Self Determination & Ethnocultural Nation States

Self Determination & Ethnocultural Nation States

Modern people living in WEIRD cultures value consistency in the thoughts, behaviors, and actions of individuals. Joseph Henrich argues this is a strange phenomenon of WEIRD societies and that it hasn’t been a central feature of many cultures throughout history. One of the challenges of living in a society that deems you a hypocrite if you are not internally consistent on all issues is that we frequently run into paradoxical situations where we simultaneously uphold values that directly contradict. In the United States the most clear example is the contradiction between liberty and democratic governance. Democratic governance entails the creation of laws which reduce some personal liberties in order to defend other liberties.
 
 
Another example of paradoxes where our desires run into each other, as Steven Pinker notes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, is between self-determination and the idea of an ethnocultural nation state. The challenges created when these two ideas bump into each other are fueling heated debates and worsening refugee crises across the globe.
 
 
In the Untied States, and many Western European countries, we believe in ideas of self-determination. We believe that individuals have the power to improve their own lives by working hard, making smart decisions, and – if necessary – by moving to a new place to start over. The history of the United States is exactly that, a history of people packing up and starting over somewhere new. Whether it was the pilgrims on the East Coast or the countless people who successively moved west, the United States is defined by the idea of self-determination and moving to areas of opportunity.
 
 
But what happens when the people who exercise this self-determination and move to areas of opportunity are culturally distinct from the areas to which they move? That is the question that Pinker explores in his book. Regarding the differences of the people and the landscape in a nation, Pinker writes, “unlike features of a landscape like trees and mountains, people have feet. They move to places where the opportunities are best, and soon invite their friends and relatives to join. This demographic mixing turns the landscape into a fractal, with minorities inside minorities inside minorities.”
 
 
This is where our paradox arises. We want people to be free. We want to uphold ideas of self-determination. We want people to be able to move to areas of opportunity and start new lives. We don’t want people to be stuck in one place, dependent on government assistance and charity. But, historically the United States and Western European nations have demonstrated that we don’t want ethnographic minorities to be the ones who are self-determinant in this way. We want our countries, our states, and our cities to remain ethnoculturally cohesive groups (I don’t support this view, but some modern political groups certainly do).
 
 
Not all people share this mindset, but many do, and it is a large component of populist movements in the United States and Europe. The choice that many people seem to advocate for is limiting self-determination of people who do not belong to the ethnocultural majority. A choice that is easily pointed at as racist and hypocritical. The other option for the people who dislike the ethnocultural change is to uphold self-determination, but to give up the idea of an ethnocultural state. To me this seems to be the more reasonable choice, but for many, the fear of losing their group identity is powerful.
 
 
Ultimately, what we should recognize is that our modern nation states, the political units we generally view as ethnocultural groups, conflict with ideas of self-determination. If we want to uphold self-determination and make it easier for people to shape their own lives, then we may end up losing ethnocultural nation states.
Conflating Nations & People

Conflating Nations & People

“The term Nation or People came to stand for the individual men, women, and children who made up that nation, and then the political leaders came to stand for the nation,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Conflating nations and people is part of Pinker’s explanation for the two World Wars of the 20th century. Humanity has been gradually pacifying throughout history, but the power of nations and the conflation of nations, people, and their leaders put enormous power and ultimately destructive potential in the hands of a few men. Pinker continues, “a ruler, a flag, an army, a territory, a language, came to be cognitively equated with millions of flesh-and-blood individuals.”
 
 
We are good at losing track of the distinctions between individuals and the groups those individuals form. We do this with nations, we do it with sports teams, and we do it with corporations. We endow these non-human entities with the rights of the humans that form them. The entities themselves, someone like Yuval Noah Harari would argue, are entirely fictitious, but still, we treat them at times like a real human that we have formed intimate connections with. We easily find ourselves within a group and easily lose our sense of our individual self. When a group prospers we feel as though we have prospered, as any sports fan knows. When a group is threatened, we act as though we ourselves are threatened.
 
 
Pinker argues that these dynamics were in play in the 20th century. Globally, humans committed themselves to a nationalistic ethos which rulers were able to harness in ways that propelled an otherwise pacifying humanity into calamitous wars.
 
 
Today we see problems from corporations that have been given the rights of individuals and exercise those rights to further their self-interest at the expense of actual human beings in political arenas. We have not found a way to think about the groups to which we belong without treating them, or conflating them, as human. We still see ourselves as intimately tied to the imaginary groups we form when we coordinate with others.
The Hegelian Doctrine That History is an Inexorable Dialectic of Progress

The Hegelian Doctrine That History is an Inexorable Dialectic of Progress

In his book about how the world has become a more peaceful place for human beings over time, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker has to explain why two massively violent and deadly wars were fought in the 1900’s. If humans are becoming less violent and fighting each other less, then why did we see two incredibly large and deadly conflicts that engulfed the leading nations of the time so recently that the conflict could be recorded on video? Part of the explanation, Pinker explains, is a Hegelian doctrine that history was an inexorable dialectic of progress. This is not a view that Pinker supports, but rather a view that many leaders in the 1900s held, pushing them into conflict.
 
 
Pinker quotes historian Evan Laurds as summarizing the doctrine by writing, “all history represents the working out of some divine plan; war is the way that sovereign states, through which that plan manifested itself, must resolve their differences, leading to the emergence of superior states.”
 
 
This mindset is what put the world on a pathway to war in the 20th century. There were states that exercised their superior to others, justifying the brutal conquest of lesser states. In the mindset of megalomaniac leaders, the conquering and effective genocide of such inferior states was natural and unavoidable, effectively ordained by a deity. It was this kind of thinking that eventually gave way to Nazism. “Eventually the doctrine spawned the messianic, militant, romantic nationalist movements of fascism and Nazism,” Pinker writes.
 
 
In an age of ideas, where states existed to carry out the will of the people, and in an age where states could posit that they were manifestly superior to others, this meant that states were not only justified to conquer others, but that it was imperative they do so. Failing to dominate and destroy other inferior nations would have been viewed as a failure to keep history on its intended track and purpose.
 
 
And this didn’t just happen with the nation state. Pinker continues, “A similar construction of history as an unstoppable dialectic of violent liberation, but with classes substituted for nations, became the foundation of 20th-century communism.”
 
 
What is important to recognize, and what Pinker calls out in the final quote, is that these are constructions of history. They are particular interpretations constructed by human minds. They are narratives about the past that are used to dictate and shape the future. They are not objective readings of history, or even objective attempts at interpreting and understanding history. These constructions are self-serving, reductionist, and revisionist.
 
 
When we look around us, when we look at our past, and when we think about our future, it is important that we recognize such narratives and constructions. This Hegelian doctrine is nothing more than a narrative that we can discard if we find it unhelpful and lacking in how it describes the true nature of reality. There is no one narrative or construction to which we must adhere. We can evaluate and chose those which are beneficial for our purpose, and which hopefully are more objective and less likely to push us down pathways to war and violence.
An Age of Nationalism & An Age of Ideology

An Age of Nationalism & An Age of Ideology

In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker presents an idea from Historian Evan Luard which frames the conflicts of the early 20th century against the conflicts which followed. Luard argues that the world transitioned from an Age of Nationalism to an Age of Ideology following the United States engagement in WWI.

Pinker writes, “Luard ends his Age of Nationalism in 1917. That was the year the United States entered the war and rebranded it as a struggle of democracy against autocracy, and in which the Russian Revolution created the first communist state. The world then entered the Age of Ideology, in which democracy and communism fought Nazism in World War II and each other during the Cold War.”

This is a helpful, broad overview of recent human history and the two major wars that still play major roles in our collective memories. However, it isn’t a perfect explanation and framework for understanding our history. While it is possible that humanity moved in a direction of ideology relative to a framework dominated by nationalism, it leaves us with an incomplete picture that is too final in its treatment of nationalism and too strong in its treatment of ideology.

Nazism was centered around the idea of an ethno-nationalist state. It is hard to argue that it was not a continuation of nationalism and was more focused on ideology. Democracy was (and still is) highly tied to specific nations, as was (and is) communism. The ideologies may have been the leading banners, but the nation states were still the leading actors. Ideology is a broad concept, and when you dig below the surface, few people truly have a consistent or well pieced together ideology. Even for large ideologies like democracy or communism – relative to fascism which I would argue acts more as a catchall term for bad governance – people have trouble truly defining what ideologies mean and represent. People tend to have strong identities and weak ideologies.

Nevertheless, we can see that there was a change between the first and second world wars, a change that took place in the later half of the 20th century as Pinker notes based on Luard’s writing. In the case of the 20th century, I would argue it was not a change from nationalism to ideology, but a change in what were the most salient aspects of nationalism. Humans shifted from conceptualizing a nation based on loyalty leadership and familial bloodlines to conceptualizing a nation based on collective efforts of governance.

Characterizing the world in terms of broad ages will necessarily miss nuances like the ones I tried to tease apart here, but they help us see that what applied in the past may need to be adjusted before being reapplied to the present or future. That is the case with viewing history as an Age of Nationalism transitioning to an Age of Ideology.

Great Powers Wars

Great Powers Wars

“Countries that slip in or out of the great power league fight far more wars when they are in than when they are out,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
 
 
When we try to study the history of armed conflict we have to look at more modern examples of war and project backwards. We don’t have to go too far into the human past to start running into problems with records. Writing systems have been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean that everything that was written down was preserved and saved to today. It also doesn’t mean that since the time that humans developed writing systems humans have been recording wars and violent conflicts. Warring political factions and state based (however loosely you define a state) coalitions have likely been engaged in violent conflicts as far back as humans have organized themselves into political units, but can we tell if violent conflicts have gotten more or less common over history?
 
 
Pinker argues that conflicts have gotten less common throughout human history, especially in more recent history. Studying great powers helps us see that. Historically, humans are better record keepers when part of a major political unit. Great powers are better at documenting what they do, so their wars and conflicts are more likely to have been recorded and more of those records are likely to have survived to today. The evidence, as shown by Pinker’s quote, is that great powers fight more than minor powers. This means that studying the great powers gives us a good sense of the frequency of violent conflicts between political entities throughout history.
 
 
When we study great powers we see that violence has declined over time. The two wars of the 1900s were outliers. They were immense great power conflicts, and while great powers fight more than lesser powers, they generally have fought less and less over time. While it often doesn’t feel like it, war is becoming less common in human history. We are better at recording and documenting war, and evidence shows that we turn to war with less frequency than we did in the past.
Sunk Costs and Public Commitment

Sunk Costs & Public Commitment

The Sunk Cost fallacy is an example of an error in human judgment that we should all try to keep in mind. Thinking about sunk costs and how we respond to them can help us make better decisions in the future. It is one small avenue of cognitive psychology research that we can act on and see immediate benefits in our lives.
 
 
Sunk costs pop up all over the place. Are you hesitant to change lines at the grocery store because you have already been waiting in one line for a while and might as well stick it out? Did you start a landscaping project that isn’t turning out the way you want, but you are afraid to give up and try something else because you have already put so much time, money, and effort into the current project? Would you be mad at a politician who wanted to pull out of a deadly war and give up because doing so would mean that soldiers died in vain?
 
 
All of these examples are instances where sunk cost fallacies can lead us to make worse decisions. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “though psychologists don’t fully understand why people are suckers for sunk costs, a common explanation is that it signals a public commitment.” In the examples above, changing course signals something weak about us. We are not patient and not willing to stick out our original decision to wait in one grocery store line relative to another. We are not committed to our vision of a perfect lawn and are willing to give up and put in cheap rock instead of seeing our sprinkler system repair all the way through. And we are not truly patriotic and don’t truly value the lives of soldiers lost in war if we are willing to give up a fight. In each of these areas, we may feel pressured to persist with our original decision which has become more costly than we expected. Even as costs continue to mount, we feel a need to stay the course. We fail to recognize that sunk costs are in the past, that we can’t do anything to recoup them, and that we can make more efficient decisions moving forward if we can avoid feeling bad about sunk costs.
 
 
Tied  to the pressure we feel is a misperception of incremental costs. Somehow additional time spent in line, additional effort spent on the lawn, and additional lives lost in battle matter less given everything that has already passed. “An increment is judged relative to the previous amount,” writes Pinker. One more life lost in a war doesn’t feel as tragic once many lives have already been lost. Another hundred dollars on sprinkler materials doesn’t feel as costly when we have already put hundreds into our landscaping project (even if $100 in rock would go further and be simpler). And another minute in line at the grocery store is compared the to the time already spent waiting, distorting how we think about that time.
 
 
If we can reconsider sunk costs, we can start to make better decisions. We can get over the pride we feel waiting out the terrible line at the grocery store. We can reframe our landscaping and make the simpler decision and begin enjoying our time again. And we can save lives by not continuing fruitless wars because we don’t want those who already died to have died in vain. Changing our relationship to sunk costs and how we consider incremental costs can have an immediate benefit in our lives, one of the few relatively easy lessons we can learn from cognitive psychology research.
Street Gangs, Militias, Great Power Armies, & Game Theory

Street Gangs, Militias, Great Power Armies, & Game Theory

As we are learning with the War in Ukraine, understanding Game Theory is important if we want to understand why war breaks out, how long and how deadly a war will be, and how a war will come to a conclusion. Game Theory helps us think about the decision-making of the parties involved in a war and the incentives and risks that they face. Television pundits, journalists, politicians, and policy analysts are all engaging in game-theoretic evaluations of the current conflict in Ukraine to help think about a way that Russia could leave Ukraine without completely destroying the country and its population.
 
 
While much of the world has recently been thinking about Game Theory in the context of two large warring nations, the most basic way to think about and understand game theory is usually a two person situation known as the prisoner’s dilemma.  Conceptualizing Game Theory in this basic format gives us a framework that we can use to understand larger conflicts and dilemmas where parties have to make decisions anticipating the outcomes of their choices, the responses and choices of their opponents, and the subsequent reactions and decisions of everyone else along the way. The simple framework from a two person prisoner’s dilemma scales well.
 
 
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes about Game Theory and how size doesn’t seem to matter when we think in a game-theoretic way. He writes:
 
 
“The same psychological or game-theoretic dynamics that govern whether quarreling coalitions will threaten, back down, bluff, engage, escalate, fight on, or surrender apply whether the coalitions are street gangs, militias, or armies of great powers. Presumably this is because humans are social animals who aggregate into coalitions, which amalgamate into larger coalitions, and so on.”
 
 
Our coalitions are large and complex, but they are still organized around humans. Our social nature is predictable, meaning that Game Theory can apply in any human coalition, regardless of size. Quite often our large coalitions, especially coalitions that employ violence, are ultimately lead by a single individual who can command the decisions to use violence. This all contributes to Game Theory’s application across two people interactions, high school gangs, or armies comprising hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Game Theory helps us understand the decision-making of all the groups, regardless of their complexity and size.
The Poisson Nature of War

The Poisson Nature of War

When we look back at history and explain why the world is the way it is, we rarely attribute specific causes and results to chance. We don’t say that a group of terrorists happened to choose to fly planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11. We don’t say that a new technology happened to come along to advance the economy. And we don’t say that a war between two countries happened to break out. But in some ways it would make more sense for us to look back at history and view events as chance contingencies. Steven Pinker argues that we should do this when we look back at history’s wars.
 
 
Specifically, when we take a statistical view of the history of war, we see that wars follow a Poisson distribution. When we record all the wars in human history we see lots of short intervals between wars and fewer long gaps between wars. When we look back at history and try to explain wars from a causal standpoint, we don’t look at the pauses and gaps between wars. We look instead at the triggering factors and buildup to war. But what the statistics argue is that we are often seeing causal patterns and narratives where none truly exist. Pinker writes, “the Poisson nature of war undermines historical narratives that see constellations in illusory clusters.”
 
 
We see one war as leading to another war. We see a large war as making people weary of fighting and death, ultimately leading to a large period of peace. We create narratives which explain the patterns we perceive, even if the patterns are not really there. Pinker continues,
 
 
“Statistical thinking, particularly an awareness of the cluster illusion, suggests that we are apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history – to think that what did happen must have happened because of historical forces like cycles, crescendos, and collision courses.”
 
 
We don’t like to attribute history to chance events. We don’t like to attribute historical decisions to randomness. We like cohesive narratives that weave together multiple threads of history, even when examples of random individual choices or chance events shape the historical threads and narratives. Statistics shows us that the patterns we see are not always real, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to pull patterns out of the randomness or the Poisson distribution of history anyway.
Random Clusters

Random Clusters

The human mind is not good at randomness. The human mind is good at identifying and seeing patterns. The mind is so good at patter recognition and so bad at randomness that we will often perceive a pattern in a situation where no pattern exists. We have trouble accepting that statistics are messy and don’t always follow a set pattern that we can observe and understand.
 
 
Steven Pinker points this out in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and I think it is an important point to keep in mind. He writes, “events that occur at random will seem to come in clusters, because it would take a nonrandom process to space them out.” This problem of our perception of randomness comes into play when our music streaming apps shuffle songs at random. If we have a large library of our favorite songs to chose from, some of those songs will be by the same artist. If we hear two or more songs from the artist back to back, we will assume there is some sort of problem with the random shuffling of the streaming service. We should expect to naturally get clusters of songs by the same artist or even off the same album, but it doesn’t feel random to us when it happens. To solve this problem, music streaming services deliberately add algorithms that stop songs from the same artist from appearing in clusters. This makes the shuffle less random overall, but makes the perception of the shuffle feel more random to us.
 
 
Pinker uses lightning to describe the process in more detail. “Lightning strikes are an example of what statisticians call a Poisson process,” he writes. “In a Poisson process, events occur continuously, randomly, and independently of one another. … in a Poisson process the intervals between events are distributed exponentially: there are lots of short intervals and fewer and fewer of them as they get longer and longer.”
 
 
To understand a Poisson process, we have to be able to understand having many independent events and we have to shift our perspective to look at the space between events as variables, not just look at the events themselves as variables. Both of these things are hard to do. It is hard to look at a basketball team and think that their next shot is independent of the previous shot (this is largely true). It is hard to look at customer complaints and see them as independent (also largely true), and it is hard to look at the history of human wars and think that events are also independent (Pinker shows this to be largely true as well). We tend to see events as connected even when they are not, a perspective error on our part. We also look just at the events, not at the time between the events. If we think that the time between the events will have a statistical dispersion that we can analyze, it shifts our focus away from the actual event itself. We can then think about what caused the pause and not what caused the even. This helps us see the independence between events and helps us see the statistics between both the event and the subsequent pause between the next event. Shifting our focus in this way can help us see Poisson distributions, random distributions with clusters, and patterns that we might miss or misinterpret. 
 
 
All of these factors are part of probability and statistics which our minds have trouble with. We like to see patterns and think causally. We don’t like to see larger complex perspective shifting statistics. We don’t like to think that there is a statistical probability without an easily distinguishable pattern that we can attribute to specific causal structures. However, as lightning and other Poisson processes show us, sometimes the statistical perspective is the better perspective to have, and sometimes our brains run amok with finding patterns that do not exist in random clusters.
Steven Pinker Quotes Lewis Richardson on Indignation

Steven Pinker Quotes Lewis Richardson on Indignation

I have written in the past about outrage and how I believe that outrage is often more about ourselves than it is about the thing that has outraged us. Quite often we find ourselves incredibly mad about a situation that barely involves us or barely impacts our lives in any meaningful way. We might be outraged that Will Smith smacked Chris Rock on live TV. We might be outraged that a state has implemented new laws which make it harder for women to obtain abortions. And we might be outraged over a new tax that has been passed. But often, the actual impact on our lives of these types of events is negligible. Will Smith may have ruined our TV viewing night, we might not like the idea that abortions are harder for some people to obtain, and we might not like that our taxes have gone up a bit, but in all reality, few of these things will truly matter to us personally. Unless we were the person who got smacked, a woman who needed an abortion, or truly living in a position where any possible increase in taxes would bankrupt us, we don’t truly have a reason to be outraged.
 
 
Lewis Richardson, a mathematician and early influencer of research on peace, seemed to think the same about indignation. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, quotes him as saying, “indignation is so easy and satisfying a mood that it is apt to prevent one from attending to any facts that oppose it.” Again, indignation, like outrage, is more about the individual than about the thing itself. Indignation is easy. It takes no effort to simply dislike something strongly. Indignation makes us feel that we are correct and so superior to others and other points of view that we do not even need to engage with them in a serious manner.
 
 
Something may be truly unacceptable. Something may actually be outrageously awful. But it is rare that we should draw a line in the sand and state that something is so unequivocally wrong and awful that we don’t even need to engage with other points of view. We don’t need to make our outrage or indignation more a marker of us than a disapproval of the outrageous and awful thing.