Doyle Quiggle on Limbic Captivity (Oneidophobia)

I have recently been in an email exchange with Doyle Quiggle about my new neologism, oneidophobia (pronounced: onēdophobia), or the dread of public humiliation/blame/disgrace. He has emphasized to me the biological underpinnings of these issues, including the role of the limbic system (a.k.a. the “old mammalian brain” that controls emotions, arousal, smell, social processing). As a result, in one of his legendary “squibs” which he gave me permission to post, he wrote the following. (Bold mine, my comments in italics.)

Recalling Salzman’s insight about honor/shame dynamics — that they are inextricable from their specific tribal/clan context — I would like to speculate this: The primary context for the tribal dynamics of honor/shame is the human limbic system, which is evolved and a “pre-adapted” to respond with “social intelligence” to tribal symbols and identity narratives of honor/shame. In the human marketplace, caveat emptor: There is no culture without biology. What we need now is even deeper investigation into the evolutionary cognitive substrates of symbolic intelligence. We need more and better understanding of the biology of symbols.

The shame-honor dynamic is what Pascal Boyer and other researchers of evolutionary cognition, like Franz de Waal, call an innate moral intuition. EO Wilson, Anthony Stevens, & Company call it a pre-adaptation.

[not sure why it’s a moral intuition. seems to me it often can be an amoral, pro-us anti-them intuition.]

The more we discover about cognitive pre-adaptations, the more I suspect that an honor/shame “archetype” is universally embedded. However, it’s the time-tested tribal forms of socialization (in situ tribal cultural practices) that typically wake up the archetype. They also give it a specific behavioral rule book, as Clifford Geertz might say. Traditional tribal cultures have learned, through eons of trial & error, how to gain the tight congruency with honor/shame “innate intuitions” that is required to activate the honor/shame archetype in tribal members. Indeed, it is by gaining congruency (through ritual, symbol, narrative–synchronized bodily and mental movement together in time) with shame intuitions that tribes make an individual into a limbic captive of the tribe itself, thereby compelling complicity with honor codes for the main (selfishly genetic) purpose of tribal survival.

[and survival of “individuals” within the tribe.]

If this sounds like cultic brainwashing, it should — only, I call it, following Daniel Goleman, limbic captivation — for neo-cults are rediscovering,  reinventing, and redeploying those social technologies that do gain congruency with moral intuitions like shame. ISIS and Santa Muerta Drug Cartel Cults are horrifying examples.

Furthermore, honor tribes practice an agonic mode of hierarchical social organization where, “individuals are concerned with warding off threats to their status and inhibiting overt expressions [within the group] of aggressive conflict.”  (Anthony Stevens, Evolutionary Psychiatry.)

[p[in game theory, this is hard zero-sum take on “us-them”. i ascend because you descend. i stay high by keeping you down. i make myself look bigger by making you look smaller.]

The agonic mode of social interaction is ancient, far older than the interactive mode that is compatible (and normally associated) with democratic societies, the [positive-sum] hedonic mode.  Under stress, human beings tend to revert to cognitive systems that are evolutionarily older, moving, for example, very quickly in situations of extreme threat from the human neo-cortex back down to the lizard-brain hypothalamus/hippocampus in nano-seconds. We need more research about the environmental conditions in which groups revert to the social agonistics that attend honor-coded societies.

I suspect that only traditional, time-tested tribal “social technologies” (like ritual and group narrative) can fully, effectively, and predictably activate the shame/honor archetype. Once activated by tribal symbolizations of honor/shame, these honor/shame dynamics heavily burden limbic captives (tribal members) with hot symbols to which they cannot help but respond.  For example, the honor-burdened father cannot resist responding negatively (even violently) to his daughter’s impurity any more than we might resist the urge to flick a fleck of human feces from our face.

[This illustrates what I tried to get at in my comment on the movie Sandstorm. For another example, see the play Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, where the protagonist is a fully “assimilated” Muslim speaking honestly about 9-11:

And so, even if you’re one of those lapsed Muslims sipping your after-dinner scotch alongside your beautiful white American wife— and watching the news and seeing folks in the Middle East dying for values you were taught were purer— and stricter— and truer… you can’t help but feel just a little a bit of pride. (p.62)

Alas, his beautiful white American wife and her liberal friends cannot forgive him this honest confession.]

Shame coding at the neuro-cognitive level is, at the cultural level, biased into honor captivity and linked to specific symbolizations (however culturally relative) of the honorable and the shameful. These symbolizations are reinforced by group-identity-forming narratives. Honor groups typically live inside a total and totalizing identity narrative that exploits the simple but effective technique of thematic repetition to fuse individual “morality” (shame) with group survival.  (For the basics of the socio-cognitive mechanics of reciprocity and the evolution of cooperation, work backwards from Patricia Churchland to Axelrod & Co, to Levi-Strauss to Marcel Mauss.) 

Within a tribe, the death of honor represents not merely the death of the individual and the death of the tribe, but also the death of the honor system itself: The dense overlapping network of “debt” (an invisible intergenerational ledger) that binds together rival and competing tribes across space and time into an honor society. I am not entirely clear whether this invisible loyalty to a inter-tribal debt system is a true “meme” or a cultural attractor (See, Dan Sperber’s recent work.)  We need more cognitive-anthropological research in this area.

[this raises an interesting issue: what happens to those who “liberate” themselves from these “tribal codings”? do they short-circuit some key emotional pathways? what are the costs? gains? can we understand the western inability to respond to the triumphalist muslim threat as a form of apathy borne of this short-circuit?]

In this regard, our current understanding of the cognitive evolution of honor codes offers an interesting reevaluation of Marcel Mauss’s gift theory of social cohesion in which, “to put people under obligations’, [because] in theory such gifts are voluntary, but in fact they are given and repaid under obligation.”  It may be worth revisiting Mauss’s excellent ethnography with an eye to how gift cultures recruit cognitive resources from an older, deeper honor/shame archetype. Gift/debt (potlatch cultures) piggyback off older honor/shame dynamics. Where Mauss describes gift cultures as covertly being about creating debt entrapment and thereby coercing reciprocity out of individuals, he assumes that the moral intuition of shame is an innate response to debt. He takes that innate moral intuition as being so obvious and self-evident, it needn’t be explained. In his famous  response to Mauss’s theory, Levi-Strauss basically attempts to describe how the gift cultures Mauss describes gained congruency with an older, deeper honor-system, though Levi-Strauss uses a different language. (See Pascal Boyer’s essay Explaining Religious Concepts, Levi-Strauss the Brilliant and Problematic Ancestor.) The premise of the cognitive scientist here is that the tighter the congruency a cultural form (symbol, narrative, ritual) gains with innate moral intuitions, the greater the compliance the cultural practice will command from a greater number of adherents.

As Mauss frequently notes, re-gifting is compulsive in gift cultures: Gifting is not done as a private act of generosity, nor merely as a public act of debt discharging but also, and more importantly, as public means of indebting rivals and enemies. Much as Mauss’s gift recipients are burdened with debt, honor captives are encumbered with symbols and narratives that are, in all likelihood, neurologically compulsive in a way similar to drug addiction. The compulsive nature of honor should not be underestimated. Mauss’s law applies to both gift and honor cultures: The greater the cohesiveness of the tribe, the less freedom individuals enjoy in choosing mates.

Thus, we need to recall that traditional tribal cultures have evolved highly elaborate and creative means of patterning, structuring, channeling these compulsions. More importantly, traditional cultures have made, for eons, the shame intuition into an adaptive strategy for cultural survival. We need to stress the point: Until quite recently in our evolutionary past, honor-coded societies have been highly adaptive. These ancient codes tend to come into conflict with democratic societies today, which jurisprudentially and socially place the individual above his or her group of origin, because they recruit an agonic mode of social interaction from our deep evolutionary past instead of promoting a hedonic mode, “in which underlying dominance relations are not being challenged and agonic tensions are consequently absent, permitting individuals to be affiliative and to give their attention to recreational or task-oriented activities.” (Stevens)

The problem here, considered from the vantage of cognitive evolution, is that the hedonic mode of social organization is a Johnny Come Lately. SOME of us have been practicing social “hedonics” for, at longest, 200,000 years, whereas MOST of us have been practicing social “agonistics” for many millions of years, just as our primate cousins still do today, especially chimpanzees. Human beings are wildly vulnerable to reversion to more ancient (“less evolved”) cognitive modes.

Finally, I strongly suspect that the reason we are experiencing, globally, a return of clannism, (with its attendant honor-coded sanguinity), neo-ritualism, (with its attendant blood sacrifices), and neo-cultism (with its attendant variants of symbol mish-mashing) is precisely because the cognitive suite of shame/honor is an ancient moral intuition, pre-adaptation, or archetype. If it is an archetype (or behavioral phenotype), then we need to consider how this archetype may lie dormant even in individuals who are socialized in highly individualistic and presumably hedonic western societies. Under-structured moral intuitions may be as problematic as over-structured moral intuitions.

With the advent of the internet, however, innate archetypes can popped open and  activated through an chance encounter with symbolic and narrative triggers. We need to know what those triggers are, and we will only know that by taking symbols seriously.

As Kenneth Burke warned, human beings are the symbol making, symbol breaking, symbol using, symbol abusing animal. Given what we know now about the evolutionary cognition of symbolic intelligence in human beings, we need to start studying symbols themselves, and their circulation, as containing inherent bio-social value and content. We need to pay closer attention to the pioneering work done in the field of symbolic intelligence by scholars like Richard Landes, Dawn Perlmutter, and their many colleagues.

[i didn’t see that coming.]

To iterate the need for greater symbolic intelligence: The psychological problem with unexpressed archetypal intuitions is that they tend to seek expression, when blocked or stymied, in the subterranean precincts of the human psyche. Freud should not have called his book Civilization and Its Discontents so much as Civilization and Its Cognitive Discombobulations.

[actually, here, i think Jung had more to say than Freud.]

All known behavioral phenotypes were likely adaptive in their original evolutionary environment, especially shame/honor. Where true archetypes remain dormant, they can be activated. Indeed, they often seek activation. Where they have become active outside of traditional tribal forms of structuring and channeling, they often pose a serious threat to the behavioral norms of pluralistic cultures, simply by virtue of the fact that these archetypes have NOT received traditional tribal structuring: No rites of passage, no initiation ceremonies, no time-tested cultural forming. Hence, the resurgence of blood cults.

Consider these observations by one of America’s leading criminologists and a leading expert on symbolic intelligence, Dawn Perlmutter:

Beheading videos, images of ritual killings, and martyrdom operations are irrefutable primary sources that prove that sacrificial violence is not relegated to a few delusional individuals. Even more compelling is that contemporary blood sacrifice is not limited to one anomalous culture. Dark magico-religious activities involving beheadings, displaying dead bodies, blood offerings, flaying, mutilation, and dismemberment occur in countries around the world regardless of their economic and developmental status. Videotaped beheadings have become a cross cultural phenomenon among Jihadist terrorist groups and Mexican drug trafficking organizations. Globally, there have been hundreds of documented beheadings and thousands of victims.

This visual documentation not only proves the existence of contemporary human sacrifice, it represents a full blown sacrificial crisis. From Asia and Africa to South America to Europe, North America, and Australia, patterns of culture are emerging. Instead of devolution, ritual violence is evolving. We are witnessing a new era in sacrificial violence whose documented number of victims far exceeds those of any other time in human history. [Quoted in Robert J. Bunker. Blood Sacrifices: Violent Non-State Actors and  Dark Magico-Religious Activities.]

As an unexpressed behavioral phenotype, honor/shame dynamics pose two distinct challenges to modern, pluralistic, hedonic social arrangements. From the Scylla side, we face traditional tribal cultures that practice social agonistics and compel honor killings. When mixed with Jihad, honor-coded groups, like Hezbollah, become a lethal threat to any out-group. However, groups burdened by traditional honor-codes may not be our gravest challenge, as Perlmutter makes clear.

Our gravest challenge may come from the Charybdis side: Individuals socialized within hedonic cultures but whose older, “tribal  archetypes” find activation and seek expression through the latest vehicles of symbol circulation, the internet, smart phones. Archetype activation and its expression in these individuals are highly vulnerable to the to the machinations of charismatic leaders skilled at manipulating primordial symbolism. The internet today is a playground for Jim-Jones types. The flavors of Kool Aid offered by today’s social media are seemingly limitless.

Consider, as a pseudo-humorous example, the recent nation-wide mushrooming of tree-killing cults in Germany. These cults, organized through the internet, target Germany’s largest, oldest trees. They devise  surreptitious means to kill them, like boring small holes into their trunks and pouring poison into them. They do not merely cut down these trees. The cult members get off on watching the tree wither, especially in watching the reaction of “tree huggers” to the dying tree. When one considers the traditional symbolism of trees (as escape from predators and shelter for our earliest ancestors; as sources of fuel, building material; as reflections of the human form, upright with arms, and branches that reflect the human circulatory system; as self-regenerative micro-environments that metabolize poisons into oxygen, and so forth), the example appear less humorous and more sinister.

[Is there any possibility that we could understand the current behavior on the “left” as a retribalization. Their limbic captivity doesn’t kick in when their nation/culture/values are under fire because of their anti-tribal upbringing and their messianic goals, until their messianic movement runs into trouble.]

Researchers, scholars, critics — like Richard Landes, Dawn Perlmutter, Anthony Stevens — who call our attention to the power of symbols as symbols (an sich), and thus reveal the tricky socio-psychic dynamics of resurgent shame/honor cultures, may be the true Cassandras of our time. They implore us to see the Trojan Horse that is parked inside our own limbic systems, knowing, despite our willful blindness, that it’s only a matter of time until the Myrmadons in our psychic belly jump out by cover of night to wreak havoc upon our starlit Troys.

One Response to Doyle Quiggle on Limbic Captivity (Oneidophobia)

  1. Michael Caplan says:

    “… the need for greater symbolic intelligence” – what a perfect summary of the quality most under assault by contemporary attempts to stifle free speech, particularly on campuses where the goal should be precisely the training of intelligence. There seems to be a horror of *content* these days that prevents the discussion of ideas, of the meanings of images, of the relative value of different truth claims, of social structures, etc. – that is, everything to which we *apply* symbolic intelligence.

    People seem very specifically not to want to *think* – hence the instant recourse to labels (Islamophobe, racist, etc.) intended to shut down any consideration of competing discursive claims. Perhaps it’s because thinking is individualizing, which takes one away from the pseudo-tribal satisfactions of group belonging and into the responsibility of indepedendent adulthood. It’s lonely, and these are scary times. The unscrupulous pander to this fear; it’s a great driver of consumerist politics, and even resurgent, apparently “primitive” movements are absolutely “modern” in this sense: sustained by cunningly crafted PR to consciously manipulate the target demographics, just like Republicans and Democrats. Thinking is the enemy of consumerism; it requires time for digestion, while mindless consumption requires no substance and passes through quickly, setting you up as ready for the next round.

    Thanks, as always, for the thought-provoking essay.

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