Ingroups and Outgroups: The Ukraine Data Stream

The notion that the suite of behavioral traits we associate with morality is dual in nature goes back at least a century.  It was first formalized back in the 40’s by Sir Arthur Keith, who wrote,

Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love.  Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier:  it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.

Seeing that all social animals behave in one way to members of their own community and in an opposite manner to those of other communities, we are safe in assuming that early humanity, grouped as it was in the primal world, had also this double rule of behavior.  At home they applied Huxley’s ethical code, which is Spencer’s code of amity; abroad their conduct was that of Huxley’s cosmic code, which is Spencer’s code of enmity.

Robert Ardrey combined the two words and gave them a Freudian twist to come up with a term for the phenomenon.  Writing during the heyday of the Blank Slate, long before Sociobiology was even a twinkle in E. O. Wilson’s eye, he called it  the Amity/Enmity Complex.  The truth that it exists is highly corrosive to utopian schemes for “human flourishing” of all stripes, from Communism to the more up-to-date versions favored by the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene.  As a result, it is also a truth that has been furiously resisted, obvious explanation though it is for the warfare that has been such a ubiquitous aspect of our history as well as such phenomena as racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, etc., all of which are really just different varieties of outgroup identification.

The current situation in Ukraine, dangerous though it is, presents us with a splendid laboratory for studying the Complex.  The underlying manifestation is, of course, nationalism, a form of ingroup identification that has been a thorn in our collective sides since the French Revolution.  It was the inspiration for the panacea of “national self-determination” after World War I, based on the disastrously flawed assumption that nice, clean national boundaries could be drawn that would all enclose so many pristine, pure ethnic states.  In reality, no such pristine territories existed, and “national self-determination” became a vehicle for the persecution of ethnic minorities all over Europe.  Human nature hasn’t changed, and it continues to function in the same way today.  For example, in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian majority ingroup quickly began acting like one.  A Jewish community center and synagogue were firebombed.   The new rump parliament almost immediately voted to eliminate Russian as an official language, relegating Russian speakers to the status of second class citizens.

Such high-handed actions were virtually ignored in western Europe and the United States, where the collective memory of the Russians as outgroup, still strong more than two decades after the fall of Communism, insured that the Ukrainian nationalists would be perceived as the “good guys.”  Oblivious to the fact that they had quite recently established a precedent by collaborating in the chopping off of a piece of Serbia and handing it to an ethnic minority, and ignoring such theoretical niceties as the claim that, if the Ukrainian majority in the west of the country had a right to vote itself special rights in the west of the country, the Russian majority in the east of the country must have similar rights in their territories, they began a war of words against the Russians, claiming that their occupation of the Crimea and protection of the Russian majority there was unheard of.

In a word, there is nothing rational about what is going on in Ukraine unless one takes into account the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our species that predispose us to perceive the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  Such manifestations are hardly unique to Ukraine,.  Just look around on the Internet a little.  It’s full of a bewildering array of ideological, religious, ethnic, and political ingroups, all busily engaged in cementing “amity” within the group, and all with comment sections full of “enmity” directed at their respective outgroups in the form of furious anathemas and denunciations.

The “Complex” is inseparable from human moral behavior.  No morality will ever exist that doesn’t come complete with its own outgroup.  Think we can “expand our consciousness” until our ingroup includes all mankind?  Dream on!  The “other” will always be there.  The “Complex” is the main reason that puttering away at new moralities is so dangerous.  No matter how idealistic their intentions, the outgroup will always remain.  We saw how that worked in the 20th century, with the annihilations of millions in the Jewish outgroup of the Nazis, and millions more in the “bourgeois” outgroup of the Communists.  Before we start playing with fire again, it would probably behoove us to finally recognize the ways in which it can burn us.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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