes, up the social hierarchy.

    This is the path that Newt Gingrich would take the country down. He wants war with Iran and North Korea. Why? To amass ever more power to himself, and devil take the hindmost.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      Of course, it is only the other faction that plays this kind of “dangerous game”! Surely, our faction would never do so.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    As Nick Walker says, people find interesting conflicts that are roughly equal and get bored by one-sided ones. For example, there used to be a big football game every August in Chicago’s Soldier Field between last season’s college All-Stars and last season’s NFL champion, It started out fairly equal, and attracted immense crowds, but by the 1970s, the pros were vastly better, so the series died out from boredom.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    Hegel argued that progress was made through a thesis-antithesis-synthesis model.

    Consider the two main modes of making war: irregular and regular. Irregular warfare — raids, ambushes, and showy but not too lethal battles — was the human default mode of warfare.

    In the ancient world, civilizations started down the road to the antithesis: regular warfare — drilled men fighting shoulder to shoulder on the battlefield, under the command of expert leaders — with spectacular results for the Greeks and Romans. Regular warfare dominated in densely populated lands, but still had trouble in marginal terrain.

    In 1917, T.E. Lawrence was ordered by his British commanders to persuade the Bedouin to enlist as regular soldiers in the British Army’s trench warfare against the Turks. He argued that they would desert, but that they would be more useful as camel-mounted irregular warriors raiding the Turks from out of the desert. This proved quite successful (on a small scale) in 1917.

    By 1918, however, there were disquieting signs of a synthesis that would disrupt the relative balance of thesis and antithesis. A few Germans in armored cars and aeroplanes began to fight with the maneuvarability of irregular warriors and the firepower of regular warriors. By 1940, blitzkrieg had emerged as the new synthesis.

  • John Maxwell IV

    “Our fight, of [A] against [B] over [C], is but one battle in the ancient war over [F], along the great divide between [D] and [E]. Many do not realize how many of our apparently mundane conflicts are, in reality, battles in this ancient war. Today is a crucial day in this war, so we must not give up, and we must not lose hope, or someday [D] may lose [F] forever. Fight, fight!”

    This would make great graffiti.

  • anonymous

    You forgot vampires vs. werewolves!

  • Brian B

    Fascinating post.

    A little off your point, but maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking why is there perpetual conflict, we should ask what creates the brief interludes of peace.

    In other words, we should accept that the equilibrium state of nature is conflict and war, just as it is in the prisoners’ dilemma. But because we’re currently in a period of general peace and cooperation (Al Qaeda not withstanding), we’re looking for causes of conflict when we should be understanding the causes of peace. What are the institutions, traditions, and values that lift us up from the equilibrium?

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    Ok here goes “tyrants vs. freedom-lovers”. And I’m really talking about tyrants here, not just people who beleive haircutting should be regulated.

    5. Why is one side better than the other in an absolute sense?
    1. How is this division a key division, underlying many others?

    We instinctively know freedom, somewhat limited, is valuable and good. Also, when it is lost people are less happy and less able improve society.

    Also, very many political questions are at least partly about balancing freedom with order. Tyrants can be, or pose as, agents of order. In this way they win the haircut regulator vote.

    2. How do people acquire their sides in this conflict?
    3. How has this conflict lasted so long, without one side winning?
    7. Why can’t peaceful compromise replace conflict?

    Sides are acquired via their incentives. Most prefer freedom (as explained above). A successful tyrants however can hope for huge rewards if they manage to topple freedom. Somtimes tyrants can also dupe haircut regulators into joining their side.

    Tyranny vs. freedom conflicts often are resolved. Sometimes by total victory for one side, sometimes by negotiated settlment. Yet the incentives are universal and the confict can reappear anywhere.

    6. Why can’t those folks be persuaded that their side is bad?

    It’s a selection effect. Even though tyranny intrinsically bad, the tyrant is one of the few people who isn’t influenced by this fact. Perhaps he doesn’t think he’s a tyrant, perhaps he knows but doesn’t care. Whatever.

    4. How could one side finally win such an old conflict?

    Seize power! Establish insitutuions to maintain your system. Put forth convincing ideas which will help in subsequent rounds. The roots of this confilct is universal, but freedom wins it ever more often. If there is no final victory, there might be an asymptoic one.

  • JS Allen

    I love it! I call these “Zoroastrian” stories.

  • http://tubelite.wordpress.com tubelite

    That’s too complicated 🙂

    Remember Koom Valley!

    Every society needs a cry like that, but only in a very few do they come out with the complete, unvarnished version, which is “Remember-the-Atrocity-Committed-Against-Us-Last-Time-That-Will-Excuse-The-Atrocity-That-We’re-About-To-Commit-Today!”
    —Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time

  • http://weblog.themel.com/ Thomas Themel

    The individual vs society

    1. How is this division a key division, underlying many others?

    Your choice of sides has a large philosophical impact on your perceived optimal solution for all kinds of social problems.

    2. How do people acquire their sides in this conflict?

    Indoctrination by their environment, probably a lot of rationalization of their own actions.

    3. How has this conflict lasted so long, without one side winning?

    Because the actual optimum is neither of the two extremes and keeps shifting throughout history, so whenever one side is about to win, the other gains more adherents.

    4. How could one side finally win such an old conflict?

    Probably not at all. Some radical technological shift pushing the optimum of social organization at that extreme.

    5. Why is one side better than the other in an absolute sense?

    As the optimum shifts on the axis and the forces of society pull the actual organization between, one side is always pulling in the right direction. Alas, it is hard to find out which.

    6. Why can’t those folks be persuaded that their side is bad?

    Because both sides have constructed elaborate rationalizations of their positions and have a large dedicated propaganda setup that makes answering the hard question from #5 seem like way too much effort compared to some righteous indignation at the other sides’ infamy.

    7. Why can’t peaceful compromise replace conflict?

    It does a lot of the time, and that’s the point of a lot of our social superstructure.

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