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The winding road to understanding soft power

Published on 23 May 2013
Updated on 30 April 2024

In my blog entry The Soft Underbelly of ‘Soft’ Power – I, I waxed sceptical 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 that – 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 (the technical term is ‘endoxa’, from which the orator develops an ‘enthymeme’, as opposed to deductions from first and ‘true’ sentences or ‘first’ principles). 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 that 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 (see The Construction of Social Reality by John Rogers Searle).

Skydivers from 17 countries set a Head Up World Record
Collective intentionality demonstrated in an aerial human formation (Norman Kent Photography).

The view that everything has a beginning (and a cause) is universal. I may add that if we cannot find a beginning, we’ll happily invent one (they are called ‘cosmogonies’). Research tells us that fabulation about beginnings is a genetic predisposition in everyone (see Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga).

Genetic predispositions

Science is discovering many genetic predispositions (see Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality Patricia S. Churchland). 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 (see Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution by Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd; and Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, And Symbolic Variation in the History of Life by Eva Jablonka, Marion J. Lamb, and Anna Zeligowski ). 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. In their book The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy Slavery and Empire, Kent V. Flannery and Joyce Marcus use (regrettably without definition) the term ‘social logic’. ‘Mentality’ might also be used (see The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600 by Alfred W. Crosby).

I list the common principles (or social logic) underlying a hunter-gatherer society, as taken from The Creation of Inequality. 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.
  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).

San women gather food in Ghanzi, Botswana, upholding their traditional role as gatherers in their hunter-gatherer society.
San women gather food in Ghanzi, Botswana, upholding their traditional role as gatherers in their hunter-gatherer society (World Nomads).

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 ethics and morals. A homeostatic 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 From Alpha Bullies to Bernard Machines: The Evolution of Prosocial Behaviour, 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 a 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’ (see The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and the post Replication and Reproduction). I dislike it, for suggests granularity, when the social logic is open-ended: elements are added, deleted, and transformed at any moment (in fact, one of the characteristics of social logic is that it is only very partially shared within the group, without loss of cohesion). There are no clear boundaries, and replication is far from being comparable to genes.

To recapitulate: 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, even central, to the well-functioning of the system (see State of Exception by Giorgio Agamben). 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 also applies 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.

Such change may be akin to a Darwinian process – trial and error (see Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences by Alex Mesoudi). Social logic contains intentionality, however: the process is also cultural and social (see The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection by W. G. Runciman). Experience and conceptual analysis drive 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 (American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People by T. H. Breen). Concepts, ideas, and visions may trigger change in ways similar to experiences. A new discourse matures through the 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 summarising a ‘long argument’ turned out to be exceedingly divisive (see Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith by Philip Kitcher).

Indian wedding
Indian wedding ceremony (Wikimedia).

Memory loss, as well as the loss of 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 favourite 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 social groups interacting 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 (see The Asian American Century by Warren I. Cohen).

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 group. 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 ‘ti-yong’ policy (‘Chinese learning should remain the essence, but Western learning be used for practical development’; see The Search For Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence and The Chinese View of Their Place in the World by C.P. Fitzgerald). Japan adopted a ‘Western science, Japanese essence’ policy with a twist: it rejected Chinese learning, which had previously influenced the country, as a ‘cancer in Japanese Society’ (see Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 by Ian Buruma, and Japanese Civilization: A Comparative View by S. N. Eisenstadt). Attempts at disentangling may fare poorly (see Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit).

Is it possible to use ‘soft power’ in a directive manner to foster the ‘superior’ group’s purposes? Prudence would be the order of the day. Complex systems yield unexpected outcomes. In politics, this is called ‘blowback’ (see Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson). 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’ opens up possibilities. The desired outcome is but one of many possibilities.

The post was first published on DeepDip.

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