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Why we ostracise - the failing Catís Cradle

By Malcolm King - posted Thursday, 3 July 2008


How many patterns of life were based on kindred misconceptions, how many wolves do we feel on our heels, while our real enemies go in sheepskin by? Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry.

Anyone who has been a leader, who has tried to make large workplace changes, who doesn’t speak English, who has a mental illness or is a teenage girl, knows the power of ostracism.

The social webs of friends, of clubs, community and in the workplace are becoming stretched for a variety of complex reasons. One of the perverse by-products of living in a post industrial society is the frequent use of ostracism, especially among the middle class, as a form of punishment.

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I first became interested in ostracisation in the early 1980s while reading Colin Turnbull’s book, The Mountain People. It’s a harrowing anthropological study of the Ik people of northern Kenya.

They suffered (and still are suffering) terrible famines. Their life is brutish and the fit and strong survive at the cost of their social structure and friendship groups.

The Ik ostracise each other to survive. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, except the dogs were eaten long ago. Everyday, because the tribe is totally atomised, every member sneaks off alone (the children hunt in packs) to catch quarry that they greedily covert. There’s not much caring or sharing with the Ik.

We like to be liked. It’s nice to be part of a group. It’s comforting when people call us and enquire about our health or invite us out. We’re not like the Ik - or are we?

As a kid I played a string game called Cat’s Cradle. The object of the game was to form a geometric pattern using string held taut between your two hands. The object was to pass the Cat’s Cradle to another, where it would be remade and passed on again. I suggest that the social webs of friends, like the strings of a child’s hand game, are slackening. We are becoming more isolated and for some, not only more alone but more lonely.

The reason is - to paraphrase a famous line from the film Cool Hand Luke - what we have here is a failure to reciprocate. People are failing to understand the basic rules of reciprocity in human communication. A failure to reciprocate leads to a lack of compassion. To be uncompassionate means to lack empathy and once you’re at that stage, any form of aberrant behaviour is possible.

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Each individual act in a system of reciprocity is usually characterised by a combination of short-term altruism and long term self interest: I help you out in the (possibly vague, uncertain, and uncalculating) expectation that you help me out in the future.

The American mathematician John Nash worked out that while Adam Smith was right to suggest that it was in an individuals best interest to maximise his or her welfare, the real stuff of “welfare”, whether it be economic or social capital was best created when people work together in pursuit of a common goal. And to do that you need reciprocity. You don’t need to reciprocate all of the time but you do need to reciprocate some of the time.

“Reciprocity is made up of a series of acts each of which is short term altruistic, benefiting others at the cost of the altruist, but which together typically make every participant better off," said the philosopher Michael Taylor.

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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