Kama Muta and its inverse
If you didn’t see my couple of paragraphs on The Discourse, I saved it off to Medium here:
In it, I basically posit that we humans create and maintain models in our head of the people and groups that we interact with regularly, and that there’s a style of communication, which I called “The Discourse,” that can be best understood as humans sending and receiving updates to those shared states. I further posit that that communication is what Social Media is principally used for.
There’s an important implication in that idea that I sort of glossed over in my original 900-ish words, which is that in keeping a sort of mind-state model of all these people and groups, you’re inviting those people and groups to literally live in your head.
There’s a lot of talk about boundaries recently: Expressing clear boundaries to other people, enforcing clear boundaries with the communities you belong to, understanding the boundaries we enforce across our relationships. What’s less understood, I think, is that because we keep these state models in our heads, when we are talking about relationship boundaries we’re also talking about the boundaries inside our minds between our selves and these mental states.
There’s a concept that I’ve heard tossed around recently that’s been named “Kama muta.” It’s posited as an emotion, felt by all (or most) humans but not explicitly named. It’s the feeling of belonging that you feel with some people and groups, that sense of unity and fellow-being. It’s what you feel with your family, with your friend circle, with the broader communities you inhabit.
It’s the feeling of warm connection you get with a stranger who drops a quote from your favorite series of novels. It’s the feeling that your boss is trying to instill when she makes you do a trust fall with your coworkers at a “team building” exercise. It’s the reason that the language and communication style that your political faction uses is as important as the content of the messages.
It’s Kama muta.
Because we don’t just cary around mental states for people we like, we also have models of people we don’t like, but whom we have to deal with. We cary around models of our crazy ex and our domineering boss; we cary around models of our long-dead abusive parents and our unpleasant second-grade teacher.
I think there’s an opposite-feeling to Kama muta, and we touch on it when we touch on the idea of Otherness. We use those states in our minds in order to recognize people who belong to Other groups, to recognize people and social groupings that are anathema, and we use those models as a sort of informational immunite system.
This is how, when someone drops a quote from a show you hate, you tend to immediately lump them into your idea of that show’s fandom and judge them accordingly. If someone makes a sports metaphor, and you’re not a sportsball fan, you drop them into the “oh god, they’re a sportsball person” and adjust your sense of who they are to attach it to and include your model of “sportsball people.”
When we feel Kama Muta with a group or person we’re keeping a model for, we’re going to be relaxed about the boundaries between those models and our Self. This is why, when you join a new group that makes you feel at home, you find yourself sort of changing to match that group’s social mores and self-image: You’re incorporating that model into your model of yourself.
That’s why breakups and job-changes and whatnot are so traumatic, in part: You’re having to do all this work to re-differentiate yourself from that model, to recreate those boundaries, which is why leaving a group you’re intimately connected to involves so much self-reflection and personal examination.
People and groups we feel “negative Kama Muta” with have more strict and carefully enforced boundaries, in order to make sure that they don’t become part of ourselves. This amounts to a sort of constant vigilance inside of our minds — which in turn means that we’re spending a lot of time actively thinking about people and groups we don’t like. Probably more time than we spend thinking about the groups that we do like.
This, I think, is why, when Joe Biden became President, but even moreso when Twitter and Facebook and Youtube shitcanned Donald Trump’s accounts, we all felt such a profound sense of relief: Ritually removing him from the Discourse, even more than supplanting him as President, meant that we could all chuck those mental Donald Trumps that we’ve been carrying around in our heads.
The sudden notable absence of the Trumpist discourse from social media is another part of it: I talked before about how the Trumpist discourse style is weaponized, so that it not only invokes Kama Muta among Trumpists but also makes it difficult to carry on non-Trumpist discourse. It’s also provoking a sort of immune response, that internal vigilance, like informational antibodies rising to defend your Self from that model you’re keeping, making sure that your inner Trumpist doesn’t leak into your Self.
I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am, and who I’m connected to, and how much that affects who I am. The Pandemic has been very disconnecting, and as we come back to our social selves, it’s maybe important to do some thinking about who we want to be, and what that means about who we invite to live in our minds.