Social Dualism and the Problem of Archaic Inequality—Part I

Neither side of the aisle in the U.S. recognizes the other anymore. But this is more normal than we imagine. According to what political theorists call “realignment theory,” life gets bumpy in an electoral democracy, and it can change substantially and suddenly.

But it’s deeper than that. Our current national malaise is a very common internecine hysteria. Thus, both sides have made recourse to riots—January 6, 2021, saw the Capitol Hill riot (I call it the “Epiphany Riot”); the BLM riots marked the summer of 2020. These were different, but my point is not to compare riots but to assert that each side always desires such comparisons. When humans unite in collective structures ranging from tribes to nation-states, two teams arise, what anthropologists and sociologists call “moieties.” This happens before anything else. We divide like this because neither side can exist without the other. It’s a natural law.

Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen in On the Essence and Value of Democracy (1920) noted that once an issue becomes important enough, even the most intricate European parliament manifests two coalitions. Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics (2012) has argued that Western societies are currently split between opposite sets of ethical priorities. “Red” versus “blue” is the “responsibility and fairness” team versus the “caring and egalitarian” team. I think, however, that considering the dual formation all by itself teaches us more than Haidt’s list of characteristics.

“A Piece of the Action” (1968), an episode from season two of Star Trek, unveils a dualistic society as a planet governed by two mafias styled after Chicago gangsters with Tommy Guns and fedoras from the 1920s. Gene Roddenberry originally called the show “President Capone.” Are tribal moieties competing ethical systems (Haidt) or rival extortion rackets (Roddenberry)? Once we agree that either option is preferable to anarchy, Rodenberry’s view offers more insight. In Plato’s Republic (c.375 BC), Thrasymachus’s idea that “might makes right” isn’t the opposite of Socrates’s quest for justice so much as its precondition.

In his essay “Limited Access Orders,” which introduces In the Shadow of Violence: Politics, Economics, and the Problems of Development (2013), American economist Douglass North addressed a common foreign policy problem. How do we deal with societies that consist of local duopolies on force? North acknowledged the dual crime syndicate model looming over his analysis. Each group forms a hierarchy, keeps order in its zone, and collects rent from people under its control. There’s posturing, but peace prevails so long as communications remain open between the leaders atop the two organizations.

“Mathematical Correspondence” — Wikimedia Commons

Seeing moieties as duopolies begs the question. Why two? North’s view seems silly and cynical, like Star Trek’s gangster planet. But the collection’s title signals the answer. Dualism is our simplest means of avoiding a worse scenario. We recognize the cruelty and mafia-like nature of tribal moieties because they’re a universal way of fleeing the “shadow of violence.” Characters in Mario Puzo’s New York, Miguel de Cervantes’s Seville, or Dante Alighieri’s Florence are alike to the degree they try to avoid both domestic disintegration and external subjugation. The latter takes many forms—foreign, federal, imperial, national, criminal, or religious.

We can all appreciate the ways the two teams of a binary social structure legitimate each other. For starters, each side gains status by viewing the other as its diabolical enemy. Competition keeps each party honest among its followers. Rival options limit our proclivities to abuse our own teams, spawning mutually dependent codes of honor. The notion of “honor among thieves” presupposes opposing groups of thieves. After that, the aggregate predispositions of each side make for the styles, colors, symbols, and rites by which each group is recognized. They’re like reactions to a distorted mirror, or else they arise spontaneously and trigger reactions in our rivals. Either way, our teams build out a binary structure against each other.

Here’s the remarkable part—the ease with which our brains coopt life’s aesthetic and emotional details in the service of our team. All societies inherit pairs of incompatible perspectives on the world. Yet, somehow, we embrace one or the other. Surely, we’re marked genetically by our ability to adapt to a binary group structure that has defined our species for hundreds of thousands of years. Capulets and Montagues in Verona, or Hatfields and McCoys along the West Virginia–Kentucky border, are versions of the same feuding moieties. And such feuds always echo or anticipate previous or pending civil wars.

Haidt cites an experiment conducted by Turkish-American sociologist Muzafer Sherif in 1954 at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. It reads like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). Sherif invited two groups of eleven boys to separate areas of the park. During the first week, the boys established territories and totems. Leaders of the “Rattlers” and “Eagles” emerged by consensus. Each group developed norms, songs, and rites. After they engaged each other in baseball and other competitions, these became the focus of their activities. Soon, they began to use flags, call each other names, and conduct nighttime raids against each other’s camps. When some boys started fashioning crude weapons, counselors intervened.

Our dualistic nature doesn’t mean it’s irrational to try to determine which of two views is better. But it makes it hard to attain the sufficiently neutral perspective needed to make a determination. Moreover, our own context is itself social, so two viewpoints are always already in play. This makes the question at hand more subtle. We should ask, rather, to what degree is each view better under a range of different circumstances?

Our natural desire to be on the winning side makes it easy to miss the complexity of this higher-order question. We overcome an optical illusion by merely switching between perspectives on a visual field. But members of an entire society can undergo hyperbolic shifts among the multiple ways we imagine ourselves. We live by different movie scripts, so to speak, and understanding each requires perspectives on two large data sets. The familiar plea “try and see it my way” is never simple. It might be impossible to grasp another’s point of view. And if we do, it’s likely to entail a traumatic disillusionment or conversion, something most of us instinctively resist. Thus, sometimes we’ll just have to duke it out over which view should prevail.

Image by Delphotostock — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 121211499


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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4 thoughts on “Social Dualism and the Problem of Archaic Inequality—Part I

  1. “When some boys started fashioning crude weapons, counselors intervened.”

    That’s an important point — there are RULES.

    Particularly after the Western Christian Liberal Enlightenment, there were RULES — even rules of warfare (e.g. Geneva Conventions). Until recently, American politics was tempered by the knowledge that anything you were doing to the other side this year could be done to you next year when they were in the majority — a balance of terror of sorts but it worked.

    And this was a largely (small ‘l’) liberal country where our disagreements were not in our goals but in how best to reach them, and how to prioritize multiple good goals.

    For example, I want to see racial economic equality, but I want to see young Black children (particularly boys) get a quality K-12 education — and if we have to expel 5%-10% of them so that the remaining 90%-95% can learn, I think we should do it. Obama disagrees and doesn’t want anyone — we disagree on means, not ends.

    But I am reminded of what Lindsey Graham said during the Kavanaugh hearings about “God help us if you (Democrats) ever assume power” and I think we are now starting to see what he was worried about. Well, the middle will not hold indefinitely, and the political right eventually will adopt the same tactics, i.e. also ignore the rules of civility.

    And that’s how we wind up in a Second Civil War….

    1. All good points, Dr. Eddrick. I would suggest that the means and the ends become the same thing in your example of Obama. When side A refuses always and forever more to make sacrifice, then the issue of fairness stokes side B’s resentment. As you say, this crisis could result in a second Civil War. Also possible is the somewhat reunifying appearance of a scapegoat. Notice the creepie passion for carnage in Ukraine among those on side A. Notice the irrational appeal to mass deportations among those on side B. Nobody can say we do not live in interesting times.

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