Perhaps the great disappointment of my life has been the realization, at the age of 40 or so, that adulthood did not bring with it an abandonment of childish default behaviours.
By which I mean that I began to notice the baser tribal instincts that emerge within people in junior high school and articulate themselves in various forms of bullying and denigration of others in order to enhance one's own position and status within the clan do not disappear or, for that matter, even dissipate. They merely articulate themselves in more sophisticated settings and with greater finesse.
I had assumed, throughout the first half of my life that this would change. I don't know why, but the presumption was that as we gathered knowledge and experience it would lead to some form of wisdom that would allow us to speak and debate ideas on their merits—and that consensus and compromise, if not agreement, would be the most frequent outcome. Now and then, such exchanges might even produce—Eureka!—a new, better idea that would enhance the common welfare of humanity.
What I discovered was that, while there are certainly many among us who work in that fashion—the one that has enhanced us—most still default to Grade Eight conduct when they begin to sense that their argument and with it their status is not holding the day. Most of us are happy to abandon the hard work of fortifying our arguments and how we articulate them in exchange for denigration of opposing arguments or, more specifically, the motivations, morals, intellect, and even sanity of those who hold contrary views. In this way, even if we don't win the argument and even if we aren't the smartest kids in school, we maintain a dominant social position which, as I recall from Desmond Morris ("The city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo"), is pretty important to our baser instincts.
So, just like in Grade Eight, we in the human zoo call each other names or invent terminology that effectively does the same thing and allows us to win a debate not on its merits or logical structure but primarily through social assassination of opposing arguments and their champions.
For example, no matter how radical my ideas for change in society might be, it is most advantageous for me to describe it as the outcome of a "moderate" point of view because, let's face it, most of us like to think of ourselves as moderate people. And, in doing so, I immediately position those in opposition to my view as "immoderate" which is easy enough to convert to "extreme." Or, in a more "moderate" use of the Soviet practice of incarcerating political dissidents in psychiatric hospitals, I may insist that my intellectual opponent is suffering from some form of mental pathogen, or phobia. This is highly sophisticated because it allows me not only to position myself as moderate and my opponent as an extremist, it also allows me to be sane as opposed to my opponent who, while not exactly totally insane, is obviously troubled: Clearly their failure to accept my argument and embrace the true depth of my genius has nothing to do with its merits; it is because they are suffering from some form psychiatric impairment or in other words are a few bricks short of a load.
All of which, at the end of the day, is just a form of schoolyard bullying.
This self-serving practice diminishes the broader polity by creating the shared impression that we live in a society filled with mentally ill extremists, which is hardly the case. But it does position the winner nicely as the only one who can be trusted as human zookeeper.
Still, I hold to the prayer that the naked apes will one day replace their biology with theology and talk about the world with mutual respect for each other as common, decent human beings who understand there will always be matters upon which rational people of goodwill may disagree.
But at this stage, a prayer is all it is. Power and prestige are at stake. And those, in the human zoo, are all that matter.