Human beings are herd animals who think they’re individualsZuby
In 1949 George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, in which he imagined a future world ruled by extreme totalitarian regimes. In the same year the German philosopher and psychologist Karl Jaspers’ book The Origin and Goal of History was published in Germany. While Orwell foresaw a future in which all traces of individuality are brutally suppressed, Jaspers looked to the past, to a time when, he claimed, individuality first emerged in the human race. He called this the ‘axial age’, roughly between 800-200 B.C.E. and especially around 500 B.C.E.. 1 That this was more than merely an idea for Jaspers is obvious from the way he wrote about it. Here are a few choice quotes from chapter 1:
The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. Confucius and Lao-Tse 2 were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo-Ti 3, Chuang-Tse 4 , Lieh-Tsu 5 and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to scepticism, to materialism, sophism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil 6; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance, from Elijah, by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers–Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato–of the tragedians, Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, without any one of these regions knowing of the others […]
All this took place in reflection. Consciousness became once more conscious of itself, thinking became its own object. Spiritualconflicts arose, accompanied by attempts to convince others through the communication of thoughts, reasons and experiences […]
As a result of this process, hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas; customs and conditions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated […]
Human beings dared to rely on themselves as individuals. Hermits and wandering thinkers in China, ascetics in India, philosophers in Greece, and prophets in Israel all belong together, however much they may differ from each other in their beliefs, the contents of their thought and dispositions. 7
For Jaspers, his intuitions about the axial age and the individuals that arose at that time were much more than just an interesting historical theory. He experienced the consequences of Nazi persecution first-hand. His wife was Jewish, and as a consequence he was dismissed from his chair as a professor at the University of Heidelberg in 1937, and his publications banned. Four years earlier, the year Adolph Hitler came to power, one of his students, Hannah Arendt, was arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo for engaging in research on antisemitism in Germany. When released she immediately fled the country, and later went on to write her very influential book The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Since the publication of Jaspers’ book, seventy-two years ago, his theory has been criticised, as one would expect, and the dates he proposed have been questioned and revised. But his central point still holds, which is that certain people in certain parts of the world at a certain period of time somehow managed to emancipate themselves from the groups from which they came, and, as he puts it, dared to rely on themselves as individuals.
Was the axial age really axial?
One year after these two books were published my Buddhist teacher, Urgyen Sangharakshita, published an essay in India, which begins:
Human beings are today less free to think and feel simply, naturally, and spontaneously than at any other period in history. The pitiless pressure of education and environment tends to grind down even the feeblest manifestation of independent and original thought or feeling. Our ideas and emotions are manufactured for us by those to whose advantage it is that we should think or feel as they hypocritically tell us it is good for us to think and feel… Political columnists tell us with an air of infallible authority which nation is right and which wrong, while popular orators inform us which ideological group we ought to love and which to hate. The propaganda machines of governments and political parties pour out an incessant stream of ready-made opinions on every possible subject, from the latest international crisis to the most recent scientific discovery. 8
Sangharakshita couldn’t have read Jaspers’ book when he wrote this, because it wasn’t published in English translation until 1953. But when he did read it, some time later, he understood its importance, and when he returned to the UK from India in the mid 60’s, he included Jaspers’ idea of the axial age in his teachings on Buddhism. He argued that to become a Buddhist could only be an individual decision, and the path to Awakening is one of increasing individuality: the Buddha and other awakened people were ‘true individuals’. Everything that Sangharakshita describes in the above quote is true of today, although there is one very big difference: in 1950 the Internet had not been invented. This has multiplied the pressure on individual thought and feeling many times over. The internet is an immensely valuable tool for the capture of knowledge, but is the enemy of quiet, thoughtful, slow reflection. Rather than engage in the difficult discipline of thinking, many people get their opinions ‘off the peg’ from the internet.
All of which calls into question Jaspers’ idea of an axial age. If it really was the axis on which humanity turned – when people emerged from the sleep of group consciousness into individuality – why is the power of the group now so strong, and why is it harder than ever to be an individual? The answer is partly to be found in the nature of individuality, which is not naturally passed on from one generation to the next, as genes are. To become an individual is a choice that every person must make for him or herself, and then continue to keep making over their whole life. The axial age was – Jaspers believed – a time when a number of people made that choice for the first time, and by doing so they opened up the possibility for others to ‘follow’ in their footsteps. That possibility is always open to us, but it seems that only a few people in every generation take it. The second part of the answer is that, left to themselves, groups will always try to extend their reach, their size, and their power, crushing any nascent individuality in the process.
In Part 2 of this series I will explain what an ‘individual’ – in Jaspers’ sense – is, and how each of us might move towards greater individuality. However, there is one thing I should say about the individual now, to pre-empt any possible misunderstanding. An individual in Jaspers’ and Sangharakshita’s understanding is not an individualist. The latter is someone who looks out for themselves, often at the expense of others. The individual, on the other hand, takes full responsibility for themselves while being aware and alive to the responsibility they have towards others and society in general.
But before we explore what an individual is I need to discuss the nature of the group – or tribe, or herd – out of which the individual emerges.
The nature of the tribe
The Psychology Today website tells us this:
As much as most people like to think of themselves as unique individuals, in reality, humans are social beings – and for the sake of group cohesion, people are evolutionarily driven to fit in. That usually means copying the actions of others, looking to the group when deciding how to think or behave, or doing what is “expected” based on widely accepted (if often unspoken) social norms.” 9
We take on the views of the group we belong to without being aware that we have done so. It feels as if we are acting autonomously, that we have come to our views independently, and that it just so happens that the people around us share those views (because they are, like ourselves, ‘right thinking’ people). You may have noticed times when someone has challenged a view that you have expressed. You may have met that challenge pretty well with your first answer, but as they continue to ask questions you have felt flummoxed, insecure, and under attack, even though your challenger may be simply asking you questions in a friendly and curious way. The reason we find ourselves in these situations is that we have taken on a view without really thinking about it, so when someone asks us to account for ourselves we are unable to. This, of course, was the method that Socrates used in his dialogues. At the beginning of the conversation his interlocutor seems to be quite confident of a particular opinion, but as Socrates relentlessly questions them they eventually have to admit that they don’t really know what they are talking about. How was it that before he began his questioning they were so confident that they knew? We might ask ourselves the same question!
It also feels good to be a member of a group. It gives us a feeling of safety, a sense of solidarity, of belonging, and a conviction that we are right; both in the cognitive sense of correct, but also in the moral sense – we feel that we are ‘in the right’. If everyone around us shares our opinions, then we must be right.
The Buddha was well aware of this phenomenon, and he called those who unquestioningly accepted the beliefs, traditions, and conventions of the groups to which they belonged puthujjanas. This has been variously translated as ‘one-of-the-many-folk’, ‘a run-of-the-mill person’, ‘an ordinary, average person’, and ‘a common worldling’. The translator K. Nizamis says that “… the puthujjana is a “mass individual”: someone who is “just like everyone else”, naïvely accepting and living the received opinions and values of his or her culture in his or her own individual life.” 10 Sangharakshita used the terms ‘statistical individual’ or ‘social unit’ to refer to such people.
The terms ‘group’, ‘herd’, and ‘tribe’ have slightly different meanings. Group is a neutral, descriptive term, with no value judgement implied. A group is simply a number of people considered together as being related in some way: a pop group, a study group, a group of engineers etc. However, Sangharakshita often used the word to refer to what nowadays we call the herd or tribe. The literal meaning of herd is a group made up of the same species of animal – usually hoofed – and so when used to describe a group of people is a pejorative term, implying that they don’t think for themselves or act independently, but unquestionably follow a leader, as such animals do. The primary meaning of tribe is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘a social group composed chiefly of numerous families, clans, or generations having a shared ancestry and language’, but has also come to mean a distinctive or close-knit group of people with a shared world-view, usually strongly opposed to other ‘tribes’.
There are innumerable kinds of groups to which people belong, either by choice or necessity: family, class, race, country, religion, political party or affiliation, football club, style of popular music (and therefore dress and hairstyle – heavy metal, punk, goth, indie, etc), trade union, criminal gang, conspiracy theorist, medieval re-enactment. You can probably think of many more. We can see from this list that some groups are formal or institutional, such as nation, political party, and religion; others are informal, such as football club and style of popular music; and others are natural, such as family, sex and race. Another distinction we can make is that, while we choose to be in some groups, we don’t choose to be in others – we just find ourselves in them. We don’t get to choose where we are born, the family we are born into, our colour, sex or class, but there are other groups we might choose to be members of, such as being a fan of a particular football team, or style of popular music, or a political party.
Every group or tribe has certain norms, ideas, beliefs, and behaviours (which often include a dress code), which characterise the group and which it enforces in a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ way. I’ve never been to a heavy metal gig, but I would imagine that if I were to attend one in a suit and tie, and with a neat short haircut, I would be regarded as odd, out of place, and possibly treated with suspicion, gentle humour, even perhaps ridicule, but that is probably as far as the ‘enforcement’ would go. 11 If, on the other hand, I lived in Afghanistan, and shaved or even trimmed my beard, the penalty for doing so would be somewhat harsher.
Sangharakshita called the enforcement that keeps members of a group in line the ‘power mode’. To act in the power mode is to treat people as things rather than as people, or – another way of putting it – as mere members of a group, animals in the herd, as it were, rather than as individual persons. The ultimate sanction in any group is violence, but it can also take the form of psychological coercion, intimidation, and shaming. Interestingly though, Sangharaksita once defined violence as essentially ‘doing to another what they don’t want done to them’, which can be as subtle as a word, tone of voice, or a look. To return to the hypothetical heavy metal concert, it would feel unpleasant if other fans looked askance or suspiciously at me for not following the required dress code, and this would either discourage me from attending another one or pressurise me to change my style of dress so that I would ‘fit in’. The ‘violence’ would be subtle and psychological, but it would probably have the desired effect.
Members of groups want other members to remain members, unless of course they are disruptive in some way, in which case they will want them to leave, and may eject them if they don’t go willingly. And it seems to be a general rule that groups seek to expand, to enlist new members. While no groups are particularly keen for its members to become individuals (because to become an individual is, in effect, to leave the group), some tolerate it, while others are determinedly against it, in which case the sanctions can be very harsh.
Degrees of group identification
The degree to which people identify with or, one could say, are immersed in, their group differs from person to person. At one extreme is the person who is fiercely loyal, to the extent that critical appraisal of the group and its actions is unthinkable, and they harbour strong antipathy towards other groups, unless those groups happen to be allies. Because they identify with their own group so completely they are unable to imagine any degree of individuality in others, who they assume must identify with their group as absolutely as they do with their own (although they don’t of course explicitly think in those terms). So, if someone expresses a view at odds with their own opinion (which is really not their opinion at all, but the opinion of the group to which they belong) they are unable to conceive of that person having come to that opinion independently, but assume that they are merely expressing the opinion of another group. And if anyone from their own group criticises the group, they can’t help but see them as traitors. In other words, group members of this kind are unable to see individuals, they can only see other group members. This makes reasonable discussion and disagreement all but impossible. Instead, any ‘discussion’ consists merely in shouting slogans and insults across an unbridgeable gulf. This is what constitutes tribalism. In politics such people are ideological extremists, and in religion fanatics.
At the other end of the spectrum is what we might call ‘the moderate’: while loyal to their group, they are also critical of some views and behaviours of other members, or of the group as a whole, and are prepared to say so. Because they are aware of the limitations of their own group, they are able to entertain the possibility that their group’s consensus could be wrong. They are able to discuss this possibility with other members of their group, and also with those from other, opposing groups. They also have a strong, and perhaps more significant, sense of kinship with the whole of humanity than they do with their particular group.
Football fans present an interesting case in point. Typically, football is tribal. Fans are usually fiercely loyal to their team, some denigrate other teams and their fans, in extreme cases hate them, and in the most extreme cases are physically violent towards them. However, it seems that, while every team has its extremists, the rivalry which exists between different football teams and their fans is ultimately of secondary importance for the majority of them. In one of the first matches of the recent UEFA Cup Competition, in which Finland were playing Denmark, Christian Eriksen – arguably Denmark’s best player – had a cardiac arrest and collapsed towards the end of the first half. Suddenly the competition between the two teams, between the two countries, became irrelevant, and everyone was concerned for Eriksen’s well-being. At that moment the teams and their fans were no longer members of opposing and competing groups – Finns and Danes – but were human beings brought together by their concern for another human being. Perhaps we could even surmise that Eriksen’s collapse was a catalyst that changed those fans’ minds – at least for a short while – from a partisan, tribal consciousness, into a more universal consciousness. And perhaps it was the very real possibility of Eriksen’s death that brought about that change. From the point of view of our mortality, group identification becomes irrelevant. 12 (Although that isn’t always true of course. If Finland and Denmark were at war, no doubt there would be many in that stadium who would be willing to die for their country if necessary. Football is a game. War isn’t.)
Positive and negative groups
Sangharakshita proposed two different kinds of groups – positive and negative. A positive group is made up of people who value individuality, even though they may not be individuals themselves – at least not in the full sense. Probably the people who gathered around the great teachers of the axial age were of this kind. Because positive groups value individuality, they encourage their members to become individuals, which means that a positive group acts as a bridge to individuality. That is, when a member of such a group shows some signs of individuality, they are not ‘punished’, by disapproval, intimidation, shaming et cetera, but ‘rewarded’.
Having said that, the group would have to be very positive indeed for all its members to behave in such a positive fashion all of the time. After all, a positive group is a group, and groups, by their very nature, reward conformity, and dislike dissidence. Perhaps we could say that, on a good day, at least some members of a positive group will support anyone who shows some signs of individuality, even if other members of that group express disapproval. (And this latter is probably a good thing, because if everyone praised and rewarded any sign of individuality in a person, then there would be no challenge to that emerging individuality, no way to ‘practice’ being an individual in a more hostile environment. The result might be that, although a person may behave as an individual while in the safe confines of the positive group, outside of that context they capitulate – which would mean, of course, that they’re not really an individual after all).
Although a positive group values individuality, not all its members will aspire to become individuals themselves. For such people it is enough to admire individuality and to revere such individuals that they know of. Some will make efforts to become more individual though, and may do all they can to realise that goal. If and when they do, they leave the group, positive as it may be. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they physically remove themselves and have nothing more to do with it, it means that they no longer relate to members of that group as another group member. They would relate to them as an individual, no longer susceptible to the pressure to conform.
A negative group allows its members very little freedom, and certainly not the freedom to become individuals. The most important aim for such a group is the preservation of the group at all costs, even at the cost of the individual members of that group – they are ‘dispensable’. Group members are only valued to the extent that they are group members, and the more completely they identify with the group, the more they are valued. Those who are perceived as ‘moderate’ (in the sense that I described above) are considered to be ‘suspect’. Probably the most extreme form of the negative group is the totalitarian state.
The government Orwell depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four was modelled on Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, both of them totalitarian regimes, one fascist and the other communist. The Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us that
totalitarianism is a form of government that theoretically permits no individual freedom and that seeks to subordinate all aspects of individual life to the authority of the state. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini coined the term totalitario in the early 1920s to characterise the new fascist state of Italy, which he described as “all within the state, none outside the state, none against the state”.
Orwell feared that totalitarianism would become the dominant form of government in the future, and although – happily – his nightmare didn’t manifest as reality in 1984, there are a number of totalitarian states in the world today, communist, fascist and theocratic (the latter mainly Muslim at present, although there have been other theocracies in the past, notably, Christian) all of which seek to extend their power. 13
By proscribing individual freedom, the totalitarian state effectively denies people an inner life, because such a life is only possible if a person is free, and feels free. In Nineteen Eighty Four Orwell has the state TV permanently on in every home, broadcasting propaganda, the object of which is to drown out any nascent independent thoughts and feelings that people may have. There is also a camera and microphone installed, watching and listening to everything that happens there. The intended result is that the population are merely dry, hollow husks, with no inner depth, no sense of individual, unique personhood, and therefore easy to rule over. At one point in the novel, after Winston has been arrested, he asks his interrogator, O’Brien:
“Does Big Brother exist?”
O’Brien: “Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.”
“Does he exist in the same way as I exist?”
“You do not exist.”
The way totalitarian regimes force conformity is through fear. In extreme cases citizens of such regimes are frightened to even think independently, so they don’t have any thoughts to express.
Democratic countries, on the other hand, have allowed freedom of belief, speech, association, and movement, making them much more conducive environments for those who wish to grow towards individuality.
Now I need to go on a short digression, because none of the societies in which the axial individuals flourished were democracies in the way that modern democratic states are. 14 It’s beyond the remit of this article to investigate the kinds of societies they were, but we should bear in mind the fact that Socrates was condemned to death for ‘impiety and corrupting the youth’ of Athens. Aristotle was also denounced for impiety, but fled, reportedly saying “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy”. Confucius was once imprisoned and nearly starved. It seems that at least some of the axial sages managed to become individuals despite their societal conditions. India was an interesting case from this point of view. ‘India’ at that time – it wasn’t a unified country, but was made up of many smaller territories – had a well-established tradition of ‘wandering mendicants’; men and women living homelessly, practicing their religion and teaching in the towns and villages through which they passed. They were considered to live outside of society, and this allowed them a great deal of freedom to think and speak independently, without interference from the ‘authorities’.
Returning to contemporary democratic states, I’ve said that I believe they are the most conducive environments for those who aspire to become individuals. This is because, while they may not exactly welcome dissenting voices, they tolerate them, with the result that people can be less afraid to say what they think and believe than they are in more authoritarian countries. Democratic states are not ‘positive groups’, but they do at least allow positive groups to exist, even to thrive, and for this we can – and should – be grateful.
However, as the Buddha often reminded people, all conditioned things are impermanent, and democratic states are conditioned phenomena. A democratic state exists only to the extent that the conditions that brought it into being continue to cohere. Take one or two of those conditions away and the whole fragile edifice begins to crumble. It’s easy to assume that democracies will continue to exist, allowing their citizens to keep the real freedoms they possess. However, we will only continue to enjoy such freedoms if we work to keep them. This means, amongst other things, not allowing others to take them from us.
Democracy has been called an ongoing conversation – a conversation between different, often competing groups. I’m not saying anything new when I say that that conversation has become, in the last decade or so, more like a shouting match. The former Civil Rights activist John Lewis summarises the current situation very well in the final chapter of his book Walking with the Wind, when he says, on the topic of the current polarization and segmentation of American society:
Everyone’s got an agenda. And everyone’s got a platform. Turn on the television and you will see a roundtable of “experts” shouting each other down in a “discussion” of the day’s hot topic. Turn on the radio and you will hear callers arguing endlessly about the same subjects the experts on TV are shouting about.
But none – or very few – of these discussions lead anywhere because no one is actually listening, no one is considering possibly absorbing anyone else’s ideas but their own. It’s as if people’s object is to stand behind the walls of their own opinion and hurl bombs at one another, to see who’s made the loudest bang.
The situation in the UK is very similar, as I suspect it is in many other democracies. Moreover, now, very often in the media only one side of the conversation is presented, and those who have differing views are referred to in demeaning ways.
A conversation is only possible when all the parties in that conversation are allowed to speak. Unfortunately, some people are not only deaf to, but are doing their best to silence, anyone who holds views different to their own. Such opinions are labelled by them as ‘hate speech’, and they don’t hesitate to try to ‘cancel’ those who dare to utter it. In the UK they have been successful in changing the law on freedom of speech, so that dissenters can be prosecuted for expressing their opinions, even though they may not be expressions of hatred at all, but honest and principled disagreements. 15 One result of this is that many people ‘self censor’ for fear of the consequences of saying what they really think. 16
Those who try to silence people who hold verboten views are of course extremists, so strongly identified with their group that they are unable to see individuals, but see only members of groups – either from their own or from enemy camps. And they are so convinced of the righteousness of their group’s views that they have no qualms about trying to ruin someone’s life because, after all, they deserve it – they are ‘hateful’. Such tribalists are in the minority, but they shout very loudly, and they have managed to get their way on a number of issues. Orwell feared that we were moving towards “an age of totalitarian dictatorships – an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction.” 17 Jaspers suffered under a totalitarian regime for a number of years. Were they alive today, I have no doubt that they would be more than a little concerned by where we seem to be heading.
I hope that this article has given you some idea of what you are up against if you want to break free of the tribe. In Part 2 I will describe some of the characteristics of an individual, and I will suggest a few ways in which we can free ourselves of the need to ‘belong’ to a tribe, and by doing so be of more help to this suffering world.
- Actually the original idea of an axial age was Hegel’s, who proposed that Christ was the axis on which history turned. Jaspers objected to this, pointing out that this only applied to Christians, and if there was an axial age it would have to be relevant to the whole of humanity.
- The reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, and the founder of philosophical Taoism.
- Also known as Mot Tzu, Mozi, and Micius. Founder of Mohism, a philosophical system advancing the concept of consequentialism (one’s actions define one’s character) and emphasizing universal love as the meaning of life and the solution to all conflict.
- I think this may be Zhuang Zhou, also known as Zhuangzi, the author of the Zhuang Zi. one of the most important texts of Taoism.
- Hardly anything is known about Lieh-tzu, and it is possible that he is an allegorical character.
- Also known as Zoroaster, founder of Zoroastrianism.
- Karl Jaspers. The Origin and Goal of History, Ch.1, The Axial Period.
- The Voice Within
- Conformity | Psychology Today
- Assutavā Sutta: The Spiritually-Unlearned (1) (accesstoinsight.org) Footnote 1
- You may be surprised – as I was – to learn that heavy metal fans are, on the whole ‘gentle souls’. The beautiful world of heavy metal – UnHerd
- Lest you suspect that the Danish and Finnish fans are exceptional in this respect, a very similar thing happened in England, in an FA Cup quarter-final match in 2012, between Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur, when Bolton player Fabrice Muamba suffered a heart attack and collapsed. The match was abandoned and, according to the BBC “Both sets of supporters chanted Muamba’s name as he was taken off the pitch on a stretcher”. Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba collapses during Spurs-Bolton match – BBC Sport
- Perhaps we could amend Mussolini’s characterisation, in the case of a theocracy, to “all within the religion, none outside the religion, none against the religion.”
- Of course Athens was a democracy at the time of the axial age. It wasn’t, however, a democracy in the modern sense. In Athens, all citizens were required to take an active part in government, but only free men were considered citizens. Women and slaves were not considered citizens and therefore could not vote. Also, Athens was a direct democracy, meaning that all citizens (i.e. free men) were involved in decisions. Modern democracies are representative democracies, in which citizens vote for a politician or party who makes decisions on their behalf.
- UK law states that ‘Expressions of hatred toward someone on account of that person’s colour, race, disability, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, gender reassignment, or sexual orientation is forbidden’. Hate speech laws in the United Kingdom – Wikipedia But how can a court determine that someone’s speech is motivated by hatred? They don’t have to. See What is hate crime? | Metropolitan Police: ‘Evidence of the hate element is not a requirement. You do not need to personally perceive the incident to be hate related. It would be enough if another person, a witness or even a police officer thought that the incident was hate related.’ People are often prosecuted for stating their own opinion (which may not be an expression of hatred) or for making a joke. See Hate speech laws in the United Kingdom – Wikipedia, scroll down to ‘Selected Cases’.
- See this recent poll in America, for instance: Poll: 62% of Americans Say They Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share | Cato Institute
- George Orwell – “Inside the whale,” New Directions in Prose and Poetry, 1940