Jonathan Haidt has a saying: “People are ninety percent chimp and ten percent bee”. It’s supposed to mean that people usually push each other around selfishly to gain status, but occasionally have an ability to come together into a single unified superorganism working for the common good. He seems to reify this more than a little, treating it as a “switch” that can be turned on by certain situations or rituals. He gives lots of examples, but four that stick out for me are patriotism, prayer, team sports, and pep rallies.
They stick out because they’re a pretty good list of the things that most turned me off when I was younger.
I was definitely one of those people who fact-checked patriotism: “America is number one? Really? Then how come Canada has lower crime, lower poverty rate, lower infant mortality, and higher self-rated life satisfaction?” The feeling engendered by an image of an eagle flying in front of the American flag while the Star-Spangled Banner played in the background was a combination of cringing and urge to nitpick.
As for prayer, I distinctly remember putting my very progressive rabbi on the spot about whether God literally existed, and when the rabbi answered something like “Well, it depends how literally you want to take the word literal…” I asked him why we spent so much time praying. He replied that he liked to do things for no reason because he was stupid. Or, well, probably that wasn’t actually what he said, but that is pretty much how my brain remembers whatever weasel answer he gave. I stopped going to synagogue very shortly after that.
Team sports always seemed moderately barbaric. When forced to participate, I treated them about the same way I treat being on call in hospital as an intern – desperately pray that none of the activity happens in an area I am responsible for, frantically try to transfer it to some more qualified person when it does, and make burnt offerings of thanksgiving to the gods of every major world religion when it’s over.
But pep rallies were the worst of all. It wasn’t just that they were celebrations of the kind of guys who would yell incomprehensible things at me, led by the kind of girls who would preemptively tell me they would never date me even though I hadn’t asked. It was just…the inexplicable, horrible noise. Like I’m sure everyone’s had those times when one of the dogs in your neighborhood starts barking, and then that makes another dog start barking, and soon all of the dogs in your neighborhood are barking really loud for no real reason. And I would always think, “Well, it’s not supposed to make sense to me, I’m not a dog.” But pep rallies were the same thing, and I didn’t have that excuse!
So I came out of all this stuff figuring I lacked what Haidt calls “the hive switch”, the ability for the right trigger to take you outside yourself and bring you into ecstatic union with an in-group. And most of the people I most respected felt the same way. It was even a point of pride: “I’m the sort of person who can see through pep rallies and isn’t stupid enough to start screaming with the rest of them.”
And I noticed this same thing in the epic comment thread to my What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It. Here are some quotes from readers:
“There seems to be a set of social-emotions that I don’t quite get. Like when people say they’re ‘offended’. The idea of getting fist-fightingly violent over mildish insults, or teary because some symbol has been disrespected is just confusing to me.”
“I don’t get political rallies. You know the ones, where some major politician goes in front of a big crowd and pours on the charisma, and everybody is cheering and shouting all at once? I used to live in Iowa, so I’ve had the opportunity to be in a bunch of those crowds, and the whole thing always seemed… just completely baffling.”
“I’ve never been to a rally, but I also don’t get them. In fact, I find myself actively creeped out by many forms of collective displays of emotion/enthusiasm.”
“I have never been able to take any ritual seriously. As a kid in Church I always thought everyone was just playing along, that nobody actually believed the stuff we were talking about, the same way nobody actually believes in Superman. I always expected someone to break character and then everybody to start laughing.”
“I have never really experienced communal grief. The idea that something like an attack or natural disaster that kills or injures strangers (even if they happen to share citizenship of a country, state, or city with you) or the death of a well-known public figure could elicit an emotion resembling what you feel when someone you know dies does not make intuitive sense to me.”
“I don’t understand or don’t enjoy many group activities, including parties, group conversations, watching team sports (such as football), participating in team sports, political rallies, concerts.”
I have heard a very attractive explanation for this. Being a nerd, goes the explanation, is sort of like autism. And autistic people are missing a lot of the brain’s normal social machinery. So nerds are just autistic enough to be missing the hive switch.
It is never a good idea to underestimate human variation. But this has not been my experience.
Since about age fourteen, I’ve been involved in “micronations”, a weird hobby treading an uncomfortable line between roleplaying game and secessionist movement. Groups of friends come together to design countries which engage in various strange and often confrontational forms of politics and foreign policy.
And most of the teenaged friends who I worked with on this had the same attitudes toward patriotism as teenaged me – it was stupid, Canada was better than America, why do people waste money on stupid flag pins, et cetera.
And we became fanatically protective of these tiny little fake nations of ours, and people who would have sold out the US for a nickel would spend sleepless nights zealously defending the reputation of a country whose population was in the single digits and whose constitutions included sections like “Article Five: Design for a judicial system to go here eventually”.
And I have noticed something similar even out here in the world of countries larger than a backyard. Anyone following the beautiful fountain of drama that is Justine Tunney’s Twitter will notice her relationship with Google borders on the same fervency that marked our micronational patriotism. And then there are the great nerd cults, like Objectivism and the one that I’m not supposed to use in the same sentence as “cult” for search-engine-related reasons.
I remember how back during the 2008 presidential election, when Michelle Obama saw that the tide was turning in Barack’s favor she said something like “For the first time, I feel proud to be an American”. She got a lot of flak about that from the press, but I think she was honest and I think was a perfectly understandable feeling (albeit not the best thing to say if you’re the wife of a presidential nominee). It’s the feeling of going from an out-group you can’t identify with to an in-group you can.
I think the thing with nerds and hive switches is the same. It’s not that we lack the ability to lose ourselves in an in-group, it’s that all the groups people expected us to lose ourselves in weren’t ones we could imagine as our in-group by any stretch of the imagination. We didn’t cheer on the jocks and cheerleaders at pep rallies not because the secret switch in our brain was broken, but because the secret switch in our brain didn’t think jocks and cheerleaders were worth cheering for.
You remember that scene in Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn and his soldiers are marching to the gates of Mordor? And…well…you know the quote:
Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! My brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of Men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand! Men of the West!
That was basically a pep rally. And by god, we cheered. Because Aragorn was worth cheering for.
During my life, I have had two groups I really really feel comfortable saying were my in-groups. The Republic of Shireroth. And the rationalist community. When the Shirerithians played their national anthem, I stood. And when the rationalists had a religious ritual, I prayed.
Once I found my hive switch, so to speak, it’s been easier to appreciate patriotism and religion. Team sports still involves a little too much sweat, and pep rallies don’t mesh well with my auditory processing issues, but I can see in principle how someone might enjoy them.
And I guess you would ask why you would want to. But feeling like you’re really connected to other people, not just in a “they share my goals and seem okay” way but in a “these are my people, we form a tribe or a community or, while on horseback, a horde” way is one of life’s greatest pleasures and also a pretty important subgoal to anything that requires cooperation with other people. The only experience I can compare it to was being a kid and thinking I would never be dumb enough to waste time with crushes and romance, and then growing older and having the appropriate genetic payload unpack itself and tell me that this was a big part of what makes life worth living.
So my advice to anyone else who thinks they’re a hundred percent chimp and totally bee-less is to find an in-group that really is their in-group, then try again.