233 – The winding road to understanding soft power

Posted on May 23, 2013 by


In my blog entry 211, I waxed skeptical about Joseph S. NYE’s “soft power”. I disliked the intertwining of persuasion and brute power. Persuasion backed by power tends to become dogma. NYE’s concept of “change from within”, however, has an intriguing kernel. My meandering readings have led me to some insights in this respect, which might be worth sharing. An Italian author used to quip: “sometimes the shortest path between two points is an arabesque”. This post is akin to it – bear with me.


At the beginning… there is a beginning

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle argues that in a social context (e.g. public speech) arguments are deducted from accepted opinions.[1] Aristotle is right. In order to move forward, a social group needs to share a beginning. Deliberations toward concerted action start from common ground. In jargon, one would say: the construction of a social reality requires a starting collective intentionality: deliberation from the shared assumptions will hopefully lead to a new collective intentionality and even action.[2]

The view: “everything has a beginning (and a cause)” is a “universal”. I may add: if we cannot find a beginning, we’ll happily invent one (they are called cosmogonies). Research tells us: fabulation about beginnings is a genetic predisposition in everyone. [3]

Genetic predispositions

Science is discovering many genetic predispositions[4]. Empathy is one, and there are more. Such predispositions set an unassailable beginning to the understanding of social reality. Culture is seamlessly built on genetic predispositions.[5] Trying to separate out the two worlds is akin to drawing a line in the water.

Shared assumptions

In practice, any society rests on a set of underlying common assumptions. Kent FLANNERY and Joyce MARCUS[6] use (regrettably without definition) the term “social logic.” “Mentality” might also be used.[7]

I list the common principles or “social logic” underlying a hunting-and gathering society, as taken from FLANNERY – MARCUS (Pg. 54). This choice is just exemplary and aims at making it easy to understand underlying features:

(1)        Generosity is admirable; selfishness is reprehensible;

(2)        The social relationship created by a gift is more valuable than the gift itself;

(3)        All gifts should be reciprocated; however, a reasonable delay before reciprocating is acceptable;

(4)        Names are magic and should not be casually assigned;

(5)        Since all humans are reincarnated, ancestors’ names should be treated with particular respect;

(6)        Homicide is unacceptable. A killer’s relatives should either execute him or pay reparations to the victim’s family;

(7)        Do not commit incest; get your spouse outside your immediate kin (however defined);

(8)        In return for a bride, the groom should provide her family with services or gifts;

(9)        Marriage is a flexible economic partnership; it allows for multiple spouses and variations.

This list is far from exhaustive. The principle of social cause and effect, for one, is not included. Neither is the principle of social substitutability (or collective guilt) or the “first come, first served” universal. In fact, most agreed principles are silent or unspoken. The human mind uses such assumptions unconsciously and without effort, but has a hard time conceptualizing them (one only needs to think of the infinite complexity of language. Everyone uses it, but only dedicated linguists are able to begin plumbing its structure).

Within one “social logic,” the various principles not only coexist: they reinforce each other, creating synergies. Rituals, for links to emotions, are added. Sacred propositions – creation myths and cosmogonies – yield ethic and morals. A homeostatic [8] value system emerges. It permits the group to live harmoniously – and to do so over generations. It also allows for “niche creation” – humanity’s ability to enter a strange environment and adapt to it successfully. “Social logic” is akin to what I called a “social Bernard machine” in the blog entry 232, a system that tends to replicate itself over time. Such a system shapes the group as much as the group shapes the system.

“Social logic” need not be internally consistent. Humans are pretty proficient at suspension of disbelief. They handle contradictions by back-grounding them as needed. This eases the evolutionary process, even though it makes it messy.

I admit to groping for a proper term to describe this complex system. “Social logic” overly stresses the conceptual at the expense of the people in which the logic is embodied. It also fails to highlight the existence of interchangeable components in the logic. The same applies for the term “mentality”. “Machine” is a poor fit for s process that is inherently complex. Would John SEARLE’s “social reality” be a better term? Maybe – even though it is too static for my liking. For the dynamic, ever-evolving character is a central feature. Richard DAWKINS has created the term “meme.”[9] I dislike it, for suggests granularity, when the social logic is open-ended: elements are added, deleted, and transformed at any moment.[10] There are no clear boundaries, and replication is far from being comparable to genes.

To recapitulate: the “social logic” is a complex of assumptions (some overt, some silent) shared within a social group. Replacement or declination of any such assumption is possible and even likely. Exceptions are probable,[11] even central, to the well-functioning of the system. Each assumption is absolute (values are incommensurable). They all form part, however,  of the same social logic. They coexist somehow: deliberations yield ever-shifting trade-offs and in the end equilibrium. Finally, both the group and its constituent social logic act together in replication and co-evolution.

How “social logic” evolves

Any complex system evolves. This rule applies also to social logic. The group tests, rejects, redefines all the time the elements of the social logic. New equilibria are found. Some elements may be lost, as when the depository of social logic dies unexpectedly, or when collective memory lapses (or is suppressed by an elite). Curiosity and analogy may introduce novelties. Technological change may impinge or even transform any social logic (e.g. the introduction of agriculture). Change in environmental conditions (e.g. climate change), experience (e.g. war), but also leaders may alter it.[12]

Such change may be akin to a Darwinian process – trial and error.[13] Social logic contains intentionality, however: the process is also cultural and social.[14] Experience and conceptual analysis drive the formulation and validation: in fact, they interact. A new mindset enables the person to understand the phenomenon as the experience validates the concept. The outcome is akin to a Lamarckian process.

Social logic may change gradually and in cumulative fashion. It spreads slowly through the social fabric as individuals grapple with concepts and experiences. Shared experiences – empowerment – may accelerate the process and make it viral.[15] Concepts too – ideas, visions –may trigger change in ways similar to experiences. A new discourse matures through slow accumulation of arguments. People become increasingly comfortable with them as defenders of old views die out. An old concept dies the “death of the thousand articles (or arguments)”. Occasionally, however, a compact form of the concept strikes the imagination – and triggers enthusiasm as well as antagonistic reaction. DARWIN’s “descent with modification” is such a felicitous formulation summarizing a “long argument” – it turned out to be exceedingly divisive.[16]

Memory loss as well as loss of the lived experience is major factor impinging on change. Social logic is embedded in people foremost. When people forget or die, the social logic is impoverished. This is a loss and an opportunity: a new social logic may emerge. Memory loss is not innocent: it is one of the elite’s favorite means of controlling the social logic.

Writing has much slowed down this process – without eliminating it. In many ways, it has simply hidden it: we use the same words, but their meaning has evolved silently through experience (paraphrasing Heraclitus: one cannot use the same word twice). This phenomenon leads to all sorts of trouble. Reverence for diachronic consistency tends to trump adaptation to context. The social logic becomes rigid and fits poorly to the context: it becomes ideology.

“Soft power” – changing elements of “social logic” from without

So far, I’ve described social logic as evolving autonomously within the social group or in response to the cultural and material context in which the group finds itself.

The next step is for social groups to interact with one another. They may do so on the basis of equality. Given mankind’s universals of curiosity, imitation and emulation, the influence is reciprocal.[17]

History shows, however, that soon enough inequality – within and between groups – creeps in. We observe “alpha-” and “subaltern” groups. Soft power is the ability of a superior group to alter the social logic of a subaltern one. It need not be done by power and fear at all – though it helps. Soft power emerges seamlessly from inequality between groups. The influence can be surreptitious, innocent, or peripheral. In the end, it is pervasive.

Social logic is a complex matter consisting of many strands. In the past, subaltern groups tried to filter out unwanted aspects of superior soft power. China introduced the policy of ti-yong (“Chinese learning should remain the essence, but Western learning be used for practical development”).[18] Japan adopted a “Western science, Japanese essence” policy with a twist: it rejected Chinese learning, which had previously influenced the country, as “cancer in Japanese Society”.[19] Attempts at disentangling may fare poorly.[20]

Is it possible to use “soft power” in a directive manner – to foster the “superior” group’s purposes? Prudence would the order of the day. Complex systems yield unexpected outcomes. In politics, this is called “blowback.”[21] One also tends to forget the importance of reception, and its social expression – empowerment. No matter what is on offer: what counts is what people do with it. At best “soft power” enables – it opens up possibilities. The desired outcome is but one of many possibilities.

[1]           The technical term is endoxa, from which the orator develops an enthymeme, as opposed to deductions from first and “true” sentences or “first” principles. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/

[2]               John R. SEARLE (1995): The construction of social reality. Free Press, New York.

[3]               See: Michael R. GAZZANIGA (2011): Who is in charge? Free will and the science of the brain. HarperCollins, New York.

[4]           See: Patricia S. CHURCHLAND (2011): Braintrust. What neuroscience tells us about morality. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[5]           Peter J. RICHERSON – Robert BOYD (2005): Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. For an overview: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evolution-cultural/ Eva JABLONKA – Marion J. LAMB (2006): Evolution in four dimensions. Genetic, epigenetic, and symbolic variation in the history of life. MIT Press, Cambridge.

[6]           See: Kent FLANNERY – Joyce MARCUS (2012): The creation of inequality. How our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.

[7]           Alfred W. CROSBY (1997): The measure of reality. Quantification and Western society 1250 – 1600. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[8]           Homeostasis (from Greek: μοιος, “hómoios”, “similar”,[1] and στάσις, stásis, “standing still”) is the property of a system that regulates its internal environment and tends to maintain a stable, relatively constant condition of properties. http://bit.ly/17zC9Kr Termite mounds are a good example. It is shaped by termites as much as termites shape it.

[9]           Richard DAWKINS (1976): The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press. See also: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/replication/

[10]          In fact one of the characteristics of “social logic” is that it is only very partially shared within the group – without loss of cohesion.

[11]          Giorgio AGAMBEN (2005): State of exception. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[12]          The best synopsis of such changes I know is: Kent FLANNERY – Joyce MARCUS (2012): The creation of inequality. How our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.

[13]             Alex MESOUDI (2011): Cultural evolution. How Darwinian theory can explain human culture and synthesize the social sciences. Chicago University Press, Chicago.

[14]          See: W. G. RUNCIMAN (2009): The theory of cultural and social selection. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[15]          Timothy H. BREEN (2010): American insurgents, American patriots. The revolution of the people. Hill and Wang, New York. See also my bog entry 202.

[16]             Philip KITCHER (2009): Living with DARWIN. Evolution, design, and the future of faith. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[17]          See: Warren I. COHEN (2002): The Asian-American century. Harvard University press, Cambridge.

[18]          Jonathan D. SPENCE (1990): the search for modern China. Norton, new York; Pg. 225. Also: C. P. FITZGERALD (1964): The Chinese view of their place in the world. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[19]          Ian BURUMA (2003) : Inventing japan. 1853-1964. Modern Library, Nww York ; Pg. 50. See also: Shmuel N. EISENSTADT (1996): Japanese civilization. A comparative view. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[20]          Ian BURUMA – Avishai MARGALIT (2004): Occidentalism. The West in the eyes of its enemies. Penguin Press, New York.

[21]          Chalmers JOHNSON (2000): Blowback. The costs and consequences of American empire. Little, Brown, New York.

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