It has become popular to point to incidents where "normal" humans, subjected to extraordinary situations, degenerate into what appears from the outside to be gratuitous violence - and at times depravity - as evidence of the innate brutishness of our species. The apparent causes of human conflicts often defy reason, and appear to give further credence to the idea that humans are motivated more out of a lust for violence than any desire to achieve rational objectives.
And yet, individual humans can at times appear quite rational, and give every indication of being guided by enlightened ethical principles over extended periods of time. In fact, this aspect of human nature is so common within certain environments, that a lifetime of rational behavior has become the norm rather than the exception.
If humans were innately brutish, advanced civilizations would only be possible when our innate brutishness was aggressively constrained by pervasive authority. However, the single most successful socioeconomic system in human history has been America's experiment in individual liberty â€“ a voluntary society of freemen citizens constrained only by their own enlightened self-interest. If humans were innately brutish, America's experiment in individual freedoms and voluntary mutual respect would have self-destructed long ago. As a further contradiction, violence and depravity have increased as the individual freedoms of America's first century have been progressively supplanted by authoritarianism.
It's necessary to get past the distractions of the superficial manifestations of aberrant behaviors, in order to reveal the underlying dynamic that provides the motivation and rational for those behaviors. The key to understanding the root causes of many of humanity's outwardly irrational and self-destructive behaviors is the context within which they occur.
One context that can often release the darker side of human nature is when individuals, who have adapted to a certain constraining social dynamic, are suddenly exposing to an artificial situation where that balance has been radically distorted. In much the same way as an engine under load will over-rev to self-destructive levels if that load is suddenly removed, humanity's legacy instinctual competitiveness, left over from more primitive environments, also tends to "over-rev" when suddenly released from constraining social dynamics.
Great efforts have been expended to validate the desire to believe that our species has transcended our origins. However, that part of our brains most associated with being human is layered on top of residual mammalian and reptilian brains retained from our earlier stages of evolution. Our "Johnny-come-lately" intellect may be capable of imagining an idealized world and human nature, but that doesn't make it so. Denial of humanity's more primitive instincts doesn't make them go away. Those that deny the reality of their true nature just end up expressing it in ever more perverse ways - and using their intelligence to fabricate justifications for those aspects of themselves they refuse to understand.
Competition is one of the most basic functions of nature. Those best able to compete within an environmental niche survive. Those least well adapted die out. Competition remains a powerful instinctual drive in human nature. We compete against each other, we compete against ourselves, and we compete as groups against other groups. Even when the negative aspects of competition inspire us to attempt to intellectually deny this aspect of our nature, we typically end up competing at being non-competitive.
Cultures embody many of the characteristics of their participants â€“ and inevitably get drawn into competitions with other cultures. The most successful cultures recognize the full spectrum of human nature, and incorporate dynamics that keep our baser aspects in check, while diverting our legacy of adaptation to a competitive natural world in more productive directions.
Balance is the key to the dynamic. The level of power is relatively insignificant compared to the importance of a perceived balance at that level. The balance of power doesn't even have to be real as long as potential competitors believe it exists. The most effective defense is the one that is sufficiently credible in the mind of a potential adversary that it is never put to the test - and therefore never needs to be used. The most effective invitation for aggression is a perceived inability or unwillingness to mount an effective defense.
This stabilizing aspect is why the only time there has ever been any real peace between individuals or cultures has been when there was at least an expectation of a balance of power. There is a fundamental truth to the saying that "an armed society is a polite society".
The key dynamic is the belief that no superficial advantage can be gained by using whatever level of power is available against a neighbor capable of resisting. The operative function isn't a fear of reciprocal violence - although that may be all that the superficial are capable of seeing. Contrary to the popular idea of a "balance of terror", the dynamic is more accurately a function of two other aspects of human nature - greed and laziness (or to phrase it less bluntly, the conservation and efficient use of resources). Why waste efforts in a direction that is unlikely to return a benefit, when there are other opportunities that offer a far better return.
Obviously, there must be alternative opportunities for this dynamic to function. The artificial elimination of alternative opportunities is one of the most common tactics used to manipulate individuals and groups into engaging in irrational conflicts â€“ even when there is no reasonable potential for success or even survival.
To an organism that is driven by a predisposition toward competition, the lack of perceived opportunity in the most immediately obvious direction, in effect frees him from a need to expend his energies in that direction. Most importantly, it also frees him to seek other directions to vent his inner drives. It was only after the long painful process of creating the means of limiting their superficial competition with each other, that our ancestors were finally able to focus on the profound competition with the natural world that led to the creation of modern civilization.
However, a perceived imbalance of power is nearly irresistible to the legacy competitiveness of the more primitive parts of the human brain. This is why allegedly civilized individuals are unable to resist abusing their fellow man when placed in an artificially distorted environment - and are shocked at their own actions when returned to the checks and balances of their accustomed social dynamic.
The dynamics of competition also create the appearance that humans love to hate. We seek out emotional justifications for our actions - to hate those who compete against us in order to validate our own use of extraordinary means to win the competition.
Group dynamics contribute further distortions and difficulties in identifying root causes of irrational behaviors. Individualism has proven to be the most efficient and productive social structure in terms of advancing the human condition. However, even in a society of individuals who have intellectually embraced the profound competition of wresting scientific knowledge from an indifferent universe, and developing technologies that improve the quality of their lives, humans still find ways to digress into superficial competitions with those around them. The perceived advantages of group membership within competitions between individuals inevitably introduce self-reinforcing distortions that tend to take on a life of their own.
Individuals seek to form groups in order to gain advantage over other individuals, or for defense against the advantages of other groups. We also suffer from a legacy limitation on the membership size of groups. We're psychologically incapable of dealing with being a member of all of humanity, and instinctively seek ways to divide the population into more humanly manageable sized groupings.
The criteria for group membership are often entirely artificial, and based on whatever factors are handy. Immediate family is arguably the oldest and most familiar group definition, followed by tribe. When physical appearance doesn't provide a convenient means of differentiation, abstractions like religion, language, or the color of a team's uniforms will suffice.
Once a group has been defined, it becomes in the self-interest of those who most benefit from group membership to reinforce the advantages of being in that group. Group dynamics tend to be inefficient, and tend to result in some form of membership cost. That cost may be simply financial, or may also involve the sacrifice of some combination of individual freedoms, psychological wellbeing, social status, or other intangibles.
Since reducing the cost of membership would in turn reduce the value of members to the group, it's in the self-interest of groups to instead artificially suppress the relative advantages of the independent individual, thereby minimizing the perceived relative cost of group membership. As a result, groups seek to create artificial distortions whose primary purpose is to enhance the perceived cost/benefit ratio of group membership. Over time, these distortions tend to get ever more artificial and disconnected from their original purpose.
Competition within a group inevitably creates an elite who most benefit from the existence of the group. This elite has a strong self-interest in directing the group in ways that maintain their privileged positions - even when that direction is directly contrary to the individual self-interests of the group members.
The most obvious way to manipulate group members into accepting membership costs that are not in their self-interest is to engage in an artificial competition with another group. This works to the advantage of both elites when there is a balance of power. Both elites can then use the existence of the other to manipulate their members with minimal risk to their own positions. However, just as with individuals, groups find it difficult to resist the perception of an imbalance of power. They also tend to be manipulated in whatever direction their elite believes will most strongly reinforce their own positions within the group.
Group characteristics are more often driven by their need to differentiate, than by a rational assessment of what will best serve their members. The need to establish differences between competing groups provides the justification for many of the more irrational characteristics of groups, and the motivation for self-destructive hostilities between those groups. All too often, groups are obliged by the dynamic of competition to adopt and promote irrational characteristics in order to differentiate themselves from competing groups that have already claimed ownership of more rational characteristics.
When groups compete, the need to win rapidly overwhelms the ethics and principles of the individual members, and drives the tendency to resort to any means that will serve the needs of the group. The perceptions of individual members become an extension of the group competition, with the need to justify the means of winning the competition becoming far more important than reality.
As a result of this dynamic, otherwise admirable individuals who belong to a competing group, are transformed into demonized caricatures of their true selves in the minds of the members of opposing groups. This is especially true of those perceived to be leaders, or performing critical functions within a competing group. The desire to deny the competing group their most capable members displaces the reality of those member's actions.
For example, in the minds of the fans of an one team, the quarterback of an opposing team often becomes a vile embodiment of evil, whose every move is subjected to the most negative interpretation possible - not because of who he is as an individual, but because of his value to the opposing team. It becomes more important to diminish his value to his team than to enjoy his individual contribution to the overall experience of the game â€“ even when his entertainment value arguably benefits all fans.
The greater the perceived value of an individual, the greater the effort by opposing groups to find ways to diminish that value.
Government is perhaps the most obvious example of assembling an artificial group with the express intention of exercising coercive power over individuals and other groups. The most common justification for the creation of governments has been the desire to constrain abusive competitions between "unofficial" groups. As such the vast majority of governments in human history were created as the ultimate escalation of group competition. Government offered the illusionary promise that by becoming the "biggest and baddest", it could contain conflicts between smaller "unofficial" groups, and/or provide the means of competing with the governments of other nations.
As the intended ultimate in competitive groups, the traditional role of government has been to provide the overwhelming coercive violence required to impose the will of rulers on a reluctant and divisive population. Since governments tend to impose a higher cost of membership than lesser groups, artificially enforced membership has always been a standard characteristic. Those who refuse to pay taxes or comply with "officially" imposed periods of servitude, become subject to increasingly violent sanctions - up to and including being put to death.
Its role as the dominant group among competing groups gives traditional forms of government a common shared interest with all groups in suppressing individualism. Governments commonly promote the fallacy that government is the source of civilization - that government is necessary in order for individual citizens to function in a peaceful and prosperous society. The greatest threat to any government is that its subjects will realize that their socioeconomic system functions in spite of their government's interference, not because of it.
Like all groups, governments inevitably become dominated by an elite attracted to the potential for abusing the artificial concentration of power. America was founded on the enlightened principle that government should be the servant of the people - that government should only govern with the consent of the governed. This enlightened recognition of the profound value of individual freedom made it possible for America to become the most prosperous nation in the human history.
However, in spite of the most benign of original motivations, any artificial concentration of power will invariably attract those desiring to use that power for their own purposes. This is especially true of governments. We now see the American government alternately dominated by competing groups seeking to exploit the powers of the state in order to impose their will on an increasingly enslaved public - to use the American government to destroy the very rights and freedoms it was originally established to protect. While these competing groups maintain a facade of superficial differences, they share the common objective of using the vastly expanded power of the state to incrementally strip the citizenry of their individual freedoms, and force them to comply with the will of those who control "their" government.
The adverse effects of misapplied competitiveness are manifested on many levels in government. One of the reasons it becomes so difficult for government to accomplish its official objectives is that those objectives must be implemented by individuals and sub-groups within government who are to some extent motivated by misapplied "localized" instinctual competitiveness. The most insidious aspect of this dynamic is that much of the government inevitably functions more to provide the means for its members to "win" artificial "competitions" with those they see as their opponents, than to accomplish meaningful objectives.
Competition between arbitrary sub-groups within government often becomes more important than accomplishing the government's external policy objectives. Contact with the general public often becomes a form of competition with those citizens obliged to seek the cooperation of government employees. Frustrating the desires of citizens becomes a means of exercising power over those citizens - of "winning" the artificial "competition" between citizens and government. The fact that one side of these artificial "competitions" has no desire to participate too often becomes yet another petty triumph in the subconscious minds of those with the artificial power to force their unwilling opponents to participate.
No amount of denial will change basic human nature, and competing at non-competitiveness is one of the most absurd exercises in self-destructive futility ever foisted on the gullible masses. Abuses of misapplied competitiveness will continue and expand as long as we are unwilling to recognize their underlying causes. Every time we allow our innate competitiveness to be manipulated into supporting the superficial interests of transitory elites, we allow ourselves to be distracted from the profound competition of improving the human condition, and advancing modern industrial civilization.
Revisionist histories that promote the "winners" of superficial competitions between artificial groups as "heroes", deceptively seek to glorify the wasted efforts and senseless destruction of misapplied competitiveness. The true heroes of human history are those who have won their profound competitions with ignorance and the limitations of their world, thereby expanding the wealth of accumulated human knowledge, and making meaningful contributions to improving the human condition.