Debates, the Political Divide, and Savannah Morality

  • Again, why debating is performance art and not about arriving at truth;
  • How the political divide is mostly about hatred on the right toward the left;
  • How all of this makes sense given understanding of basic human nature, the “Savannah” or “tribal” morality, outlined here, which characterizes conservative thinking.

Another take on the debate about debating.

LA Times, Robin Abcarian, 19 Jul 2023: Column: Why no one should ever debate Trump or RFK Jr.

Why do we assume that a political debate is a good platform for determining who is the best candidate for the presidency, or for getting to the truth of an emotionally charged matter?

My comment: If debates were about getting to some kind of truth, they wouldn’t be about which side “wins” and which side “loses,” but whether the process resulted in a mutually-agreeably consensus about the “truth” of the situation, even if provisional.

Debates are not a good forum for helping us separate fact from fiction. Two candidates in the 2024 cycle — former President Trump, a Republican, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a putative Democrat — are essentially impossible to debate. Not because either man is such a skilled orator or in exceptional command of the facts — quite the opposite, in fact — but because both are masters of the rhetorical technique dubbed the “Gish gallop.”

The Gish gallop is the debate equivalent of Phil Spector’s wall of sound, but instead of being produced with musical instruments, it’s accomplished with lies, half truths and obfuscation.

“Gish gallop” was coined by Eugenie Scott, a biologist and former anthropology professor who founded the National Center for Science Education in 1981 to ensure that evolution, not creationism, is taught in schools.

Scott, who lives in Berkeley, has probably spent more of her career than she would have liked debunking creationists, including the late Duane Gish, who founded the Institute for Creation Research to debunk the science of evolution. Gish galloping, said Scott, who coined the phrase in 1994, is when “you spew out a ton of information, accurate or not, that your opponent has no possibility of refuting in the time available…. It’s an effective if ultimately shallow and misleading debate trick.”

This is an example of not arguing in good faith; trying to ‘win,’ not trying to discover what is true.

“Debate is a sport,” Scott said. “It is not a way of informing the audience or the public of the accuracy of an opinion. It is played by rules that are different from those of logic and empirical evidence.” Debates, she once wrote, are “drive-by shootings when it comes to critical thinking.”


NY Times, Thomas B. Edsall, 19 Jul 2023: ‘Gut-Level Hatred’ Is Consuming Our Political Life

Another long piece in which Edsall quotes from many sources to try to find a common theme and draw a conclusion. My question going in, not having read the piece closely until now as I post it, is, is this ‘hatred’ equal from both sides…?

Divisions between Democrats and Republicans have expanded far beyond the traditional fault lines based on race, education, gender, the urban-rural divide and economic ideology.

Polarization now encompasses sharp disagreements over the significance of patriotism and nationalism, as well as a fundamental split between those seeking to restore perceived past glories and those who embrace the future.

Here again we see the consensus, boiled way down, of the difference between the conservative and liberal mindsets.

Toward the end of the 20th century, Republicans moved rightward at a faster pace than Democrats moved leftward. In recent decades, however, Democrats have accelerated their shift toward more liberal positions, and Republican movement to the right has slowed, in part because the party had reached the outer boundaries of conservatism.

(My comment: how much more conservative can you get than to legislate a complete return to the values of Savannah morality?)

Answer to my going-in question: it seems to be all about Republicans fearing change and the loss of what they valued as children. One example:

The sense of loss is acute among many Republican voters. Geoffrey Layman, a political scientist at Notre Dame, emailed me to say:

They see the face of America changing, with white people set to become a minority of Americans in the not-too-distant future. They see church membership declining and some churches closing. They see interracial and same-sex couples in TV commercials. They support Trump because they think he is the last, best hope for bringing back the America they knew and loved.

Much more in this long piece, including a discussion of four varieties of “nationalism.”

Again, in the broadest possible terms, these political effects are the result of changes that have overwhelmed humanity over the past several hundred years, not just resulting from the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, and the resultant expansion of technology that has enabled our global culture, but also the simple expansion of the population, which has made the protection of individual tribes against influences from the outside, from other tribes, impossible. And so human nature is being keel-hauled into necessarily overcoming Savannah morality, if humanity is to survive. (As others have noted: this may be impossible, for intelligent species around the universe, including ours; this may be the solution to the Fermi paradox.)

One more example from Edsall’s piece:

I asked Arlie Hochschild — the author of “Strangers in Their Own Land” and a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been working on a new book about eastern Kentucky — about the threatening policies conservatives believe liberals are imposing on them.

She wrote back, “Regarding threats felt by the right, I’d say all of them — especially trans issues — evoke a sense that this is the last straw.” In their minds, “the left is now unhinged, talking to itself in front of us while trying to put us under its cultural rule.”

For example, Hochschild continued:

when I asked a Pikeville, Ky., businessman why he thought the Democratic Party had become “unhinged,” Henry, as I’ll call him here, studied his cellphone, then held it for me to see a video of two transgender activists standing on the White House lawn in Pride week. One was laughingly shaking her naked prosthetic breasts, the other bare-chested, showing scars where breasts had been cut away. The clip then moved to President Biden saying, “These are the bravest people I know.”


I think I will now summarize what I mean about the idea of a “Savannah morality,” the human nature that evolved over tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and that lingers in all of us, before humans discovered agriculture and switched from hunter-gatherers to living in settlements, only about 12,000 years ago. This basic human nature worked for hundreds of thousands of years, but it’s increasingly inappropriate, or even counter-productive, in the modern, global society. I may promote this to a Provisional Conclusion. These are the protocols of this way of thinking:

  • Conformity over individual expression;
  • Suppression of any sexual activity, or expression, that does not support having babies in order to expand the tribe (remember the high infant mortality in the ancestral environment, and even in modern society until the 20th century);
  • Loyalty to tribal myths, especially outlandish ones;
  • Suspicion, fear, dehumanization of other tribes (“They’re murderers, rapists…”);
  • Resistance to change;
  • Rejection of discoveries about the real world that undermine the tribal myths;
  • In general, the preference for stability in all things, an unwillingness to change, and resentment of having to do so;
  • The veneration of “heroes” who go out into the world, defeat the ‘monster’, and return to ensure the tribe will survive. (Sorta Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces.);
  • Short-term thinking about immediate challenges to survival; dismissal of thinking about future generations, or anything that happens beyond the horizon.

As I’ve said, the priorities of modern conservatives all make perfect sense given these protocols. These priorities of human nature are literally built into us, by the evolution of our species and our minds, that resulted in our survival over hundreds of thousands of years; it could hardly have been any other way.

I might just as well call this “Biblical” morality, since the Bible illustrates so many of these themes.

But that ancient world doesn’t exist anymore; it’s been turned upside down; these priorities are either not necessary, or actually counter-productive, in today’s global world in which the continued growth of the human population is threatening the planet’s ecosphere, and thus the survival of the species.

And I don’t know how enough conservatives will get over this selfish, tribal, thinking, in order to understand reality, cooperate on a global scale, and save humanity from wrecking the planet. It may not happen.

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