Band of Bullies

For almost our entire history humanity has been organised as hunter gatherer bands of no more than two dozen people.

Our whole evolution has been characterised by that organisational structure and the social norms that define it are burned into every cell of our bodies. Our every natural reaction to every social situation is the optimal one for maintaining the cohesion of a tiny band of close relatives living with a whole bunch of similar warlike bands in close proximity, competing for the same resources

It should be noted that the hunter part of the phrase ‘hunter gatherer band’ reminds us that we are an apex predator that, while we can survive on nuts and berries, is also happy to cut your heart out and eat it given the slightest opportunity.

Hunter gatherer bands are a top down hierarchical pack structure that aggressively polices those relationships. You need to know your place in the pack. Violence is common but so is bullying, harassment, and social exclusion and ostracism, potentially leading ultimately to exile, as tools for maintaining order and the command and control structure that allows the band to function effectively.

Every form of social organisation more complex than that is built on learned behaviours that crucially rely on, to some extent, transcending our innate nature, on overcoming our instinctive reactions to particular social events and interactions.

From the formations of the first tribes all the way up to the massive globe spanning empires, social democracies, and supra-national global organisations that have brought us to where we are today, they are all fundamentally built on rules and traditions that require individuals to overcome their nature, swallow their pride, anger, envy, lust, and dozens of other instinctive reactions to the world around us, and to attempt to live by the rule of law, by a set of unintuitive rules that are designed to permit the existence of a better world for all of us.

The Leviathan is not made up of individual humans but of billions of hunter gatherer bands all straining against the artificial constraints placed upon their behaviour.

One of the places I think this is most obvious is in soap operas where fictional characters are permitted to live in ways unconstrained by the mores of an advanced society but only by the whims and prejudices of their writers. The same can be seen in criminal organisations, where the rule of law is not available to manage the behaviour of the members of the group, and so a brutal and primitive form of ‘might makes right’ bubbles up out of the subconscious of the dominant members.

I wonder if the strict parent / nurturing parent duality explored by academics like Dr George Lakoff has its source in this duality in human nature. We have a set of learned behaviours that characterise our society and the culture we are a part of and we have a set of innate behaviours that we fall back on when we haven’t learned any better or are under stress and the learned behaviours are ineffective.

Our success as a species comes down to our ability to overcome our inherent nature and to build social organisations that are structured differently and more effectively given the dynamic nature of the world around us. It is what has allowed us to partly transcend evolution and start to move into meme-olution but it has one glaring failing that we must learn to contend with.

Human nature.

We are going to remain programmed with our basic nature for the rest of time and so we must all individually learn to overcome our basic nature if we are to function effectively in an advanced society.

The practical reality is that not everyone is willing or able to do that and so our societies and our social organisations need to recognise that fact and develop systems that minimise the impact of the human nature of their individual members on the functioning of the organisation as a whole.

One good place to start is Codes of Conduct which document how the organisation expects its members to behave but that is, just that, only a start.

That Code of Conduct must be enforced in some manner that actually changes the behaviour of members of the group. Formal enforcement processes are part of the solution but they must be implemented effectively and they cannot be everywhere all of the time.

Violence of one form of another is relatively rare, and easily dealt with, in most modern organisations except those that actually exist primarily to use violence in socially necessary manners.

Bullying and harassment, particularly passive aggressive bullying, and coercive forms of social ostracism are much more subtle and invidious, which makes them more difficult to address, and to discourage. Shaming and attacks on social reputation are common primitive tools for dealing with disagreements and are inherently difficult to identify, call out, and to report to formal disciplinary structures.

For an organisation to weed those behaviours out it needs to head them off at source, to create environments and structures that prevent them occurring in the first place and that equip its members with more effective tools for managing and working through disagreements.

I don’t even begin to pretend to know what those tools are or what that environment looks like but I think I know where to start. First it is to identify the common phrases that are weaponized in such discourse like;

• I’m disappointed in you
• I despair
• I thought better of you

and so forth and so on. That sort of manipulative language is used to coerce an individual into compliance rather than to persuade them to change their mind. It’s toxic and tends to magnify conflict rather than cause an outbreak of consensus.

Knowing what the symptoms are is one step towards a cure. How to change organisational culture and practice to prevent and replace that sort of interaction with something more healthy and productive is perhaps a little beyond me for the time being. Just being aware of the problem is a help.

After I graduated from my Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Degree course it had always been my intention to go on to do a Masters in International Relations. Foreign affairs and international politics is fascinating and is an area that our new nation will need expertise in, to navigate our way in the World after Independence.

Now I am coming to realise that to build the Scotland we all dream of we need to build a better society and better organisations within that society. Suddenly a Masters in Systems Thinking in Practice seems like a better use of my time, despite the impenetrable title.

If we are going to build a better Scotland we are going to have to become better Scots.

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