Coali­tions blind mem­bers to their own weaknesses

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - VIEWS & VOICES - JONAH GOLDBERG ——— Jonah Goldberg writes Tri­bune Con­tent Agency.

Last year, John Tooby, a founder of evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy, was asked by the web­site Edge. org what sci­en­tific con­cept should be more widely known. He ar­gued for some­thing called the “coali­tion in­stinct.”

In our nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, hu­mans form coali­tions. Coali­tions are slightly dif­fer­ent from tribes, fam­i­lies or na­tions in that those are all groups we are in­vol­un­tar­ily born into. Coali­tions are the teams we join.

“Coali­tions,” Tooby ex­plained, “are sets of in­di­vid­u­als in­ter­preted by their mem­bers and/or by oth­ers as shar­ing a com­mon ab­stract identity.” The coali­tion in­stinct is a bun­dle of “pro­grams” that “en­able us and in­duce us to form, main­tain, join, sup­port, rec­og­nize, de­fend, de­fect from, fac­tion­al­ize, ex­ploit, re­sist, sub­or­di­nate, distrust, dis­like, op­pose and at­tack coali­tions.” Most an­i­mals don’t have this in­stinct, and none have it as finely honed as hu­mans do.

Be­cause coali­tions are formed to pro­tect the in­ter­ests of their mem­bers, we have a re­mark­able abil­ity to for­give be­hav­ior when it is done by our team­mates and con­demn sim­i­lar be­hav­ior when it is done by mem­bers of a ri­val coali­tion. “This,” Tooby said, “is why group be­liefs are free to be so weird.”

And that brings me to last week. Kanye West, a leg­en­dar­ily skilled self-pro­moter, had some kind words for Can­dace Owens, a young African-Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist.

“I love the way Can­dace Owens thinks,” the rap mogul tweeted. He then dou­bled down and praised Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Many lib­er­als re­acted with un­bri­dled moral hor­ror and a seething sense of be­trayal. Mean­while, many avowed con­ser­va­tives — par­tic­u­larly those who are most os­ten­ta­tiously in the Trump coali­tion, and who had spent years ridi­cul­ing West — sud­denly em­braced him as a free-think­ing hero.

On one level, this is just an­other ex­am­ple of the hypocrisy and op­por­tunism that sat­u­rates so much of our pol­i­tics to­day. But hypocrisy can be an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated sin, be­cause it il­lu­mi­nates a prin­ci­ple: With­out a stan­dard to vi­o­late, there’s no hypocrisy.

The chal­lenge of the coali­tion in­stinct is that it blinds us to the vi­o­la­tions of our own team while ex­ag­ger­at­ing the vi­o­la­tions of ri­val coali­tions. As Ge­orge W. Bush once put it, “Too of­ten, we judge other groups by their worst ex­am­ples while judg­ing our­selves by our best in­ten­tions.”

Over the week­end, Trump held a rally at the same time as the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion Din­ner. CNN ran a graphic from the lat­ter event’s red car­pet: “Trump Skips Event Hon­or­ing First Amend­ment to Rally His Base.”

Now, it’s true that the an­nual din­ner is sup­posed to honor the First Amend­ment. But come on. The event has long been a riot of nar­cis­sis­tic self-adu­la­tion and Hol­ly­wood envy, which ex­plains the red car­pet in the first place.

Days later, the air is still thick with con­ser­va­tive de­nun­ci­a­tions of Michelle Wolf’s caus­tic rou­tine — and with lib­eral de­fenses of it.

Con­ser­va­tives in­sist, rightly, that Wolf was crude and nasty to­ward White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders. Wolf’s lib­eral de­fend­ers, who’d never ac­cept the co­me­dian’s vit­riol if it were aimed at one of their own, lu­di­crously cel­e­brate her courage for speak­ing truth to power.

Lib­er­als have a bet­ter ar­gu­ment when they note that San­ders and her con­ser­va­tive de­fend­ers have been, at best, blind to Trump’s even cruder per­sonal at­tacks on women and oth­ers. When Trump says in­de­fen­si­ble things, those in his coali­tion leap to his im­me­di­ate de­fense and say, in ef­fect, “Lighten up, don’t be so sen­si­tive.”

In­deed, San­ders’ fa­ther, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huck­abee, is un­der­stand­ably an­gered by the at­tacks on his daugh­ter. But he is also ap­par­ently obliv­i­ous to the fact that he rou­tinely de­nounces “snowflakes” who can’t take a joke (or what he passes off as jokes).

Of course, last week was just the lat­est chap­ter in an an­cient story. Hu­mans have al­ways come pre­loaded with the coali­tion in­stinct.

What feels dif­fer­ent th­ese days is that, more and more, one hears peo­ple jet­ti­son­ing uni­ver­sal norms — free speech, con­sti­tu­tional fi­delity, rhetor­i­cal de­cency — in fa­vor of rel­a­tivis­tic ones that sim­ply suit the needs of one coali­tional identity group or an­other. Some on the left now de­nounce free speech solely be­cause it is a threat to their power. Many Trump sup­port­ers wave off his rhetor­i­cal grotes­queries be­cause “he fights!”

Rather than sim­ple blind­ness to our hyp­o­crit­i­cal vi­o­la­tions of stan­dards, we’re declar­ing war on the stan­dards them­selves. If this trend con­tin­ues, we may get less hypocrisy and more open war be­tween coali­tions.

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