Monday, January 16, 2017

Re-emergence of Secular Shamans

Media and Hollywood celebrities are certainly up-in-arms over the election of Donald Trump.  Post-trauma lethargy is coalescing into actionable intent.  This was certainly evidenced by Meryl Streep's polarizing moralizations.  Free speech is definitely meant to protect this type of commentary.  People are free to muster whomever they can to support whatever position they desire.  Hence my disdain for  people who attempt to use safe-space rhetoric as a way of expanding exclusion and preventing free-association.

The way anti-trump sentiment's form of expression is coalescing amongst various elite factions is very interesting.  Critiques, like those by Meryl Streep, media, and "grassroots" activists who propagate planned memes, centre on the morality of inaugurating an unfit, morally repugnant president.

Whether or not any of that is or is not true is beside the point (at least for socio-quasi-religious dynamics).  What seems clear is that the media and many celebrities are exploring roles as a secular-moral voices to an extent not hitherto done.  For example, cosmopolitan dogma on immigration, like almost another reactionary political position, is framed in moral terms rather than rational (homo-economicus) terms.

Preaching recreates the methodist exhortation well.  The intent isn't to explain a systemic philosophy, it is to exhort people toward certain classes of thought or action.Now, can't all moral speech be classified as exhortation?  Perhaps.  What's interesting though is the role the speech taker is occupying.

Tribal religious leaders have a functional evolutionary role as societal coherers.  This is most easily accomplished through supernaturally enhanced Big Brothers.  A Psychosocial definition of Shamans highlight some interesting parallels (you just have to remove the supernatural elements and replace them with mildly-counter-intuitive secularism).

The basic idea is that Shamans represent a interface between people and the supernatural.  One view is that Shamans represents the distress experienced by  the shaman's patrons.  Shamans use dramatizations to direct the feelings of their patrons and resolve social tension.  The shaman helps patrons appreciate symbols that address, interpret and contribute to the resolution of their most pressing problems and conflicts.

One way this happens is by helping people organize their feelings and find representational outlets.  They also personify the social tensions and patterns people are under.  Performance is a key aspect of the technical definition of Shamanism.  Perhaps this is a necessary part of this cognitive group-psychology well, perhaps it isn't.  The key distinguishing feature between Shamanism and standard prophetic roles lies in the physicality of action and depth of  spiritual trance.

"In America, for example, revivalists and evangelical preachers have held great appeal for many people from the seventeenth century to the present day.  The compelling power of these preachers is in large part the result of their ability to dramatically embody the emotional problems and social tensions besetting their patrons," (Porterfield, 1987, p. 729).

So my best guess on what we're seeing with the mainstream media and celebrities like Streep is an unwitting progression into the socio-cognitive well of Shamanistic exhortation.  Clearly this role is strongly mediated by the removal of supernatural elements.  But the key is that these elites are trying to represent the socio-cognitive tension many people are now experiencing under a Trump presidency and electoral rejection of social progressivist tenets.  Expression comes out in physical acts: content and fact don't matter as much as "getting the point across".  This is clearly a post-truth landscape.  This is clearly scary.

From a multi-level selection lens, we're seeing competition amongst elites fall into the traditional bifurcation of formal and informal power expression.  This nouveau priest/shaman class is evolving into informal power expression.

This makes sense.  Celebrities, especially actors, have a ready vehicle on hand to shape people's thinking.  People listen to celebrities due to prestige bias and perceptual landscape transformation.  See enough movies portraying gun ownership as bad, and you'll be tempted to think of it as a de-facto social norm.  Once speech clearly resonates around said morality and the resonances become hard to ignore.  They polarize.

I suspect one of the keys for people to remember is that religion generally does not look like the systemic theology people often take for granted.  Religion and religious actors have a functional well which resolves around social coherence.  Highly rational systemic approaches are merely one of many solutions for social coherence (which, like Christianity and Islam, happens to be optimized for expansion to out-groups).  Tribal religion is fine with population binormalization.  In fact, it is optimized to separate in-groups from out-groups via focus on over-arching highly implicit moral dogmas and memes.


  1. Another excellent article on the cultural evolution of shamanism by manner singh

  2. I think that old Manner Singh link may be down. Here is an updated one. Great article!