How Game of Thrones Speaks to the Recent Violence in Charlottesville

This season of Game of Thrones has been especially political, and episode 7 relates to the social and political climate of the U.S. like never before.

It’s impossible to disentangle the relevance of Game of Thrones with our current political and social environment. This is what great art has always done: address the issues of the day through narrative, but not with so much fantasy it’s no longer pertinent. Griots and corrido singers transmit news through song; that today small screens transmit such messages does not mean it’s not part of the same process. 

This season has been especially political. One example, co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss kicking off this year’s Spotify playlist—songs that reflect the undertones of the show—with “Immigrant Song.” Not exactly subtle. Nor was the roasting of Randyll and Dickon Tarly for refusing to bend the knee because, in their pre-conditioned heads it’s better to become dragon fodder than bow to an immigrant. 

'Eastwatch' was especially meaningful this weekend given the death of Heather Heyer, who was protesting white nationalism in Charlottesville. Her killer was a Hitler-loving 20-year-old experiencing road and life rage. While it’s easy to pin blame on him, we have to investigate the conditions which led to such an action being possible, which, in this case, implicates hundreds of tiki torch-bearing neo-Nazis and a leader who gets them off in coded language.

Which is exactly the point Varys makes while sharing wine with Tyrion: “It’s what I told myself when I watched them beg for mercy: I’m not the one doing it.” Vary is not exactly comforting Tyrion, who is in a vulnerable position having just watched a bloodline fried on the battlefield. When he punts to “being the hand, not the head” of Daenerys, Varys reminds him, no, actually, you’re part of the problem. If only our elected leaders could be so brave. 

What became especially clear this week is something we’ve always known, on screen and in life: humans are tribal animals. Discussing his new book, Why Buddhism is True, author Robert Wright put this into perspective when I recently chatted with him. 

"Tribalism is the greatest threat to humankind today, to the planet. When people think of tribalism, they may think of rage, aggression, wanton slaughter. I think it operates a lot more subtly than that. When I talk about the psychology of tribalism I’m just talking about the various cognitive biases that are involved in our tendency to identify with one group in opposition with another."

Yes, wanton slaughter is part of Game of Thrones, but so are subtler aspects: the arrogance of the Archmaester tribe forcing Samwell Tarly to flee the Citadel, for example. The biggest theme, however, dates back to the rice fields of China: a millennia-long struggle between individualist and collectivist cultures.

In his exhaustive book on the biology of human behavior, the aptly-titled Behave, Robert Sapolsky points out that rice was domesticated in China roughly 10,000 years ago. And to successfully harvest rice under such environmental conditions everyone has to pitch in to help each family’s crop. Collectivist.

Sapolsky compares this to the most individualist culture the world has ever known: modern America. While our agricultural roots are not nearly as old, our crops were no less laborious. Yet our solution was not exactly community-minded. Instead, slavery. Individualist. 

This has led to stark cultural differences. People from individualist cultures, he writes, constantly seek out uniqueness, boast about personal accomplishments, use first-person singular pronouns more often, and describe themselves in personal rather than relational terms. They also tend to remember who they’ve influenced yet struggle to recall who influenced them. Collectivist cultures act in the exact opposite manner on all accounts. 

These differing mindsets even affect our vision, and not just in a metaphorical sense. Individualists look first at the center of every photo and notice humans quicker, while collectivists understand images in a holistic context, with their eyes darting around the entirety of the picture. 

This is a trait we pass along, not only genetically. When shown a photo of a school of fish with one in the lead, mothers in individualist cultures will say he’s the fastest or the leader, whereas in a collectivist culture, mothers mark him as banished from the group. 

While fans claim Jon Snow’s “elevator pitch” needs work, this entire season has proven him to be a collectivist leader. Sure, you can squabble over petty land rights, and yeah, I won’t bend the knee, but none of that will matter when we’re all toys for White Walkers. As I wrote two episodes ago, climate change is one such Walker everyone needs to be wary of, but there’s something else—and we witnessed in Charlottesville this weekend.

It is true that our biological inheritance points to tribalism. A psychology that unites small bands of people to fight the elements, other tribes and other species, and all the ravages of nature served us well throughout the course of evolution. It was a necessary mindset for our survival.

But evolution is not a static process, and that time is past. Aggression and violence kept us safe; empathy and cooperation are what truly raised us above the elements. Climate change never gets solved if first we don’t recognize that we’re all in this fight together. A history of working with instead of against one another is our true legacy on this planet—one that’s in danger of being wiped away if we can’t remember what the best of our abilities create. And right now, America is not sending the best of its people to the front lines. 


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.