So one thing I'll pre-qualify this entire essay with is the following statement; everybody has a theory about why things go wrong or why things work out. Most of these theories are grounded in some ignorance of the facts (it's easy to connect the dots when you can only see five dots). A deeper understanding inevitably guides one toward a much more feasible theory. I have no reservations about any theory I put forth below - they will likely evolve over time or be completely blasted out of the water. That said... let's get to theorizing!
I'm currently taking two classes you may not think an anthropologist would be necessarily interested in (Jazz and World History after 1650). Let me explain to you why they are important to me and what I hope to achieve as I move forward in my studies. I am not studying anthropology with the goal of becoming an archaeologist or Indiana Jones or an anthropology teacher for a university. While the latter is certainly something I hope to achieve along the way, the real goal involves understanding and applying further science to human conflict.
The concept is as straightforward as it sounds. Anywhere you have humans, you have disagreements among them. This is actually a very good thing and leads to much more developed and battle-tested (carefully chosen complex adjective there) ideas for a society. Where this becomes a problem is when two disparate groups are so far from conversational tone that a direct challenge of power is deemed necessary by one or both sides. We lay people call this war.
If you'll allow me a brief sojourn, I want to give you some of my own background (if you already know me, you can probably skip a couple of paragraphs ahead). I worked in retail for a very long time and the more I became exposed to a corporate environment, the less human I felt. You begin to take on the idea that you are no more than a number and are easily replaceable to an organization that no longer represents its core ideas anymore. The company I worked for, Sport Chalet, was renowned for its amazing customer experience and it's attention to expert detail. You didn't necessarily come to our store because you liked the people. You came in because the right people were advising you on the right product even if we didn't have it. The best example I can give on the conflict between upholding these ideals and a corporation that no longer fit is one of my favorite examples of customer service. An employee at one of my stores was helping a customer with a jacket. We did not have the jacket in this person's size anywhere in our region and they were heading away on a ski trip. The employee actually called around to a few competitors and had a competitor hold the jacket for the customer. This person went out of their way to tell the story in an online comment and it made its rounds throughout the company. The response from the corporate office was typical (if you are cynical of corporations) - why on earth did you let the customer leave without buying something else that could have serviced them? The response from those of us on the ground was also typical. You just made a customer for life. They now trust that person implicitly and will always come to us first if they are thinking of buying something.
Now why did I tell you all of that? Weren't we talking about human conflict and how I was going to tie these things in with jazz and world history? Well yes, sort of. I'm not really going to approach the jazz angle just yet but this really is a world history example. In fact, it is a religious world history example.
The first topic of this class (that again, starts with history around 1650) involves Europe and the conflicts that resulted from the Protestant Reformation - as can be argued to be the single greatest contributor to the largest conflicts in European history. If you're not familiar or no longer familiar with the story, a guy named Martin Luther wrote a series of complaints called "95 Problems But the Pope Ain't One" (paraphrased for hilarity) and nailed it to the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle. All of that is an exaggeration, but play along for simplicity's sake. The nature of the disagreement is one many of us can attest to right now.
The Catholic church at the time sold "indulgences" which were essentially Fast Passes for Purgatory. You could pay for an indulgence and your relative would be whisked straight to heaven instead of spending millions of years in a sort of heavenly limbo. This was based on the church doctrine that one could only be saved by "faith and good works." There is plenty of biblical reason to accept this interpretation and they will not be listed here as it frankly isn't the point of this post. If you're curious though, read about what Jesus is quoted as saying about the topic of performing good works.
The reason this matters is because the role of indulgences only expanded as the church did. To give it an overarching simple explanation (which would be rather Marxist of me) would be doing it a disservice. But suffice it to say, my understanding is that the practice of indulgence was at first a practical matter involving a penance. It evolved into something far worse as the game of telephone got out of hand. If you haven't played Telephone, here's a link to the Avengers playing it. The idea is actually quite simple - someone has an original idea and each copy or replication of that idea is just slightly less clear as the original. This concept applies to a lot of things including what one might call "loyalty" to a cause as geographical distance increases. The bottom line here is indulgences in the church had a very specific meaning and application and both of those things were conflated by whomever was interpreting them at the time.
This is a pattern we see across most of world history and, spoiler alert, corporate history.
Applying this type of thinking is critical to avoiding future conflict. In countless revolutions, this is precisely the type of "decay of purpose" we see across history. There are individual players at work, to be sure, and some have very independent thoughts. These independent thoughts are allowed to flourish if given enough distance from an authority that can directly (and swiftly) challenge them.
I want to make something clear at this point. This critical point is where many people stray into unethical territory. Many leaders think the way to defeat this sort of decay is by maintaining a strong presence everywhere inside of their territory. Think guards with guns everywhere you go. This is where the idea of Big Brother creeps up and how you can see the arguments for it and against it. To my mind, this is simply not an option for an informed, free society. "Keeping tabs" and "advanced surveillance" are not solutions to the problem - they are drugs designed to lessen the symptoms. If everyone is thinking revolution but no one is saying it - it doesn't mean there isn't a powder keg about to explode. It just means all of the powder kegs are disguised as beer kegs.
In deciding to study human conflict, I am deciding to study what causes these drifts toward decay of purpose and to decide how to ethically implement stopgap measures and universal strategies for dealing with things that inevitably lead to conflict. Note the key word in that last sentence really is "ethically." The measures are of no use to free people if a solution involves a chemical or biological change that tells people to ignore how badly they are being treated. Quite the contrary, it is to introduce an environment where they can freely believe they are treated well and can continue to do so regardless of space or time.
If you've already offered a rebuttal to this in your head that's because I haven't considered the details while also being acutely aware of how complex an idea this is. Which frankly makes sense given that it really hasn't been approached in a meaningful way. I intend to provide that meaningful approach and, with luck, will keep you informed of my progress.
Thanks for reading.