Wednesday, January 01, 2020

How to get social change without wanting it

"Game of Thrones’ final season told flattering lies about wanting power." Although the article was about the TV show, it seems to me that the point of the article can be applied to the problem of activism and achieving social change.  But allow me to explain.

For anyone not familiar with Game of Thrones plot, the show is set in a fictional medieval time period in which several characters are competing to become the absolute ruler of the Seven Kingdoms by sitting on the Iron Throne.  One of the leading candidates, and a fan favorite to become ruler, was a woman named Daenerys (or "Dany") Targaryen.  But in the final three episodes of the series, this character strangely and inexplicably changes from a benevolent ruler into a tyrant who shouldn't be queen.  (I won't give away any spoilers from the plot, but this transition has generated a huge amount of fan criticism about the conclusion of the show, including a movement to redo the ending of the series.)

VanDerWerff also criticizes this transformation of the character, writing:
The argument the show tried to advance throughout its run was that Dany’s desire for the Iron Throne had caused her to lose sight of her larger goals — that the truest way to determine who should gain power was looking for someone who didn’t actually want to sit on the Throne. Lord Varys came right out and said this..., “Have you considered the best ruler might be someone who doesn’t want to rule?”  
VanDerWerff continues by arguing that the desire to be queen shouldn't disqualify a candidate from being queen.  Why should that make any sense?  Does wanting a position of power immediately make a person power-mad and therefore undeserving of having power, because they may be tempted to use the power for their personal benefit?

In order to understand this problem, it is important to understand the role of prosocial behavior (sometimes called "altruism") in the role of a ruler.   I've written previous essays about the development of prosocial behavior from group selection in evolution, here and here.  

The prosocial behavior of a ruler or leader is useful to the group if the leader is thinking about the best interests of the entire group, not just the best interests that are personal to the leader alone.  A leader like a king, general, or CEO of a corporation has their authority recognized by members of their organization because they are given the responsibility to act in ways that are a benefit to the entire organization.  For complex organizations, without a leader of that kind, the organization would simply fall apart and be ineffective.

But even though a leader has the responsibility for the entire organization, the person still has personal interests.  No one who understands human behavior would think that personal interests are erased.  As a result, the leader has to show a balance in their behavior.  They have to demonstrate their interest and commitment in the organization to keep the trust of the members.  They have to make their personal interests look secondary, even if these interests aren't actually less important to the leader.

This dichotomy can look like it is a deception, or it can actually be a deception.  The best leaders with oratorical capabilities can convince most of the members of the group that they are sincere.  Barack Obama used the slogan "Yes We Can" to convince people to work together to solve problems under his leadership.  John F. Kennedy had the memorable line in his inauguration speech, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." On the other hand, Pres. Donald Trump is clearly personally benefiting in financial ways from his presidency from his hotels and real estate rentals, although he claims he is losing money compared to what he could otherwise make. However, such claims may make him look more truthful to some people compared to other politicians who claim to be altruistic.

These conflicts of interest can be troubling for dictators or absolute monarchs.  To return to Game of Thrones, the idea of giving absolute power to a monarch with personal goals and no oversight can be dangerous.  This is the source of discomfort for aristocrats about a ruler like Dany, who may make choices based on her personal goals and preferences that are binding on the entire society.  Dany would have to give an indication that she could restrain her goals based on advice from her advisers.

Activists who are attempting to create social change have a similar problem.  They have a personal conviction that change to society is necessary, and they have a personal stake in causing society to change.  But that personal interest is exactly what makes them suspect as leaders.  In the same way as Dany, it is difficult for followers or other members of society to know whether the activists will show restraint and prudence to the opinions of others, if they are given positions of power.

This kind of conflict of interest is unavoidable in group selection.  For a leader to generate social change among all the members of society, they have to look like they don't want it too much.  They obviously want it to some degree, but they have to be willing to yield their desire to social pressure and political prudence.  Abraham Lincoln is considered to be a great president because he had the ability to balance many competing interested among factions of people, rather than simply considering his own opinions.  

Good leaders or social activists have to convince other people that the ideas and goals are good for everyone, but if other don't agree then they won't be forced to agree.