A Lesson in Tribalism

“Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things: Bread and Games!” ~ Juvenal, Roman poet

So, the other day, I went to the New York Renaissance Faire with my family and friends. It was a really good time and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s a video compilation on my channel forthcoming, as well as photos posted to my Instagram if you wanna see some highlights.

Two events in particular stood out. The first being the live chess match and the second being the joust. Both were billed as being duels to the death. Staged deaths, obviously, since we don’t live in actual medieval times. Slavery’s long since been abolished, violence is frowned upon in our society even as a form of capital punishment, and death is sort of a put-off in terms of employee retention. Still, much like with movies, plays, or professional wrestling, the fact that it was fake didn’t make it any less compelling a spectacle – especially live.

Whereas my sister and my cousin had gone to this particular Faire before, I myself didn’t really know what to expect in terms of the script or the performance, so it was all new to me. In both instances, we arrived early and more or less chose random seating, just trying to get a decent view of the activities; and in both instances, I noted a similar trend, which I'll explain in a minute.

First, some context.

The live chess wasn’t so much a chess match per say as it was more-so a play about the mock trial of Maid Marion from Robin Hood with actors cast as pieces challenging one another armed combat in a series of choreographed duels. I won’t get into too much detail, except to say that, it was a really good performance.

As someone who's studied martial arts, I have to say, the combat was quite well executed.

Maid Marion kicked some serious ass all on her own. 38D

Prior to the show, the actor who played Robin Hood – along with several heralds – came around to the stands to give out instructions. He informed us that we were sitting in the white section, even making a point to highlight that we were the good guys. We all cheered, because of course who doesn’t wanna be the good guys and root for Robin Hood and his Merry Men against the evil Sheriff of Nottingham?

Again, as I said, we’d more or less chosen our seats at random, and it was only after this point I noticed there were two benches on the field clearly denoting by color which side was which: one white, one black.

If you look closely, you can even see Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher sitting behind the black bench.

The heralds took us through some rehearsals of huzzah-ing when our side did well and jeering when the other side prevailed. We dutifully obeyed without really questioning it, just sort of swept away in the emotion of the moment – presuaded to root for our team. From what I could tell, there were other actors on the opposite side doing ostensibly the same thing with the black team. I don’t really know what narrative they were told. Were they informed that they were the bad guys or were they spun a different story about how they were the keepers of law and order charged with bringing the traitors to the crown to justice and that ours was the band of scum and villainy? Were they even told it was Robin Hood they were condemning, I wonder?

Our team won, of course, and our side was quite happy.

I say ‘of course’ like it’s obvious, but that’s just reinforcing the narrative we all know already about how Robin Hood is supposed to prevail, playing into our culturally-constructed bias; but it could just as easily have gone the other way since, as I understand it, the outcome of these events are largely determined by who cheers the loudest, much like it is at Medieval Times.

Given the fact that the archetype of Robin Hood is overlayed upon this particular play, I wonder if our pre-charged feelings about it had any impact on the outcome. If you played out that scenario 100 times, would the white team prevail more often? Do our cultural conceptions of white and black affect it at all? Would Robin Hood still win as often if the colors were reversed?

Later that evening, we went to see the jousting tournament. Unlike Medieval Times, our party got a front row seat at ground level, and the fight scenes were just as well-choreographed with steel clashing and fake blood flying.

Much like with the chess match, we were divided into colored teams and told who to root for and when. The heralds gave made-up reasons as to why we should – praising our side’s virtues while attacking the other’s character, decrying them as spurious knaves – and we just went along with it, buying into their justifications, accepting whatever ‘fake because’ they put in front of us in our willing suspension of disbelief.

This time, it was blue versus green. Ours was the green team and we lost. We felt crappy afterwards, having invested so much emotion into the fight and turning up empty for it. I wondered if that’s how the black team felt after they lost the chess match.

I’m sure if you ran the joust a hundred times, the outcome would be much more even, since green and blue don’t have the same symbolic associations with good and evil, nor was there any overarching cultural narrative to prejudice us. Again, we’d chosen our seats at random, so there was really no rhyme or reason as to why we preferred one side or the other. It was all fake. Just hypnotism pure and simple. An exercise in confirmation bias.

Then again, we do seem just as partial to rogue heroes who take the black.

One thing I noted in hindsight was my own emotional state during both events. Our side appeared more physically attractive, with Robin Hood and the Green Knight appearing as total heartthrobs, even though objectively the actors were probably equally attractive or unattractive, thus showing how much we’re influenced by proximity and visual persuasion.

Even though these were total strangers I’d never met before, I still found myself picking sides merely because I’d been preconditioned ahead of time to do so – my choice of side being largely determined by chance, and one might even say my surrounding environment.

I also wondered who the people in the middle sections of the chess match rooted for, if they were divided in half down the middle or if they were instead left as some sort of neutral control group, free to choose who to root for at their own discretion.

If I had to guess, they probably chose Robin Hood, and I say that more-so because of the preexisting mythology about his character. In the case of a blue-green split, I predict it would have been more evenly split, though confirmation bias would probably find me subtly believing they secretly preferred my team.

Again, this was just a fun little show I went to with my family and friends. There were no stakes. No one’s feelings or identities were really being hurt by it; but my training in the Persuasion Filter enabled me to recognize and extrapolate a very important lesson here about the nature of human psychology and tribalism.

You can think about other areas in which people become divided for arbitrary, irrational reasons: sports, politics, your favorite drink, your favorite food, who you value among friends and family, which media you consume, what clothes you wear, whom you trust and believe.

Situations in which tensions are naturally a lot higher.

Ya know ... real serious business.

The reasons ultimately are fluid. Human beings tend to decide things based on emotion and then use facts and reason to rationalize their decision after the fact. Even being trained in the art of persuasion doesn’t make you immune to its effects. Being hyper-rational doesn’t save you either unless you choose to close yourself off emotionally and become stoic ... but that comes at the cost of missing out on the enjoyment of life, so it's something of a double-edged sword.

Some of the scenarios I described are fairly benign, but others still have grave consequences. You can imagine if this were really the Middle Ages and the combat and the blood wasn’t fake, we’d instead be cheering on the deaths of actual men and women, largely based on our emotions rather than objective measures such as morality or reason.

This is not something recent, nor does it affect only a few. Rather, it is an ancient feature built-in deep within our psyches, rooted in our lizard brains – the emotional centers that deal in crude survival, instincts, and base pleasures.

To give you a sense of just how old this is, and how close to home this hits, here’s an observation made by the Roman historian Tacitus:

“And indeed there are characteristic and specific vices in this city, which seem to me to be practically born in the womb: the obsession with actors and the passion for gladiatorial shows and horse racing. How much room does a mind preoccupied with such things have for the noble arts?”

He's clearly being rhetorical here when he says such desires are ‘born in the womb’, but it wouldn’t be that far off to say they’re at least partly rooted in our nature. We know from modern science that there is, in fact, a genetic component to temperament and that, in particular, the trait-agreeableness axis plays a role in how likely people are to just go along with the crowd.

Or not, as the case may be.

Again, I just wanna reiterate that this is not something that affects just me, or a handful of people. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of people at these events and still countless more throughout history. It’s something common to us all and I caution you to look inward and note this in yourself. How you can be a moral person and still be susceptible to moments of blind, partisan passion.

I’ll leave you with this quote by Pliny the Younger to Calvisius in the final days of the Roman Republic, regarding chariot racing:

“I have spent these several days past, in reading and writing, with the most pleasing tranquility imaginable. You will ask, ‘How that can possibly be in the midst of Rome?’ It was the time of celebrating the Circensian games: an entertainment for which I have not the least taste. They have no novelty, no variety to recommend them, nothing, in short, one would wish to see twice. It does the more surprise me therefore that so many thousand people should be possessed with the childish passion of desiring so often to see a parcel of horses gallop, and men standing upright in their chariots. If, indeed, it were the swiftness of the horses, or the skill of the men that attracted them, there might be some pretense of reason for it. But it is the dress they like; it is the dress that takes their fancy. And if, in the midst of the course and contest, the different parties were to change colours, their different partisans would change sides, and instantly desert the very same men and horses whom just before they were eagerly following with their eyes, as far as they could see, and shouting out their names with all their might. Such mighty charms, such wondrous power reside in the colour of a paltry tunic! And this not only with the common crowd (more contemptible than the dress they espouse), but even with serious-thinking people. When I observe such men thus insatiably fond of so silly, so low, so uninteresting, so common an entertainment, I congratulate myself on my indifference to these pleasures: and am glad to employ the leisure of this season upon my books, which others throw away upon the most idle occupations. Farewell.”

If, like Pliny, you're looking to spend the leisure of the season of the season invested in books, I've written one. Several, in fact. You can read a free sample here to try before you buy. It's got blue knights and green knights and black knights and white knights and lots of bread and circus too, but also deep insights that touch on culturally-relevant themes.

Also, if you like the work I do in helping to end the culture war, consider supporting me on Patreon. It really helps a lot.

May you each find love, peace, purpose, happiness, and will in your lives.

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