But Nobody Wants to Die
First off … I just want to underscore the non-partisan (or para-partisan) nature of my discussions about contemporary politics. So far, I’ve been dealing pretty much with American politics, but hopefully, anthropological consideration of how emotions get folded into political decisions can really help us to think about something more general, albeit in a fresh way: the very political foundations of human sociality. My upcoming posts will be a series on Anthropology and Philosophy, will be a bit more academic, and will aim to bring the focus back to that of biocultural evolution. But recently, I’ve been especially concerned about providing a rarely offered anthropological perspective on the way that marked, dramatic American cultural narratives–which we tell ourselves, selectively listen to, or stage and act in, through the processes of ritualization and mythologization–move likely voters emotionally… so much so that they and the political apparatuses who court their votes can develop quite damaging addictions to the resulting “high,” the sense of stability and control we gain from telling myths and participating in rituals. Yet, if we aren’t careful and critical before we let ourselves get carried away, from the everyday into the emotionally overwhelming realm of myth and ritual, the narratives involved can blind us to how our resulting sense of control or stability actually comes from something else: resolving to build barriers and effectively exclude people from society we consider proper. And this unfortunate moral blindness itself can be strikingly shortsighted, while actually creating further disruption, despite the aim of achieving stability and control.
My point is that the kind of moral blindness that ritual and myth create is also fundamentally human and, as such, wholly nonpartisan. Trying to recognize when we’re telling ourselves clever, yet dramatic and moving stories that are actually driving us emotionally is important. This is because we all do it. It’s not that some people are emotional and irrational, while others are simply able to maintain mental discipline and think clearly. It’s a basic part–as I will argue and illustrate in some of the coming posts–of how individual thought translates into action in human social life. This may be the most important reason why an anthropological perspective is valuable in considering contemporary politics. In accepting that emotional reactions to moving stories that overwhelm us and shape our resolve and actions, we can shift our focus toward understanding how the narratives affect us, what the emotional effects are, and what kinds of joint actions, shared identities, senses of social order, and social boundaries result from particular dramatic story-emotion-action feedback systems.
Just to underscore the non-partisan point that such story-emotion feedback can overwhelm us, even when we have good information that we should really act and argue otherwise, I offer an interesting link (see above left). This is a political science study concerning how Democratic Party campaign operatives and candidates in a range of recent local and state elections predicted their own chances of winning. The study is discussed on the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog, with this post written by political scientist John Sides. He shares some recent research in a working paper by his poli-sci colleagues Ryan Enos and Eitan Hersh (2013). The basic finding is that American political campaigns are particularly bad at controlling their emotions and dealing critically with polling data. These data should–and often are–collected and analyzed in multiple ways facilitating effective, objective validation. Enos & Hersh’s figure (2013: Fig. 2; see above left) shows how most of the Democratic campaigns they studied predicted that they would do better than their candidate actually did. Often, they made such predictions–and Enos and Hirsh control for campaigns spinning their media message–when polling data was indeed accurate about the election outcome. And often, these overly optimistic predictions involved the campaign stating that it would win, only to lose. (In other words, it’s not that most campaigns predicted that they would win by a greater margin than they actually did, or would lose by a smaller margin than they actually did. They got the winner and loser wrong.) As a cultural practice, contemporary political campaigning appears to have an intense structured and structuring narrative. “We’re sure we’re going to win, until suddenly, we’ve lost … and even then, maybe there’s some way to turn it around, against all odds, because we’re on the winning side according to moral principle.”
This has a striking metaphorical resonance with the more general American cultural narrative that things are sure to get better, no matter the warning signs, until suddenly, they’re worse. American culture is structured by a fundamental speculative faith in improvement, and as such, the historical process of our culture constantly recreating itself is one of speculative bubbles growing and then bursting. I suppose the seemingly miraculous thing is just how resilient this narrative-driven belief is, despite the disruption it engenders. (And thus, for me as a biocultural anthropologist through and through, this is a particularly, acutely challenging topic to investigate.)
This practical cultural narrative is something that worries us, but it seems that we’re resigned to our cultural fate. Thus, a movingly simple critique poignantly crosses popular music genres. Many versions of the song “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven (But Nobody Wants to Die)” have been recorded and performed by jazz, country, bluegrass, reggae and blues artists over the past 60 or so years. Notable versions include those recorded by 20th Century musical legends Loretta Lynn, Albert King, and Peter Tosh. In some versions, the lyrics involve gospel references, including to Old Testament prophets and to Jesus. In others, the texts are more straight-up generalizations about our hypocrisy. As Albert King sings:
Everybody wants to know the reason without even asking why.
Oh, everybody wants to know the reason, all without even asking why.
You know, everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.
Unfortunately, song as a ritualized departure from everyday life can have an addictive effect, too; as we express our worries, we shrug them off. And returning to the everyday challenges, we try to keep things going … unfortunately–in this particular instance–belying the fact that we are riding a cultural bubble that may unexpectedly pop into personal or social disruption.
Yet, sometimes, the emotional experience of ritual and myth can transform us when we return to the everyday, giving us the resolve to seek and work for strategies for change.