The 100 Man Island

Say you have an island with 100 people on it of primitive nature -- perhaps some basic agriculture and tools. Which belief system would you instill in them to produce a more domineering society 100 years later, or an open and tolerant society, or a more innovative society, or a more sectarian and violent society? Which would you introduce in order to best prepare them for an incoming invasion from other civilizations? How would you prevent the eventual gridlock and decline of modern liberal democratic society?

I came up with this "island society" framework when I was trying to compare and contrast (and convey) the effect of various religions. (I was in a bit more of a *New Atheist* phase than I am now.) If you simplify the question -- "Which religion would you seed to such a society create the happiest society?" -- you can see how that formulation attempts to cut at the heart of the role of religious doctrine in how societies develop. You can improve the thought experiment by increasing the imaginary sample size -- suggesting the same over 100 different islands. If we were to seed 100 different islands of 100 people each with zoroastrianism, and 100 other, different islands with early buddhism, which societies would you expect to be "better" or "worse" on average after some period of time?

Of course there are many problems with such an experiment, because you have many different variables to control for. Maybe islands of different climates or sizes produce different outcomes. It's also not realistic in that most real human societies developed in contact with other, different societies. There are pragmatic issues like -- which method do you use to seed the ideas? Do you somehow have access to the language of the island, do you airdrop texts, do you send missionaries? You can also set the society to varying levels of development, or seed cultural artifacts to societies that already have a strong cultural "operating system," religious or otherwise.

How might this framework be useful as applied to our society? We can assume that our "island" is our current society -- for me and probably many reading this, America, or some other western democracy -- and the various settings and knobs are the present day, present sociopolitical and material environment. There are many ideas fighting for dominance at any given time; which can be considered as the idea “seeds.”

The framework, as applied to any given problem, forces us to take the *long view* of how to establish cultural ideas. In the original question, we are trying to optimize for some kind of value in the future. We are not only concerned with the decisions or phases that come in-between; we are concerned with the overall outcome that is likely to be produced down the line.

Regarding today’s issues, too many proposed "solutions" to our cultural problems are of-the-moment, with no respect to the status of our future island. They are often well-intentioned "solutions," but ultimately hard to imagine them seeding into anything good. They are mostly reactive. Let's look at some examples.

It is understandable why folks, due to perceived injustice, see a phenomenon like cultural appropriation as something that should be responded to with demonization of cultural interchange. For many reasons that Freddie DeBoer articulates better than myself, I think we can see issues with seeding that worldview. If you were trying to create the most tolerant possible island society -- would you seed the idea of being hyper-aware of your ethnic differences, purity testing who can start which kinds of businesses, encouraging call-out culture as a means to enforce this idea, and so on? Within our original framework, I would expect many societies seeded with such cultural ideas to devolve into sectarian violence or at least not look like a society I would want to raise my hypothetical island kids in.

Another example is in our political system -- it seems we now call for impeachment for every disagreement or fumble -- hell, Marjorie Taylor Greene tried to impeach Biden right after the election. We're probably on our 3rd or 4th call for impeachment in under a year of presidency. Designing and implementing a stable political system is not a trivial task, but if I were seeding and island with a political culture that could stand up to the demands of the modern world, I would try to discourage eliminating leadership at the drop of a partisan hat.

The problem with these examples is, of course, that we sometimes do need to be reactive, and being higher-minded and long-view oriented is simply not pragmatic in the imperfect and uncertain world of politics. There are also acute problems so bad, and situations with information (or options) so limited, that some kind of reactive solution is reasonable to encourage. The problem is that when you have two tribes at each other’s throats constantly, it seems like most decisions are bad island decisions, because each side works backwards from “other team is bad” or “how can I make other team look bad” when analyzing/smearing the other side’s decisions or coming up with their own political strategies.

It's hard to define what the political center means in the United States these days, but often I feel like it can be a fight between those who are interested in stable and healthy institutions — strong “island culture" ideas — and those caught up in the reactive culture war arms race of the moment, which serves as fertile ground for the problematic ideas presented previously.

From my view as a pretty much normie center-left liberal, I oftentimes share the same effective policy goals with strong left-leaning folks, while being highly concerned with the precedent that subscribing to their more reactive ideas would set for the island. I want more equitable outcomes for all people, but the “woke racism” of Robin DiAngelo (and the associated slew of Instagram infographics) is an unappealing island idea. I would like to hold politicians accountable, but when the arms race calls for the 25th amendment after every political misstep, I can't help but feel like our island is in trouble.

Something like Justin Murphy's theory of verbal inflation may be playing a key role here. Because partisans and activists on both sides are forced to outbid each other with more and more extreme ideas, it's hard for more stable or measured ideas to gain cachet. And I don't mean to suggest we can never be reactive as necessary. But I would prefer if we found a way to consider the gentle ecosystem of our island 100 years from now.