On somatic knowledge, peer group attachment, and the formation of prejudice
I mentioned in a previous dispatch that I’ve been inhabiting a process of ideological “spring cleaning,” giving attention to accumulated ideas, beliefs, and judgments to see if I still want them around.This process has involved re-examining some writers and other thinkers whom I had concluded were not worth my attention. While in a few instances I can say it was fully my decision to “write them off,” in many cases, I noticed that this conclusion wasn’t really one I had come to myself, but rather absorbed from others around me.
That’s a deeply human thing to do, of course. If someone tells us, “don’t eat that, it will kill you,” or “don’t touch that, it’s hot,” we generally accept their statements as truth. No matter how objective we might want to be, we don’t test their statements by eating or touching the thing.
When people we respect or like or generally consider reliable tell us someone is hateful, or wrongly motivated, or dangerous, or whatever, we accept this just as readily. It’s the same mechanism—possibly “evolutionary” or at the very least socially-reproduced—that keeps people alive, especially children, and so “selects out” those who don’t integrate it.
Consider: an adult will tell a child: “don’t walk into the street in front of cars” or “don’t drink bleach.” Children who accept these statements as authority tend to survive into adulthood more often than those who don’t.
Of course, there is another mechanism here as well, that of group formation. As children we then come to learn that there is a kind of separation between “adults who should be listened to” and “adults who should be feared.” There are of course the direct statements (“don’t take candy from strangers,” for instance), but more so there are the indirect somatic teachings, the “subtle knowledge” we tend to think of as intuition. The way your parents act around certain adults and not others teaches you just as much about who is part of the circle of trustworthy adults and who is not to be trusted.
Gabor Maté illustrated this point when he tells of his parent’s experience soon after his birth in Hungary, 1944. He was acting sickly and crying, so his mother called their doctor. The doctor replied that he couldn’t really help because all the babies of the Jewish families he cared for were also crying. Of course, it wasn’t because he or those other babies knew what was currently happening to the Jews in Hungary (his father was in forced labor, his grandparents had both been killed in Auschwitz), but rather they knew that their parents were scared, stressed, and upset and were responding to these somatic experiences.
We like to forget that humans are also animals, but you can see this same thing happen with dogs. Dogs will respond to the tension, stress, and posture of the humans who live with them, and learn from their humans who is a “safe” person and who is not. This is easily noted with barking behavior. If their human doesn’t feel safe around certain people, the dog will often respond more aggressively to them. A dog’s decision whether a stranger is to be trusted or distrusted is formed “socially,” just as ours are, but in their cases we can see more clearly the priority of the somatic.
For humans especially, somatic information is crucial for interpreting all those things that make human relationships actually meaningful, as well as giving context for verbal information. It’s especially important in how the determination of truth.
We have all had the experience of a partner or a friend telling us they are “fine,” yet the tone of their voice, their downcast eyes, slumped shoulders, or shallow breathing seems to indicate they are actually not. The mismatch between the verbal and the somatic alerts us to something being off, that there is more to a situation than what someone reports.
In fact, often times the verbal is really a secondary aspect in human interactions, at least historically. I often don’t need to ask my friends how they are in person, because I can already tell through somatic cues. Asking them “how are you?” in such cases is actually an invitation for them to tell me about their life and the reasons for the state I already know they are in because of this somatic knowledge.
Related to this, I think it’s important we insist that “social” includes the somatic as well as the verbal, which then lets us see that the “social” in social media is rather imbalanced. In social media, we only get verbal (mostly text-based, so technically visual) cues from each other. which makes it incredibly difficult to verify statements for truth. Instead we can only rely on other means of guessing the veracity of what they say, none of which are particularly reliable in and of themselves.
For instance, we can try to judge someone’s trustworthiness by the accumulation of all our previous interactions with them. If someone has recommended really good music or films to us in the past, we tend to see them as reliable for future suggestions as well. But of course that doesn’t tell us anything about their reliability in other matters, though we might not always recognize this.
More often, though, we tend to form our trust decisions around apparent peer trust. If a writer appears to be popular and trusted by many people we see as peers, we will tend to accept their judgment. But who is and who is not a peer is a really complicated matter as well. Shared identity categories (for instance, other black people, or other gay people), or similar political or religious views (social justice or conservative politics, or atheist or Muslim), or similar professions or life circumstances (low class worker, professional manager, writer, musician) or even just age are all signs we look for to determine if someone is a peer.
A trans person may tend to see other trans people as peers and privilege their opinions about things more than that of non-trans people, just as a Christian will tend to see other Christians as peers and privilege their opinions over those of non-Christians. This is, again, a very human thing to do. However, in the absence of somatic information, we can easily misjudge whether or not such peer identification is accurate or helpful, and tend to miss all the stark differences that might actually exist between apparent peers and ourselves.
This is the classic problem of stereotyping, which is another one of those strange evolutionary things that cause serious problems in modern society. In stereotyping, we apply our experience with a small subset of people to all people in that set. It’s a survival mechanism, but also leads to racism. A person held at gunpoint by a black man in a parking lot is likely in their trauma to then presume future interactions with black men will also be violent. Therefore, they will avoid such interactions and consider black men to be dangerous, unless they are able to separate their experience with one black man from black men as a category, to “short-circuit” this human process.
That’s where ideology comes in. Ideology is the process by which we short-circuit such human responses, for good and for bad. Ideological formations such as “it’s racist to judge people by their skin color” can train us to short-circuit stereotyping. On the other hand, race itself is an ideological formation that tells us skin color is a significant or meaningful detail about a person (be that pale skin or dark skin), which then leads us to racial stereotypes in the first place.
Ideology works on the level of belief, like religion. In fact, most ideological statements mirror religious articles of faith, which is unsurprising when you consider that all modern political institutions are descendants of religious ones. “All men are created equal” was a religious statement as much as it was a political and ideological one, just as “homosexuality is natural,” “black lives matter,” and “trans women are women” are all likewise assertions of faith as well as political and ideological assertions.
So, too, are all the opposite statements of each of the above, reminding us that the function of ideology is itself neutral. Sometimes it is a helpful way of short-circuiting certain human tendencies, at other times it is quite harmful. In all cases, it’s quite important to re-examine our ideologies to make sure they have not led us to inaccurate conclusions about the world, especially when those ideologies have supplanted or subverted somatic knowledge.
Here we might think of a child uninhabited by ideology. That child is playing with other children, having fun, enjoying all the somatic sensations of being with others. Then the child is told by a parent (his own or another’s) that he cannot play with them any longer, because he is Israeli and the other children are Palestinian, or he is white and the other children are black, or they are girls and he is a boy. Ideology enters and supplants the somatic knowledge (the warm feelings, the trust, the enjoyment of playing with those other children).
But consider this situation again, and instead of the parents being the ones who introduce the ideology it is the children (the peers) themselves. The children collectively decide to ostracize another child for being too fat, or not playing fair, or liking pickles. Here the somatic can actually get in the way of questioning this ideological formation, because each child (with the exception of the ostracized one) is experiencing pleasure, the security that comes with being around peers who like you, and all those other somatic feelings of enjoyment. None of them will be eager to lose those feelings and be cast out as well, so they’ll all help ostracize the outsider.
This last example is crucial to understanding a lot of what happens in our modern ideological formations and also our over-reliance on peer opinion. This is Gabor Maté’s point as well. In an interview he gave, he spoke about how there is a danger to over-reliance on peer identification, especially in youth, which can lead to alienation and most of the “behavioral” problems (ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, depression, anxiety, and also to some degree autism) currently treated as psychological or mental disorders:
So, our book, Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers, is about showing why it is true that children are being more influenced by other kids in these days than by their parents, and just what an aberration that is, and what a distortion it is of normal human development, because normal human development demands, as normal mammalian development demands, the presence of nurturing parents. You know, even birds — birds don’t develop properly unless the mother and father bird are there. Bears, cats, rats, mice. Although, most of all, human beings, because human beings are the least mature and the most dependent for the longest period of time.
This interview was given over a decade ago, and though I had been aware of Maté before then (he is primarily responsible for the introduction of harm reduction theory into drug and social services policies in North America) and had heard this interview when it was conducted, I hadn’t really grasped his point then. At that time, his focus on parental attachment and on children having both parents seemed bizarrely conservative for someone who is quite leftist (his son, the journalist Aaron Maté, is known for his leftist politics as well).
Circling back on his ideas now, it’s hard for me not to notice how relevant they are to ideological formation now and especially the way peer attachment influences how we determine what is true. Even as adults, most of us lack secure familial and community1 attachment. We rarely live where our extended family lives (and often don’t want to), rarely have next-door neighbors we can call on in emergencies or share our joys and sorrows with, and very often consider people far away from us “closer” than the people physically near us.
.In these circumstances, the use of peer opinion to judge the truth of a matter, rather than the somatic, is particularly untrustworthy. Peer for many us doesn’t even refer any longer to people we have necessarily met in person, but rather (as I mentioned above) people who appear to share our identity categories.
The problem with this reliance on peer identification is that peers have no shared obligation to or physical reliance on each other. No matter how dysfunctional a family or physical community might be, they will still at least try to prevent members from coming to serious harm, or being manipulated or exploited by outsiders, because they also rely on these members (even if that reliance is oppressive or also exploitative).2
A peer group has no such mutual reliance or obligation. Instead, the concerns are ideological: status, respect, remaining ‘in’ rather than being exiled or ostracized, as well as a constant reinforcement of the foundation upon which that peer group is based. If the peer group is identity-based (trans, gay, white, etc)., it will constantly reinforce that identity, just as ideological conformity will be policed in ideologically-based peer groups (anarchist, liberal, Christian, etc.). Anything that appears to threaten that foundation will be seen as heresy, anyone who appears to deviate from that conformity will be ostracized.
Peer groups function like this because they don’t have concerns about in-person mutual obligation or care. In fact, in-person relationships that supersede peer groups tend to be seen as threats as well. Consider especially how in social media one will see people urging others in the peer groups to disavow or ostracize people in their lives with differing political views. For instance, “stop talking to people who voted for Trump,” even if that person is a dying grandmother, or “disown your transphobic (or homophobic, or racist, etc) relatives,” even if that includes a father who would risk his life to save yours.
This is, of course, what “cancellation” or “cancel culture” is all about. It’s peer groups ostracizing and blacklisting ideas or people in the same way that groups of children ostracize others. Sometimes the reasons may be understandable, sometimes they are baseless, but regardless it is the same ideological mechanism.
So, when I say that I am re-examining these ideological formations, what I really mean is that I am trying to reconnect to more somatic ways of knowing the world and especially of knowing truth. It also means that I have been re-evaluating opinions and beliefs that may have come to me through interactions with perceived peer groups rather than actual in-person relationships.
Because in the end, it’s only really ever the body and what it teaches that remains with you your entire life. Peer groups change and are particularly fickle, ideologies go rigid, break, and then suddenly reform in completely contradictory ways. The body stays until you no longer do, just as the bodies of others stay until they are no longer here either. The longer I live, the more the knowledge and wisdom that comes from my relationship to my body and the bodies of others—and not ideas or opinions about how the world works—seem ultimately to be what brings life meaning.
1 By community I only mean local, in-person relationships, rather than the degraded meaning seen in the phrase “online community” (which is really an oxymoron).
2 Again, no matter how dysfunctional the situation. Even an abusive spouse or community leader will often intervene to prevent others from abusing their victims as well.
This dispatch was also published through Substack. Subscribe there to receive more essays like this in your inbox.