Secret Handshakes and [Reputational] Suicide Pacts

ritual america 615Ritual America

Earlier this week, our taste for the novel and strange was sated by “Florida Man”: Libertarian candidate Augustus Sol Invictus, self-described Old World Pagan in the Thelema tradition and white Southerner. Attention was drawn to him by the protest resignation of fellow Libertarian Adrian Wyllie, who protested the association of the party with Invictus, who has admitted to performing animal sacrifice and drinking goat blood (but not dismemberment), and who is backed by white supremacist groups such as Stormfront and Vinelanders, although he insists that he himself is not racist, citing the fact that his own children are Hispanic.

To extent this is news of little importance outside of Floridian Libertarians; however, full-throated paganism is still culturally controversial in ways that conversion to Buddhism or the varieties of New Age are not. This, in fact, was what Wyllie was depending on by ‘exposing’ Invictus to the attention of the Libertarian Party.

This echoes another recent event, seemingly cribbed from the Black Mirror episode, namely Lord Ashcroft’s claim that Prime Minister David Cameron performed a sex act with a dead pig as part of a Piers Gaveston Society ritual. While Cameron’s denied the accusation, Lawrence Richard’s analysis of the whole affair helps put it into a little perspective:

Where the Bullingdon boys built their fraternity around shared values of hating the poor, the Piers Gaverston was about sexual humiliation and the creation of shared secrets. Its structural function is as an agreement of mutually assured destruction between the rulers of tomorrow – I know your secret and you know mine, so let’s stay on the same side, yeah?

Richard then draws the connection between these rites and power, specifically regarding the ever-expanding child abuse scandal centered on the British elites in parliament and the BBC:

Recent allegations in the growing parliamentary child abuse scandal arose that Thatcher “turned a blind eye” to pedophiles that she promoted, including the provision of knighthoods to known serial child abusers Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith. Her own Home Secretary, the now deceased Leon Brittan, is still being investigated.

In each case, Thatcher is now thought to have been warned by security services about the deviancy of these men, but is alleged to have studiously ignored it. When it comes to secret-keeping and elite power, it is not out of the question that in knowing they were child abusers, Thatcher would have had political leverage over these allies of hers, and so promoting them would have helped her strengthen her own power while in office.

This kind of blackmail is a feature, not a bug. Perversely, it’s one solution to the issue of trust in coordination problems. As such, it’s a solution that has been discovered and rediscovered in numerous contexts. The “mutually-assured destruction” nature of child abuse, bestiality, etc. is a foundation on which mutual dependence may be built. Criminal complicity functions towards a similar end: the murder of an alleged informant by the members of Sergey Nechayev’s Narodnaya Rasprava group served to inspire Dostoesvky’s novel Demons, about cementing commitment to a revolutionary group through murder. The threats here are reputational, but the key to their efficacy is that they be enforced by a power that no party can unilaterally control. Thus, the condemnation of society at large becomes a strong attractor for incentivizing cooperation, or in the case of child abuse and murder, the legal risks of criminal complicity. The former was the case with the Victorian-era sex cults, as explained by John Michael Greer:

Middle-class English and American women of that age who wanted to have sex outside of marriage ran a serious risk that isn’t always remembered today. If their activities became public knowledge, they and their entire family faced drastic social consequences, and this made them easy targets for blackmail, with their erstwhile partners the most likely perpetrators of that crime. The sex cult was a brilliant response to that problem. A middle-class English or American man who had sex out of marriage faced no such social penalties, but being a known member of a deviant religious organization was quite another matter; the mere rumor of such a thing could put an end to a man’s chances for advancement in his career, and having documentary proof plopped on the desk of his employer would likely land him on the street with no chance of finding another job.

That’s what made sex cults so successful. If you joined a sex cult and broke its rules—and the rule never to divulge the identity of another member was always the most sacrosanct of all—you faced not merely social disaster but personal humiliation, no matter what your gender happened to be. That equalizing factor allowed men and women alike to enjoy themselves and one another in a state of perfect love and perfect trust, sheltered by the common threat of mutually assured social destruction.

Reputational MAD is hardly the only means to coordinate. The free-rider problem is one that plagues social organizations of all stripes, and organizations have responded in kind with proofs. This was one of the most innovative aspects of the Bitcoin protocol; creating an algorithmically mediated protocol where deviations could be faked only in the very short term. Utilizing the protocol and network meant being subject to an unfakeable proof-of-work; and using Bitcoin was made to be structurally dependent on both.

But prior to cheap computation cycles, these sorts of problems had to be solved using social tools. One of the most striking examples of success was the way Christianity utilized sacrifice compared to other mystery cults at the time. Rodney Stark writes, in The Rise of Christianity:

By demanding higher levels of stigma and sacrifice, religious groups induce higher average levels of member commitment and participation. […] By demanding higher levels of stigma and sacrifice, religious groups are able to generate greater material, social, and religious benefits for their members. […] Membership in an expensive religion is, for many people, a “good bargain.”

The exclusivity of Christianity also stood at odds with the pluralism of the day, forcing people into an all-or-nothing stake in the burgeoning cult. John Lofland, in studying the phenomenon of conversion to the Unification Church in the 1960s, described conversion as an “act of deviance”; often requiring an imbalance between the strength of in-group relationships and countervailing relationships with friends and family outside.

The problem with cult membership is that it’s a strange form of prisoner’s dilemma, structurally biased against the individual. If both parties cooperate, the results can be potent, but the individual commitment is more costly. In the book of Acts, the tale of Ananias and Sapphira is told, and the implicit background is that one expression of dedicated converts to the Jesus cult was to sell their house and give the proceeds of the sale to the elders. However, the commitment of the community to the individual is less decisive, and may be reneged at a later time. This puts dissenting members in an awkward position: if the group changes fundamentally in a way that invalidates their earlier sacrifices, there is often no recompense should the dissenter leave. In fact, additional costs are often incurred, something particularly clear in the numerous  testimonies of deconversion where leaving the faith may imply losing one’s job, family, social status, and even protection from violence.

As information becomes easier to obtain, shared secrets alone (ritual knowledge, etc.) are insufficient to serve as a hedge around group membership. The expansion of big data and the combination of technologies like Facebook Likes and graph search result in what Venkatesh Rao called the “colonization of subcultures”:

Secret handshakes serve the purpose of one-to-one mutual recognition, and three-way introductions are enough to allow small local groups to cohere. Dress codes, popular haunts and the active-use texts change slowly enough that secret handshakes suffice for all information diffusion. No envelope stuffing or email lists are needed. Punishment for defection — shunning and expulsion — is generally weak and local, because the value of membership is generally weak and local.


The Internet though, has changed all this. It has allowed subcultures to scale (by moving their secret-handshake institutions online), and become more valuable in the process. While mass-manufactured celebrity cultures have been weakening, we are not returning to pre-mass-media patterns of local culture. Instead, we’ve evolved to mega-subcultures that scale without developing institutions.

It is this weakness to infiltration that has resulted in a shift away from secret handshakes  and sacrifice, particularly social/reputational costs, or at least the latest risk of them, has become dominant instead. Those bemoaning the ignorance worn proudly by various political factions fail to understand this. Absurd beliefs or unacceptable ignorance become, in this way, unfakeable social proof of one’s willingness to endure scorn and mockery in order to more strongly identify with a particular group or social order. Global warming denialism, claiming that vaccines cause autism, or an unwillingness to issue marriage certificates to gay couples, all become ways to intimate one’s allegiance to the group. The costs borne are deemed acceptable, and as long as the perceived value group association remains high, forcing the group into a corner will only result in even more shrill and extreme rhetoric, xenophobic plumage and scientifically illiterate pheromones.

You could argue that this is wizardry masquerading as idiocy, and at times that may be true, but as a rule Occam’s razor in the form of Sarah Perry says otherwise:

Genuinely perceiving sacredness [professing x] is probably the most reliable, believable way to signal respect for the sacredness [costly commitment] and stay in the in-group.

and earlier, in her essay on strategic ignorance:

There is power both in limiting the responses that are available to you and limiting your knowledge. In the game of chicken, in which two cars are speeding toward each other, each with the option to swerve and be disgraced or continue forward and risk a crash, the classic strategy in the literature is to toss one’s steering wheel out the window – signaling to one’s opponent that one has given up the option of swerving. (One might alternatively blacken one’s own windshield, the information-avoidance equivalent of tossing the steering wheel out the window.)

The risks with these approaches are similar to the risk of selling one’s home and giving the proceeds to your cult of preference; all are examples of ceding power to the group, and entrusting one’s welfare to the future states of that group.

But that’s why coordination is a dilemma, isn’t it?

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