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.