The Modern Survival Guide #89
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I am fascinated with the way our world works — it’s why I’m writing the Guide in the first place. More to the point, I have particular ideas on why our society works the way it does, and this article is part 5 of a 6-part mini-series on the topic of understanding society.
Previously we talked about the contributions of individuals, institutions, culture, and incentives to the social structure. In this article we’re going to start going meta. That’s right, it’s time to move up to big-picture discussions, and to do that we have to start by looking at history.
Now, I know this likely wasn’t your favorite subject in school. I recognize that history is a dull topic for a lot of people, because it doesn’t always seem relevant. It’s like, that stuff happened in the past, yeah? What does that have to do with things happening right now? How does this fit into a discussion of why society is the way it is?
Please stick with me for another few paragraphs, because I’m going to answer those questions. And to do that, I’m going to need to refer back to our helpful little diagram that, if you read any of the past articles, should be old hat by now:
Yes, the Society Wheel is back for another appearance. In past articles, I’ve described in possibly too much detail how I think each box on the Wheel contributes to society either changing social norms or entrenching them. I’ve made some references to the Wheel “turning” to do this, and here’s what I mean by that:
An individual is incentivized to do something. They work through or create an institution to do that thing. The institution produces an action, process, or policy as a result, which affects the society’s cultural norms. The culture produces incentives and incentive structures in response to the updated state of “normal.” This changes the incentives motivating individuals within the society. Then an individual is incentivized to do something, and ‘round we go again.
That’s the turning of the Wheel — you grind through a rotation, and what comes out is an force to either change things or to reinforce the existing structure. And this happens over, and over, and over again, iterated through every possible expression of these types of events happening in a society. Literally hundreds of millions of Wheels turning at any given point, each one producing an effect. And each one of those turns produces “history.”
Historical Knowledge — Understanding and Applying Lessons
What we think of as the historical record is largely composed of events that turned the Society Wheel onto a different path; things that simply reinforce the status quo generally don’t get as much attention, because the story “years passed and nothing changed” isn’t very interesting. Big changes and disruptions, on the other hand, are juicy — they tend to involve interesting stories about dynamic people who do big things, and there’s quite often buckets of blood to keep us riveted to the narrative.
Juicy stories get written down; they become Historical Events, not just Stuff That Happened. And because Historical Events tend to feature very interesting confluences of people, institutions, cultures, and incentives, knowledge of these events can teach us massively useful lessons. These lessons revolve around three points:
- They identify major turning points in the way a society works.
- They identify the reasons why those turning points occurred.
- They predict and inform future turning points which might occur under similar situations.
Thus, if we want to understand why our society is the way it is, we have to start with history. If we want to understand how things changed from a different state, we also have to start with history. And if we want to change things, we should probably check the historical record for strategies and warnings. If we take all of these statements together, we arrive at this conclusion:
If you want to do anything BIG in your life, you need to understand history.
By way of example, let’s look at Gandhi. Mohandas Gandhi, later titled Mahatma Gandhi, is justifiably famous as the man who drove the British out of India with nonviolent resistance. There’s a whole story there, and it’s a fascinating tale of a man who figured out exactly which levers to pull and exactly which incentives to use to convince an oppressive power that it simply wasn’t worth the trouble to maintain control over a nation. It hadn’t ever really been done before; it was a watershed moment.¹
Fast forward twenty years, and we’re in the American Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a student of history, and was aware of and inspired by the success of Gandhi’s actions in India. King used the same tactics employed by Gandhi, despite major pressures to try more extreme methods. Nonviolent resistance worked. The Civil Rights Movement created major social change.
Both of these men were highly incentivized, made extensive use of institutional resources, had major impacts on their respective cultures, and created new and vibrant incentive structures for others in their societies. Both relied on a firm knowledge of history in order to inform their actions. Both used a successful strategy to change their societies. And these days, both serve as historical models for others who are involved in similar campaigns.
And here’s the interesting bit: neither campaign would have worked if the society in which it was attempted was even slightly different. Both Gandhi and King picked their tactics based on a very clear analysis of their societies’ strengths, weaknesses, and limits. Gandhi’s protests would not have fazed even a slightly more authoritarian political entity; the Civil Rights Movement could not have worked in the South in 1830. These were campaigns that targeted just the right things, at just the right times, in just the right climate. History is littered with the wrecks of movements that didn’t hit that balance.
And look, this doesn’t only apply to major, society-defining social movements. Starting a business, getting married, heck, even saving for retirement are all BIG THINGS that we might do, and which definitely are impacted by history. There are times and places when starting a business will work. There are traditions and observances to be made when getting married. There are major historical considerations to take into account when saving for retirement, assuming you want to have any money at age 65. You ignore this stuff at your own significant peril (everyone remembers Enron, right?).
In order to survive in society, sometimes you have to make a change. Sometimes it’s a personal change, sometimes it’s an institutional change, sometimes it’s a big damn cultural change. Any effort to make a change is doomed to fail without knowledge of why the society is the way it is in the first place; otherwise you’re just flailing around in the dark. At the same time, efforts to make changes are doomed to fail if they employ bad change strategies, and if you do just a little research the historical record can probably help you throw out a few of the stinkers.
Trials of the Historically Inept
The flip side of this is what happens if you don’t know your history, and it’s twofold:
- Those with no knowledge of history are doomed to repeat it.
- Those who implicitly trust history are the victims of propaganda.
If you don’t know anything about history, you’re going to make the same mistakes that everyone who’s ever come before has made, which is frankly terrifying. There are a LOT of mistakes in the historical record, because one of the things that any good story enjoys is talking about someone screwing up. And it’s worth noting that a lot of those mistakes happened because quite a few historical figures forgot to study history too.
By way of reference: we’re currently in a land war in Asia. Who could possibly have predicted that would turn our poorly? Aside from nearly every military historian, that is?
But seriously, almost every biography is chock full of the mistakes the subject made. Any reasonably honest record of a war will go into gleeful detail on why the loser lost and how the victor mitigated their own mistakes. Every stock market crash is recorded with a long list of indicators that are perfectly obvious to Captain Hindsight.
And that’s not even touching sports commentary.
So reading history is a good way of discovering all the ways that things have gone wrong in the past, and if you carry that knowledge forward it’s an excellent way of predicting things that will go wrong in the future. If you don’t know your history, you’re just going to trip over the same old landmines.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that history is an imperfect medium because it’s written by the winners. For most of human history, only the people who survived got to write about what happened. And more particularly, for most of human history, only the most privileged people knew how to read or write. This doesn’t seem like such a big deal, except that also for most of human history nobody gave a damn about “truth” in history.
This is a serious point: if you go back even a couple of hundred years, the vast majority of “histories” being written were basically just propaganda. That’s why you get so many fawning histories of the ancient West coming out of the Victorian era, for example. And it never really stopped; this is why your uncle gets furious when you bring up the history of American concentration camps in WWII: the history he’s absorbed focuses on us fighting the Nazis, not us engaging in human rights violations against Japanese-ancestry citizens, because that’s the narrative that the US, as the victorious power, preferred.
Now we start to see some problems with historical narrative. Why do victorious nations always seem to be fighting evil aggressors? Why do ruthless businessmen always seem to go down in the record as philanthropists? Why do we revere the Roman Empire to a staggering degree in Western Culture?
History is written by winners. Never, not once, should you ever make the mistake of forgetting that what you read in history is what someone wanted you to read.²
The true tragedy of the historically inept isn’t that they aren’t able to learn lessons from history; it’s that they aren’t able to understand that much of what they experience as the cultural legacy of their society is a lie.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the lies we tell are meant to inspire a better reality. But sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes the lies are there to cover up the heinous shit our ancestors didn’t want highlighted. And that too is a lesson to be learned.
The Takeaway: Nothing Happens in a Vacuum
The point of all this is that the Society Wheel doesn’t turn on its own, and it doesn’t have a “start” that we can easily identify. Every action influences every other action; every effect produces a cause. Yes, that was deliberate phrasing.
History provides the medium in which a society exists and in which its Wheels turn. It’s like driving a car down a country road. Some roads are muddy, and stick to the wheels. Some roads are steeply rutted, and jostle the car when you turn. Some roads are smooth, paved, and almost beg the driver to try a bootlegger’s turn just for kicks and giggles. Ultimately, every turn of the Wheel creates a new chapter in the narrative of humanity. Some turns of the Wheel reinforce the society — making the rut deeper, if you like — while others break new ground or even switch roads.
Ok, I’ve worn that metaphor to death. The importance of history, and the reason it is a survival issue and shows up in an article that’s part of a “Modern Survival Guide,” is that you have to consider the impact of history if you want to live a good life in your society. It is non-optional. Otherwise you will inevitably find yourself reinforcing social norms that you don’t like, or supporting institutions with terrible track records, or just generally making mistakes that prevent you from turning the Wheel the way you want it to go.
So if you take away nothing else from this article, remember: You can’t deliberately change what you don’t understand. And you can’t understand your society unless you know its history.
¹Seriously, if you don’t understand the Indian independence movement, a huge portion of world events are simply not going to make sense to you. Like the perpetual violence between India and Pakistan, for example, or the tensions between India and China. This is all stuff that affects us in a globalized world, so if you have the time, and you aren’t familiar with these topics, go educate yourself.
²Which brings up the point: what about all these new historical accounts that break down our images of ourselves and our nation — what about the histories that tell us that English settlers deliberately wiped out natives using smallpox blankets, and similar stories of awfulness? Couldn’t this also be propaganda? Well, it’s an interesting question. The answer is: no. What’s actually happening right now is that we’re in this weird, likely transitory moment in human history where this thing called The Truth is valuable. And that’s producing some uncomfortable research. I blame the Vietnam War. Seriously.
Here’s a pro tip: generally speaking, if well-educated, financially secure people from good families and respected institutions in your own society pop up with a historical narrative that paints your nation’s past with a shit-stained brush, they’re probably telling the truth. The buggers you need to watch out for are the ones selling the rose-tinted glasses. Because you don’t learn anything from a rose-colored past.