How much of our lives do we spend displaying identity markers? How many decisions do we make about others based on their outward appearance? Flag lapel pins, AIDS walk ribbons, driving a Lexus, wearing a suit or a tie-dye, sporting some ink, flashing actual gang signs, genuflecting or making the sign of the cross, wearing a yarmulke, adding a “fish” to your business card, being branded by your frat, alumni stickers in back windows, class rings, wedding rings.
There may be some personal satisfaction in the gestures, but the vast majority of the power is in identifying to others what gangs we belong to. Who we affiliate with. Who we’ve been accepted by, and who we support. Are you one of us, or one of them. Who are you “down” with, and whose back do you have when the shit hits the fan?
The closer I attend to this idea, the more ubiquitous its proof. I believe that is the textbook definition of “confirmation bias,” but it stuns me how much we engage in displays; how much of our social relations are driven by this superficial book-cover judging; how much a person’s success is driven by how well he or she flashes gang signs.
Maybe it’s not so superficial, then? Maybe it’s a matter of life and death: War, engaged at the 17th level of abstraction, in the form of etiquette, manners, uniforms and gestures?
Maybe it is the most fundamental layer of our being: the ability to attract those things we want, and to avoid or deflect those things we perceive as dangers?
It’s a bit of a poker game: Which of my cards should I show to elicit the desired response from the person I’m dealing with? Which of my gang affiliations or “street-cred” will make this person more likely to do business with me? To trust me? To be open to my ideas? To have sex or marry?
What I am is what I am, are you what you are or what?”
— Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians
Or do you not play the cards like that? Do you just “show the world the real you” and let the chips fall where they may?
That’s a gang sign, too.
We are driven by affiliations, signs of those associations, and attempt to deploy and read signs, in search of advantage and safety.
In spite of technical or intellectual prowess evolved over millenia — skills that allow us to exceed our basic nature, to do things no other animal can achieve — humans remain deeply tribal, and almost completely reliant on displaying colors, flashing gang signs.