Leadership, Morality and Humanity

14 Mar 2014 | Phil Geusz

I don't know if you've noticed this or not, but in Real Life most of the furry fandom—for now, at least—lives in human bodies. We were all born with them, every last one of us. Some may claim souls of more diverse origin, but the flesh and blood nature of their humanity is beyond question. So, when I state that all of us are human and share common hard-wired human traits and frailties I hope people won't throw too many stones.

For we are human, you know. Thoroughly, depressingly, and very completely so. We see the world through human eyes, hear with human ears, and process these inputs through a nervous system that, though we rarely consider the matter, was shaped solely by evolutionary forces and therefore is brimming with billions of years worth of illogical prejudices and mistaken priorities. Surviving long enough to produce successful offspring is the only thing that matters to Mr. Darwin. Not, for example, having the ability to apply dispassionate and objective logic to all situations. Yes, we're the best-thinking creatures we yet know of. Yet at heart we’re still just another breed of animal, not immaterial shining globes of energy free from worldly distractions like hemorrhoids and noisy neighbors with ill-mannered children. Not only are we animals, we're animals equipped with powerful drives and blind instincts, beasts who snarl and fight and sometimes even murder each other for reasons that an immaterial energy sphere would find totally incomprehensible. We’re demonstrably territorial, extraordinarily sexual, protective of our offspring and...

...we live in a social structure that requires a leader in order to function properly.

Over the years I've read a good bit about the difficulties involved in establishing how much of human behavior is the result of nurture and acculturation versus hard-wiring. While laboratory experiments tend to have great difficulty establishing beyond reasonable doubt the existence of very many hard-wired instincts in infants, I tend to look upon the incredible difficulties inherent in such research and take an anthropological/pattern-seeking approach. While the amount of variety in human culture is staggering, some patterns tend to repeat themselves a lot more often than others. These patterns, I believe, tend to reflect underlying hard-wiring. For example, practically all primitive societies that live in small groups of a few families tend to follow a "big man" model of leadership. This is perhaps the most egalitarian leadership structure humanity has ever known, and it can still be seen reflected again and again in human interaction wherever groups of about ten or so adults who know each other well need to cooperate for a short time period. In such groups, when a decision needs to be made a discussion develops. At some point someone will suggest consulting a person—usually but not always male in primitive societies—who everyone respects and looks up to. This is the "big man". The discussion will then be taken to him, and he will offer an opinion. Great weight—greater than that of any other individual—will be placed on what he says, though it should be emphasized that the decision might well in the end go directly against his advice. Eventually when everyone feels there's been enough discussion the decision is made and life goes on.

Many years ago I read an anthropological study on "big men”- this was more than twenty years ago and predates my connection to the World Wide Web, so I fear I can't cite a source. But just as in America the taller you are the higher your pay is statistically likely to be (ref), "big men" did indeed tend to stand a bit taller than their village-mates. While I've never come across a study of their relative intelligence, I'd love to see one. Because, you see, I suspect they'd come out as merely average. They owe their status as leaders, in my estimation, not to the superior power of their minds or any great ability to foresee and forestall future troubles, but rather because at a very deep level their physique and personal charm/social skills  serve to calm and reassure their “troop” and make them feel good about submitting themselves to him.

As stated above, human minds and cultures are the result of billions of years of evolution, the most recent (and therefore most significant) pre-human eras having been spent as apes and pre-apes. We're still apes in many ways so subtle that we tend to overlook them entirely because they loom too large in our existences to see. And while I rather hate to point this out, for all the nice things one can say about apes (they're clever and highly entertaining creatures, for example) they do not select their leaders in a careful, reasoned way. The biggest and strongest males usually end up on top, frequently as the result of physical intimidation and combat. The rest of the troop not only willingly submits to the resulting leader, but seems to take great comfort basking in the shadow of his superior power and size. (“My leader can beat up your leader, ha ha ha!”)

We humans don’t do a much better job selecting, that I can see. And the older I get the more evidence I see that we’re looking for exactly the same traits that our simian cousins are. Or nearly the same, at least. We’re definitely looking for the same physical aspects, but as sentient beings humans also esteem high social skills and things like fashion-sense. (My leader is a snappier dresser than your leader, ha ha ha!”)

Is it really necessary for me to hammer home just how poorly we select our leaders? What percentage of the time does the taller candidate win the office of the President of the United States? Sixty-one percent according to some sources, with the effect having grown far stronger since the advent of television. Perhaps even more significantly it’s been more than a century since a shorter-than-average man held the office, and campaign aides notoriously spend weeks and months negotiating in painful detail issues such as how high and wide the lecterns at presidential debates will be, so as to flatter their own candidate’s appearance as much as possible. I’ll also mention in passing that many contemporary observers were quite certain that Nixon was defeated by Kennedy simply because he refused to wear makeup during their famous first-ever televised debate, fearing that if word got out the voters would think him effeminate. (This was in the very early days of the medium, keep in mind, and even leading politicians had very little to no practical experience with being on-camera.) The result was that Kennedy looked bright, young and fresh while Nixon’s features seemed washed out and his chin and jowls carried a disreputable-looking five-o-clock shadow. Voters who listened to the debate on radio tended to score Nixon the winner. TV-watchers, however, overwhelmingly felt that Nixon had lost, and badly at that. Again according to contemporary observers this was the turning point. And it was based strictly on physical appearance.

Lots of species select their leaders irrationally. Why is the biggest, toughest male mountain sheep the only one who gets to breed, after proving himself by driving the rest away? Yes, the decision process clearly works in terms of natural selection. But... Is the biggest and toughest and hardest to kill sheep automatically the best leader?

As a student of history I could go on for hours about what an awful job we humans have done in terms of selecting our leaders. Again and again we've chosen to follow those with big shoulders and average or even lesser brains, tall and handsome (mostly) men with fashion sense and wonderful social skills who again and again have led us into ever-deeper abysses. And in far too many cases we've loyally followed them to the brink and beyond, singing their praises (and by reflection our own) right up until that terrible crash at the bottom.

As a fandom, so far I think we've been lucky. Part of it is that so few of us are what general society would consider to be leadership material to begin with. Early in my fandom days I read a rather disparaging article on furries that referred to us as "zeta males"—in other words, the very opposite of traditional leader-types. My own experiences in and contact with the fandom lead me to believe that in actuality many of us—like me—were zetas as kids, and having suffered the pain of such low social status during our formative years mostly live our adult lives as lone wolves trying to eke out a social existence outside the conventional structure while accumulating as little additional scar tissue as possible. Though some of us have served as real-world leaders at need and for short periods (I'm one of them, and suspect it was made possible by the fact that I have huge shoulders)—most of us know better than to even make an attempt at real-world leadership. We are who we are as a group—there's no sense denying it. High-level social skills and fashion sense are not our forte.

This makes us a mixture that seems to function a bit differently in groups than most of our peers. While the "big man" model of leadership breaks down for most folks when groups reach a certain size, instead of moving on to despotism, monarchy, a republic, communism or democracy (Wow! You play Civilization too? Cool!), furs seem to make that model stretch far beyond its usual limits. Perhaps it's because we internet so well and the main problem with "big man" is the difficulty of allowing everyone enough airspace to speak until satisfied. Or maybe it's because having felt so much social pain ourselves we're more tolerant and listen a little more patiently. I don't know the answer, but it seems to me that despite the use of formal titles like "Con Chair" an awful lot of furry get-togethers—particularly the smaller ones—are run based mostly on this most primitive of all leadership models. And that's in my opinion the good news about us—"big man" is the fairest and most natural leadership system I know of, and when it works well creates the happiest society.

But there's bad news, too.

Remember that big old ram who's won the right to be Top Sheep after so much dominance-proving head-knocking? He didn't put himself in harm's way because he thought head-knocking was fun—otherwise it'd be the year-round pastime of athletic mountain sheep everywhere. Instead he was driven to prove himself numbero uno despite heaven only knows what kind of pain and suffering in a world entirely devoid of headache powders. His physiology made the decision for him—his conscious mind (if any) was merely along for the ride. What makes you think humans are any different? Our own internal and irrational need to ascend the status/leadership ladder is a well-known phenomenon, and has provided the motive force behind some of our most spectacular behavior. Leadership and status-related drivers like religion and sex have served as the primary motivators for such completely rational historical undertakings as building the pyramids, sailing a thousand ships to Troy, the Crusades and putting men on the Moon. The total percentage of human effort and energy expended on matters related primarily to increasing individual or group status in the social hierarchy and participating in the drive to the top of the heap would be simply stunning if it could ever be calculated. I'd personally guess something north of seventy percent.

We furs are hardly immune to such powerful human drives. Indeed, as the fandom has expanded and leaders have come and gone I've been frankly shocked to see how shabbily—and how predictably—they're treated. Typically they originate by distinguishing themselves as convention organizers, or perhaps especially gifted raconteurs, entertainers or artists. They become "big men"—people consult them regarding their problems and give their replies disproportionate consideration. As time goes on they're given the opportunity to take on more and more responsibility and be listened to by more and more followers. And they accept those opportunities, of course; the drive to become a leader— it was referred to as “the drive (or sometimes urge) to alpha” when I was a young man— is a basic instinct. Then, seemingly suddenly and out of nowhere a certain invisible line is crossed and they're no longer beloved consensual "big men” anymore, but rather "swelled heads" and "guys who can't squeeze their egos inside an elevator with them, so they have to take the stairs.” The rivals, in other words, are ready for a good head-butting contest. They want what the existing fandom leader has, and due to their basic irrational lust for the top slot they want it so badly they can taste it. But first they’re going to snipe from the brush for a while and weaken their target via a thousand small wounds. Who knows? Maybe he’ll give up and just suddenly disappear from the fandom entirely.

It's terribly sad to watch this happen again and again. A new potential leader-type rises, rises, rises... Then he's ripped out of the sky by his former devoted followers with extreme prejudice and claws fully extended. While this phenomenon also exists in the "real" world—and some individuals within the fandom fly higher than others before falling victim—we seem to have a far more vindictive case of it than most groups. I suspect it's because the drive to the top truly is one of the great irrational motivators of human behavior, one that far too many furries have been forced to suppress in their everyday lives. So when they see someone else becoming what they themselves would very much like to be they... Well, out come the claws in force.

It doesn't help that we're such a young fandom, either. Youth tends towards both extreme idealism and broken-hearted finger-pointing once the hero is seen to have feet of clay just like everyone else. "My god, he gets drunk at conventions sometimes in the evenings! I’d never have imagined it! And they say his apartment is always a terrible mess. But look at this new guy over there—his comic strip is so funny, and no one's heard anything bad about him yet. So let's go to him for advice next time instead of a slovenly alcoholic! Besides, look at those shoulders! I don’t know just why, but they make me feel so happily inferior and willing to submit!”

And so the wheel turns yet again as our fandom raises up leadership figures one after another, first to achieve the dizziest of heights and then be dashed down and destroyed by humanity's irrational drives and instincts. While I never get to know most of them, being short on social skills even for a fur, I've learned over time to feel sorry for them at every stage of the process. The higher they rise the more thoroughly their soul will be ripped to shreds on the way down. And all of this thanks to monkey instincts none of us asked for and most aren't even aware of. So far the score is a hundred percent; I don't know of a single would-be fandom leader who's escaped this cycle completely.

And for my own part? Well... If you're a former fandom leader and someday I walk up to you out of nowhere and offer to buy you a drink, well...

Now you know why.