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Why unintelligent protest may kill democracy

Protest is an age-old social good, but a new strain developing on the Left may kill democracy, says "professor in exile" Heather Heying.

Heather Heying: Society-wide, people are becoming ever more tribal. And tribalism is as old as social groups, which is older than humans. So it’s no surprise that people are looking to find those who sound the most like them, and who they imagine will be the most likely to keep them in their heads when things go wrong. But the way that it’s manifesting is a particularly modern instantiation that I don’t think we’ve seen before.

So protest is old and is honorable and is important; we must be allowed, in any system that calls itself democratic, to dissent. Increasingly, we have groups who are claiming to be emerging from this age-old culture of protest who are actually tamping out dissent, who are saying there are things that cannot be said, there are things that cannot be thought, there are research programs that cannot be done, and that’s dangerous, and it comes from a place of fear, and fear is very powerful evolutionarily. It rises to the top of the emotions when it shows up, and it’s hard to get through the fear with an argument that is rational. Emotion and rationality don’t tend to interface with one another very well, and some of the language that we’re hearing from the extremes on both sides of the political spectrum—I’m not sure that calling it a spectrum is really apt, but everyone is familiar with it. 

So the extremes on the right and on the left are both using fear to further polarize people, and the people on the right, the people on the far right, the extremists on the right are both, I think, a smaller group and better armed and thus in some ways more terrifying, but there are so many fewer of them that they don’t seem to have as much voice in society as the growing numbers of extremists on the left who are using words and increasingly, in the case of some of the groups, violent tactics.

But they don’t tend to be armed in the way the extreme right is, and so it’s easy for people to imagine that they’re not as dangerous, but shutting down dissent, shutting down the ability to discuss ideas, is actually the beginning of the death of democracy.

So why does it work? It works because since people have been social, which is to say since before people were people, since we were great apes and before that primates that weren’t great apes, and whatever social mammals came before that, we have been splintering into groups and watching out for our own. And it wasn’t just kin groups, it was kin groups and extended family, and then friends and family.

But the tribes that we see forming now are able to garner more power because they can use modern technology to move into old, old circuits.

So social media can be used to mobilize a group and to enrage a group, to inflame a group, where a town crier 500 years ago or a roving storyteller thousands of years ago might have brought news that would have alarmed a group of townspeople or a village or a hunter-gatherer tribe when they came together in their annual fusion event with lots and lots of tribes together, they might hear something that struck them as dangerous, but things didn’t change at the rate that they are now, and so what we have now is a rate of change that is unprecedented, in concert with these endocrine systems, all of which are evolutionary, that are so old that we are chasing—it’s been said before by many people—we’re are chasing dopamine, we’re chasing serotonin, we’re chasing hits of “that feels good, now I feel like I’m in, now I feel like I’m part of the group and everyone else is an enemy.”

And it’s dangerous precisely because we are global now, we’re a global society, we’re a global species, and we need to be thinking and acting globally because there’s not going to be a local solution to climate change, for instance. There’s not going to be a local solution to nuclear escalation.

So our very personal, very individual, and very much evolved responses to “Oh that feels good I want to be on the in, and that requires an out,” means that we have increasing polarization, and people who are opposed to each other in this increasingly tribalistic culture cannot find a way to converse, to come together and say, “You know what, actually that what unites us is greater than that which divides us,” and that’s what we need right now.

We can do that too. There is as long a history—almost as long a history of cooperation and evolution as there is of conflict. The evolution of cooperation is long and complex and beautiful, and somehow we need to try to enhance our ability to find the desire to sit down with people who don’t sound like us.

And it takes, I think it takes meet-space, I think it takes being in real time with one another. Because when you do 280 characters on Twitter or some other post where you’re sending it out to people, most of whom you’ve never met, all they have to go on is those pixels in front of them and so they respond in real time and come to a judgment and are off again. Whereas when you sit down with someone, whether it’s for 15 minutes or, better, for an hour or a day or a week or spend time in the field together, you come to see that everyone is flawed, everyone doesn’t feel about some things the way you do. Even if you’re an idealogue, even if you think you both bought the same ideology at the store and you’re in total agreement, you actually will find that you have disagreements and that those disagreements are where the juicy stuff is. That is where it becomes interesting to talk to people, and that is where you find, actually, the common humanity.

So there’s an evolutionary basis to finding the common humanity as well, but somehow we have to trick the algorithms—well, we have to trick ourselves into not falling prey to the algorithms that are being fed to us by an ever more technological culture.

Evolutionary biologist Heather Heying rose to prominence as a member of the Intellectual Dark Web after she and her husband, Professor Bret Weinstein, spoke out against a planned "Day of Absence" at Evergreen State College, where white students, staff and teachers would vacate campus and only minority students would remain. Their opposition to the event led to accusations of racism and a string of protests, threats, and violence, leading The Seattle Times to call the college a "national caricature of intolerant campus liberalism." Democracy depends on protest, Heying asserts above, but a new strain of unintelligent protest on the Left may damage the very values liberals are trying to protect. "Increasingly we have groups who are claiming to be emerging from this age-old culture of protest who are actually tamping out dissent, who are saying there are things that cannot be said, there are things that cannot be thought, there are research programs that cannot be done," she says. "... But they don’t tend to be armed in the way the extreme Right is, and so it’s easy for people to imagine that they’re not as dangerous—but shutting down dissent, shutting down the ability to discuss ideas, is actually the beginning of the death of democracy." In this video, Heying looks at tribalism and dissent from an evolutionary perspective, and highlights how technology has hijacked our ancient brain to create a more polarized society than ever before. Follow Heather on twitter: @HeatherEHeying and on Medium and through her website,

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