After the Boston bombings stories appeared on how the Tsarnaev brothers felt alienated from their American peers.(1) And after the tragedy at Fort Hood, reports came forward of how the gunman felt alienated from the rest of the military because of his Islamic faith. Calls have come forward for the military to put greater emphasis on diversity in the future. For example, General Casey, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said:
“Our diversity, not only in our Army, but in our country, is a strength. And as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse,” Casey added on NBC’s Meet the Press. http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN08232239
The purpose of this post is to explain the nature of alienation, its causes, and possible ways of removing it. I can’t explain why someone might commit atrocities, but I can explain the relationship between diversity and alienation, and whether increasing diversity is a way to reduce alienation. The thesis is that alienation is the result of a failure of people to coordinate with one another as a way to cooperate towards shared ends. For example, it is often that case that two or more individuals have a common interest that requires coordination between them in order to be achieved. For example, we use the sound “dog” to alert others about the presence of dogs, or to communicate information about dogs. English speakers adapt to one other through the process of learning the language so as to react to “dog” in this way. Because both the speaker and listener have a common interest in being able to communicate concerning dogs, the word “dog” will continue to be used to this end; it will continue to be reproduced over and over again as long as it serves this function.(2) Speakers are reinforced in doing so because their interest in informing listeners about dogs is thereby met, and listeners are reinforced because they have an interest in gaining information about dogs. (Of course, the same goes for other words.) As long as speakers and hearers are reinforced by the successful performance of this convention it will continued to be used in this way.
This method of adopting conventions as a way of coordinating with one another in order to achieve shared goals is used in many different ways. Additional examples are the way drivers coordinate with one another by driving on the right, or by standing at a conventional distance from one another when conversing, or the way regional accents serve to coordinate how words are to be pronounced. In all these cases the coordination is achieved by first arriving at a convention that is to be used again and again to perform this function. There is no reason the sound associated with “dog” is used to refer to dogs, any other sound could have worked equally well, but somehow “dog” was used and because of this precedent this was the sound that was replicated for this use instead of some other. In other places, places that developed different languages, other sounds were used, such as “perro.” In the case of the need for drivers to coordinate with one another in order to avoid collisions, in America it was the right side of the road that was the chosen convention. Driving on the left could have served equally well, as it does in England, but in America driving on the right was chosen as the convention. In all of these cases, the reason the item in question is replicated over and over as it spreads through a population is the weight of precedence, not some inherently superior ability to achieve its end. When you learn a convention you are joining this history, becoming a part of the tradition of using these signs and behaviors, you are becoming a member in the historical kind “English speakers.”(3)
Cultural alienation is the recognition, conscious or unconscious, that one does not stand in a historical relation that another does. Not possessing the language that is in use, for instance. To take one example, being in the presence of those who speak a language you do not understand is an alienating experience. They are producing signs to others who are adapted to appreciate them, but you are outside the local coordinating speaker/listener roles and so unable to share in the benefits of communication. Looked at from the language producer side, speaking to one who is not adapted to your language is alienating as well. I would speculate that the subjective feeling of alienation itself has the function of indicating to us that we bear this different relation, and are thus not co-adapted to the present circumstances, so that we might thereby come to either adapt or to seek out those with whom we are already co-adapted in order to procure the benefits that coordination and cooperation bestow.
Polish immigrants in England feel alienated when they are cognizant of the fact that they stand in a different relationship to England than the indigenous population does. Or, to use another example, being a non-Christian while visiting a Christmas festival is alienating in this sense. It can still be a wonderful experience, but when one recognizes that you do not possess a historical relation others do, there is a degree of alienation. Another such case is recognizing that you are outside the historical relation of a coordinating convention, and thus are unable to enjoy the benefit that the coordination bestows. It is in part the recognition that there is a sign or behavior being produced for which you are not adapted, or can not enjoy in the benefits of the co-adaptation, or that you are producing a sign or behavior and your audience is not adapted to it, and that the coordinating function is thus failing.
For example, regional accents serve a stabilizing function of standardizing the pronunciation of words so that individuals may recognize when the same word is
encountered again. Simply not possessing the accent that is used in a region is alienating. One feels that you are the “odd man out.” What usually happens is that people who move to a new region come to adopt the local accent as a means of coordinating with those with whom one must communicate and thus remove the alienation and enjoy the benefits of coordination. Another example is how different cultures have different conventions for the proper distance to stand from one another when conversing. Having someone stand closer or further away than you are accustomed to when having a conversation produces that awkward uncomfortable feeling which results from alienation. Offering to shake hands when your partner is prepared for a bow produces a similar awkward situation. A very important example is the case of different moral standards. Being around those behaving in ways that one deems immoral but others find perfectly acceptable is a very alienating experience.
A very interesting case is the way that people coordinate their appearance. In any workplace, or neighborhood, or culture (or subculture) you are inevitably going to find a high degree of coordination of appearance. Why people coordinate in this way is very interesting, and it appears to be a cultural universal that people do so coordinate–different cultures have their conventional attire. I am sitting in an airport as I write this and the level or coordination of attire of the people around me is astounding. Everyone is wearing the standard American shoes, pants, shirt, etc.. Of course there is much variety, but the standardization is far more prevalent: there are no samurai warriors, Dutch wooden shoes, Native-American head-dresses, or the like. Attire in a sense forms its own language as people choose certain attire because of what it “says” about them. We are all in on this language just as much as we are all in on the coordinations involved in speaking English. We know that dressing certain ways will say or communicate certain things about us. If someone wore a tuxedo to a football game because they were not aware of the conventions it would be an awkward and alienating experience as they became aware of the mis-coordination. Likewise, someone wearing attire of the language from one historical tradition among those of another tradition is going to produce alienation. The controversy over the Muslim headscarf is such an example. In its language the headscarf means modesty, but being produced in Western cultures produces alienation among both wearer and perceiver as it indicates that one is not historically related to it in the way intended, and the failure to coordinate in its meaning occurs.
There are many reasons and benefits for coordinating appearance in such a way, not just one. But one reason is that people often simply do not want to draw attention to themselves and just want to blend in. By adopting conventions people are assured that they will not attract unwanted attention. Another reason for adopting these conventions is the same for having spoken language; people are capable of communicating things about themselves by their choice of clothing. You can communicate wealth, or sophistication, or various sexual, or even political or social views, or group membership by choice of attire. The stripes on a soldier’s uniform are a clear example of how attire communicates. They indicate rank, so that the perceiver can behave in the way that rank proscribes. In some places the Islamic headscarf has such a strong proscriptive meaning that a woman is in physical danger if she ventures outside without one. Further examples are the ways punks, goths, hippies, and so on, express their hostility to conventional standards and their membership in their sub-culture.
Of course, often people do want to draw attention to themselves and so intentionally violate the conventions. Someone might choose to wear a tuxedo to a football game as a joke, to intentionally draw attention to him self by breaking a convention. In this way new styles and fads are ever being selected and spread throughout the population as people find new ways to draw attention, or say that they are unique. (This is especially true among young people looking to attract the attention of the opposite sex by standing out. This, I believe, is one of the reasons why the styles of young people change at blinding speed and new fads are constantly adopted while older folks are not involved in this game to this extent.) On the other hand, people, and especially young people, are under intense pressure to adopt the current conventions so as to not stand outside the current language, and to adopt the current fashions.
Self-alienation is perhaps the most damaging of all. It is the awareness that the conventions one displays are not the conventions of ones own historical tradition. I am thinking of the case of Native Americans who were forced to abandon their conventions of attire and other social conventions and adopt the dominant American styles, or abandon their languages and adopt English, etc. Perhaps it is the fact that these were forced on a people rather than being freely adopted by choice that causes self-alienation.
With this framework in mind we can come to understand the ways that alienation may be removed. It is common these days to misinterpret alienation for intolerance. Perhaps it is the legacy of utilitarianism that sees any unnecessary feeling of discomfort as a moral evil, and perhaps it is the legacy of Kantianism to believe that moral evils can be avoided by an act of will, and perhaps it is the legacy of existentialism that sees adopting conventions as “inauthentic” rather than cooperative. And so as a result, the conclusion is reached that if there are those who feel alienated there must be those who are immorally making them feel alienated. This is the liberal account of the nature of alienation. Their solution is to be “inclusive” and to embrace diversity, to refuse to promote any standards, to emphasize how wonderful is each individual’s self-expression. But looked at from the teleofunctional view one can see why it is doomed to fail. Alienation can only be removed by coming to stand in the same historical relations as others. One such example would be to successfully coordinate with one another, by learning a common language and thus adapting to one another. Standards will always be adopted for the same reason that standards for language are adopted; coordination is necessary in order to achieve the end and benefits of the cooperative coordination. Fostering diversity of language, culture, conventions, customs, and morals will simply serve to increase miscoordination, malfunction, and the frequency of failure of cooperation. No amount of celebrating diversity can overcome this brute fact: the greater diversity the greater the extent of alienation.
There are cases where individuals are unable to coordinate their appearance with others no matter how virtuous we may be. Those who are tragically disfigured, for example, feel the alienation of being unable to “blend in” with others. The alienation minority racial groups express is another case of where people are unable to coordinate appearances or otherwise historically co-adapt. In ones race you wear your history on your sleeve, as it were. And since alienation is the result of recognizing that one stands in a different historical relation than another, race is a constant reminder of these often sad historical differences, one that can not be overcome by co-adaptation as in the case of coming to possess a common language. Liberals believe that the way to remove alienation is for others to be welcoming, non-judgmental, and kind. All of these things are morally important ways to act, but they do not remove that feeling of alienation that exists–as the persistent problems of racial alienation despite decades of effort attest–although they do make the best of the alienating situation and at least do not add to the problems of the individual. No matter how welcoming someone is, a woman wearing a hajib is likely to feel alienation among non-Muslims as they are cognizant of the historical differences and the failure of coordination of meaning.
Another way people coordinate is through emotional connections to their past in the form of pride or patriotism. Cultural and ethnic groups exert a lot of effort recounting the triumphs of the past or mourning the tragedies. Americans celebrate the 4th of July, Jews celebrate Passover, the British mark Armistice day, and so on. The point of doing so is for the members to come to establish an emotional connection to their group and a sense of its worth in the form of loyalty. Groups that manage to inspire loyalty in their members are better able to motivate those behaviors that are necessary for the group to continue to exist, such as producing new members. However, seeing a group celebrating their past achievements is alienating to non-members. And yet it is necessary that groups nurture loyalty if they are to survive. These links of cooperation—language, traditions, conventions, and loyalty– that exist between members of a group are homeostatic forces that allow groups to retain their distinctive form over time and are necessary if a group is not to disappear.
The way to remove alienation is to come to exist in the same historical relation as others. This is accomplished either by adapting to the local conventions, or clustering with those with whom you are already co-adapted. The result is what we do see, that different racial groups, cultural groups, linguistic groups, and so on congregate together because they are thus able to remove the alienation of being unable to coordinate with others, and so come to enjoy the cooperative benefits of coordination. But this should not be interpreted as a moral evil. It is perfectly rational to seek to enjoy the benefits of cooperation. Those feeling alienated should not interpret it as liberals do as a sign of irrational intolerance, or irrational prejudice, or irrational discrimination. Intolerance, prejudice, and discrimination without a doubt do exist, and they can make alienation far more acute, but they are not the root cause of alienation, which is diversity.
(1) See Millikan,, Language: A Biological Model, p. 57 for a detailed discussion of these coordinations.
(2) See, “Language Conventions Made Simple,” in Language: A Biological Model.