Symbiotic Relationships and Political Activism

McDonald's arches + U.S flag. Synonymous, symb...
McDonald's arches + U.S flag. Synonymous, symbiotic, patriotic, neurotic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
From a biological perspective, a symbiotic relationship is one in which organisms of different species living in close proximity can, but does not necessarily, benefit one another. Some forms of symbiosis benefit both species involved (mutualism); others benefit one species while the other is harmed (parasitism) or unaffected (commensalism). Still others confer no clear benefit or adverse impact to either species (i.e., neutralism).

From a sociological perspective, we usually think of symbiosis in simpler terms as involving a high degree of interdependence among individuals or groups of people. For example, I think we could probably say that secular activists have a symbiotic relationship with religious groups that often threaten the separation of church and state. Secular activism would cease to exist without religious overreach. It can largely be understood as a reaction to religious overreach and would be unnecessary without it.

One of the things about symbiotic relationships I have always found fascinating is the manner in which two groups who appear to stand in adamant opposition to one another often seem to derive great benefit from their continued mutual antagonism. The two large political parties in the U.S. come to mind, as do many of the institutions that have emerged around them (e.g., Fox News and MSNBC). But mostly, I am thinking of the countless special interest groups that advocate for particular issues on either side of the political divide.

I been unsubscribing from almost all of the left-leaning email lists I've ended up on over the years. It has reached the point where I can no longer stomach the constant begging for money, appeals to emotion, and blatant efforts to coerce action by instilling fear. Enough outrage for me; the price is too high. I finally realized that what these groups do is not appreciably different than what the right does with regard to their imaginary "war on Christmas" (i.e., manufacture a threat and use it to separate the gullible from their money). I'm no longer willing to participate in that game. Even when the threat they are telling me about is real, the nature of the threat is nearly always exceeded by the rhetoric.

I mention this here because the symbiotic nature of these groups and all who they claim to oppose has become impossible to ignore. They pounce on anything they can present as a threat to something I supposedly value and try to scare or guilt me into contributing to their cause, a cause which is almost never articulated clearly. "Such and such is trying to take away your right to whatever. Your donation will help us fight..." How they will fight, who they will fight, and how this will produce any measurable benefit are rarely mentioned. I'd almost prefer if they came right out and said, "Now you can buy peace of mind," as this seems to be what they are selling. "Give us money so you can feel like you are doing something that matters."

In the unlikely event that everything I've jut written is not cynical enough for you, I'll take one more step toward full-on paranoia by admitting that the thought of collusion has crossed my mind on more than one occasion. Is it possible, not across the board but it some small cases, that members of two opposing groups are colluding to maximize their fundraising success? And if appeals to fear are as effective as they appear to be, why wouldn't some of these groups simply create threatening sock puppets to lend credence to some of their wilder claims? Again, the "war on Christmas" suggests that some groups are perfectly willing to invent threats.

I don't know about you, but if I ever decided to start a rage blog to go after the big traffic, the first thing I'd do is try to find a suitable enemy. And if I couldn't find one, I'd create one. I'd make sure I could proudly point to my "page o' hate" even if I had to create the haters myself. I'm sure I'd be able to count on plenty of real hate coming my way as long as I was consistently snarky and treated others poorly, but I might need some help to get the ball rolling. A bit of manufactured hate to jump-start the process, and then I'd be able to claim victim status. I wouldn't have to address legitimate criticism; I could dismiss it as "harassment" and accuse my critics of being bad people.

But now I've drifted away from the point I wanted to make here. So let me return to what I think is a valuable lesson for all of us to consider: before we complete our descent into outrage, it might behoove us to ask "Who is benefiting from me feeling this way?" The answer might surprise us.