Lew Lehr said that monkeys is the cwaziest peoples. I don’t know monkeys so I don’t know if that is true. I have been around a lot of humans, though, and I believe that you could fairly put that phrase the other way about: peoples is the cwaziest monkeys.
It is easy to forget this, especially if one is well-adjusted and one’s culture is on a solid footing. A lot of our make-up seems designed to get us comfortable with our surroundings, safe in the knowledge that things make a lot of sense and that people are fairly explicable beings. Of course as all the best rogues know people are capable of anything.
People can be odd, even seemingly inexplicable.
The easiest way to come face to face with this is through history. The past is, as they say, another country. The facts of history are hard enough to come by but even when you have them there is the question of interpretation, which often boils down to what in God’s name people were thinking when they did shit.
Here is a link to the excellent BBC show In Our Time. In this show, host Melvyn Bragg and his guests, all of whom are eminent historians, are discussing the Salem Witch Trials. Yeah, I thought, I know all about that. Grew up nearby. Learned it at school. Saw The Crucible. And so forth. Yet as these historians rifle through various explanations–Indian invasion psychosis, ministerial self-doubt, egotism, ergotism, family rivalries, theological beliefs–they often seem to be brought up short.
They discuss how the people who profess innocence are typically hanged while those who confess often go free. One proclaims this to be “bizarre”. Another counters by arguing that it is only bizarre by twentieth century standards and that what happened must have made sense to the participants at the time. Yes, but how? The historians snipe back and forth a bit about whether “bizarre” is a fair term to use, but the issue does not really resolve itself.
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. And you can hear directly from the horse’s mouth about actual events–but you can’t always make out what the horse was thinking. The most straightforward phenomenology can end in mystery.
Well, that’s the past you say. Of course it will be hard to understand. Surely the present is not another country.
Alas it is. Just take a look at Going Clear, Alex Gibney’s documentary on scientology (sorry I refuse to capitalize the term).
Gibney’s POV is clear enough on some facts and some interpretations, including that L. Ron Hubbard was crazy as a loon. But those are the easy parts. It is much harder to come to grips with what Hubbard’s followers were thinking as they lied, cheated and worse. Self-interest? Maybe but that doesn’t seem to provide a satisfactory answer. Insanity? scientology head David Miscavige and Tom Cruise seem insane enough, but most of the others seduced by scientology seem quite sane. Most of those who have “left the church” seem themselves utterly unable to account for their thinking and behavior when members.
To me there was something profoundly unsettling about this inability to account for one’s self. Time and again I found myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of this or that behavior, only to realize that my laughter had a nervous quality. Dogs wag their tails not when they are happy but when conflicted, and my laughter had some of that quality. Funny, yes, but disorienting too, to think that this now-reasonable person was essentially cwazy.
Razib tackles this issue head-on in a blog post today attempting to make “sense” of Islamic terrorism. As he points out:
Humans are social creatures, and much of our cognition operates through a social sieve. Our beliefs and preferences are strongly shaped by a tendency to conform to our “in-group.” This is so strong that even if it is clearly irrational humans may still engage in behaviors to maintain conformity to group norms.