Presidential Politics on the Ancient Savanna

It’s not news that people often behave irrationally. In many cases it’s not just random greed and fear that we see, but well organized bouts of instinctual group foolishness that follow fairly specific patterns. I’m proposing that the pattern we’re currently seeing in the behavior of our Dear Orange Leader and his supporters, and people like me who are dead-set against him, is all part of an instinctual response that I call “Follow the Bully”.

The “Follow the Bully Instinct” — An Exercise in Armchair Anthropology

Imagine that you and your tribe of hominoids are hunkered down in the grasslands. A neighboring tribe has been moving into your area, trying to push you out. This is a matter of survival for your group because there aren’t many good foraging areas nearby, and moving into another tribe’s area would make you the invaders and put your children and weaker members at risk. What do you do? You need to resist the invading group, but being hominoids, you’re very individualistic and don’t work together very well.

Luckily for you, you have an instinctual response to help in these situations. You and other members of the tribe find yourselves wanting to follow a leader who will lead the charge to expel the invaders. You are drawn to pick the biggest, meanest male in the group and you start telling him how mighty he is, building up his confidence so that he is willing to lead you into battle. You start going along with whatever he says, making him feel even more powerful.

The pleasure in gaining power over others is a seductive drug because it is an instinctual response. It allows a group to manipulate a leader to enhance survival. This instinct blinds the leader to the danger the group is leading him into.

You find yourself angry at members of the tribe who are too independent and obstinate to follow the bully. You and the other followers ostracize these traitors and in extreme cases kill them so that they don’t interfere with the group dynamic.

Independent thinkers and doers are essential to the survival of a species like ours because we depend on our intellect to make up for our lack of strength, speed, armor, claws and sharp teeth. We are a species that will lose every time in a straight fight, so we always have to change the odds by learning from our mistakes, adapting our techniques, and planning ahead.  While the “Follow the Bully” pattern is unfolding however, people unwilling to submit are just sand in the gears.  Their influence must be temporarily minimized.

As an aside, I would point out that this evolutionary emphasis on independent thought and action causes us endless strife and conflict when we try to live together in groups — and yet we are social animals, we can only survive in groups. There is a reason that the Buddha talked so much about suffering.

Your group becomes totally focused on building up your leader and working in absolute unison. Independent thought and questioning become anathema because it weakens group cohesion. When the day comes to fight, your bully believes that he is invincible. You and your group are completely committed to following him. You march into battle. Win or lose, your willingness to work together as one unit, your ability to unite behind a leader willing to fight with reckless confidence because he is convinced he will win, has increased your chances of survival.

Since the intelligence, independence, and adaptability of our hominoid tribe is a crucial survival trait, continuing to have a violent, power-obsessed bully as a leader is detrimental to its long-term survival.

After the danger has passed, your instincts lead you to start ignoring your bully, reducing his influence over the group.  The independent-minded members of the group who had been ostracized are allowed to return and reestablish a looser sense of group organization. Soon normalcy is restored and the band returns to its more peaceful and democratic ways, foraging in small groups and exploring the world with curiosity – at peace until the next crisis.

The Follow the Bully Instinct was helpful in hunter-gatherer societies, but has been the cause of much evil in the last 10,000 years or so. Perhaps it has outlived its usefulness. The only way to blunt the various behaviors caused by this instinct is to stay mindful, to watch for them, to be conscious of them when they arise, and to resist following their lure. It takes a certain amount of discipline and a spirit of renunciation to stay unattached to instinctual responses. A clear set of ethical principles can help you objectively evaluate your behavior and identify when you are in their thrall. Practicing Metta, Karuna, Mudita, and Upekkha (goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) can help you retain your natural sense of empathy and kindness when you find yourself hating and rejecting those who think differently from you.

We don’t have to live heedlessly.  We can make our world a peaceful Eden if we choose to do so.  It won’t be easy though, it takes constant effort to go against the stream of normal human behavior, to avoid the blind reactions of untaught worldlings.

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