The Principle of Reinforcement — SD and Society


Pyramid Peak, Gospel Mountains, Idaho

Last post, I discussed a blueprint for SD and the individual.  We started off as an infant, and ended up close to the top as a fully realized human, connected to the larger world, with meaning and purpose.  Most humans don’t get there on a large scale, of course, but wouldn’t it be nice?

In a similar fashion, so also can we look at societies.  See the figure below:


Before we go any further, I want to establish a huge debt of intellectual authorship to Don Beck and his little ad flyer, as well as my general web reading and Ken Wilber.  No plagiarism here — for the most part, this part of SD is well-explored.

It’s also, at some level, a controversial subject.  The minute you start saying that one type of system is more evolved than another, you really get people going.  Enviros come out and say “look at tribal societies.  They haven’t wrecked the Earth.    Aren’t they better?”  Right Wingers come out and say “Don’t tell me about those European socialists.  Everyone knows what a bunch of crackpots they are — borderline commies they are with their health care systems and government pension plans!”  Inevitably, everyone starts applying their moral judgments (typically, but not always, a very legalistic/blue v-Meme concept) to whatever the contrasting system is.

As such, one needs a different way of understanding the evolution of societies.  And that’s where empathy — or really types and levels of connection comes in.  Societies higher up the Spiral have more evolved empathetic traits.  More people are connected to more people (or other sentient actors, like dogs), with different types of relationships.  As societies move up the Spiral, there is an increasing relational diversity and definition.

Once we understand that, it’s not surprising that the more evolved societies have more safety nets.  If you’re truly connected to other people, for example, wouldn’t it make sense to care about their health?  That level of connection would directly affect how your own health was perceived.  Lower on the Spiral, we see more pronounced In-group/Out-group dynamics.  Life during wartime (a very Tribal/Authoritarian v-Meme) consists of demonizing the enemy, to a point where after the fact, even leaders of more advanced nations can distance themselves from decisions made.

One of my favorite examples involved the fire-bombing of Germany by the Allied Powers during WWII.  Though one can certainly argue about the fire-bombing, the war was one we had to win — Hitler would have enslaved a continent given the opportunity.  At the same time, because of the ineffectiveness of high-altitude bombing of factories in Germany, Churchill gave the nod to Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command, to drop thousands of incendiary bombs over civilian centers in Germany, to light them on fire.  (Incendiary bombs, for those so interested, were basically bundles of automobile flares designed to catch stuff on fire.)  Dresden was the most famous of these, but far from the only one.  Harris was known as “Butcher” Harris by his own men.  And not because of what he was doing to the Germans.  It was his own disregard for bomber crews’ lives that gave him that moniker.

This campaign led to firestorms that incinerated entire cities, and their civilian inhabitants — a war crime , with Arthur “Bomber” Harris as the architect.  After the war, Churchill was slow to bring Harris back into the fold of acceptable personalities, though Harris was not tried for war crimes.  In post-war, communitarian England, one didn’t quite know how to process the obvious savagery that we as the Good Guys committed.  It seems kind of trivial to say something like we were completely empathetically disconnected from the German population (as well as the Japanese population) during WWII, but it does explain well how we were able to execute the last part of the war in the fashion we did.

Which leads to what I call the Principle of Reinforcement.  Societies (and the cultures and leaders that drive them) will reinforce certain v-Memes (and through extension, the levels of empathy) in the populace due to circumstances in the world, as well as their own worldview.  And people will also reinforce their societies with their changing social/relational evolution.  It goes back and forth — what we in engineering called a ‘coupled system.’  Which came first?  Totally dependent on the circumstances and context.  This is not simply a chicken-and-egg question.

Takeaways:  Societies evolve along the Spiral, just like people, going back and forth between the I- and We- v-Memes.  Certain historical circumstances will trigger that nested nature of the Spiral, so it’s not just how far you’ve come.  There are other things buried inside of us that come out when circumstances are right.  Finally, the Principle of Reinforcement gives insight on how both societies, organizations, and the people in them evolve.  Neither is always the leader in driving change, for good or ill.

Further Reading:  In Jorg Friedrich’s book, Der Brand (The Fire) he describes the destruction of the German homeland in excruciating detail, for those so interested.  It’s a pretty traumatic read.  Friedrich himself is a pretty interesting fellow, one well worth contemplating his own v-Memes.

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