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.

Expand full comment

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

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

I love it! I call these "Zoroastrian" stories.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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?

Expand full comment

" 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.

Expand full comment

You forgot vampires vs. werewolves!

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

"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.

Expand full comment

"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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

Townie has a much more rural connotation than urbanite.

Expand full comment