Monday, August 23, 2010

The Weird Aunt theory

It's Monday, I'm working on proposals, and I am seriously tired and and underslept... so a philosophical post. My sympathies.

One of the advantages of being a self-confessed monkey and idiot, is that makes it so difficult for people to come up with insults for me that I don't eagerly agree with. So I get to pontificate on bizarre and uncomfortable things things that upset people because I brachiate and happily engage in social grooming. Most of the human race part of the population of the planet find this demeaning and degrading and never invite me to dinner, because I will point out that in evolutionary terms they're pretty close to monkeys, especially in terms of social behavior.

Now, baboon troops - I've spent a fair amount of time watching and being fascinated by - have complex heirarchies... but basically to translate into layers of wanna-be-top. Imitation and brown-nosing the top is pretty slavish, with the Beta males trying to be just like the alpha, but clearly lesser so they don't threaten Alpha (despite the fact that this is what they dream of doing, or possibly starting a troop of their own as a plan B) Beneath them you have yet another tier who cling to each of the Betas (unless of course the Alpha turns on the Beta.). If the Alpha as much as wonders who will rid him of this turbulent priest, a few Betas will do it. If a Beta decided he dislikes a young pre-fertile female - well, she'd better find shelter with another Beta, or the Beta's camp-followers will kill her, usually in a mob and cruelly, rather like a Pogrom-behavior pattern. Which is an intrinsically conservative situation, which tends to focus on keeping the current status quo, both in heirarchy and what the troop does. And of course the bottom of the pyramid just keeps its head down and tries to stay alive. And the troop continues. Every now and again the Alpha gets too old... and it all starts all over again. Except of course there is a purge of the blood kin and those who supported the old Alpha. Nothing the old Alpha did or favored is possibly good, even though in actual fact nothing changes except the leadership.

But there are one other group in the troop who are mostly un-noticed but actually shape the destiny of that troop. Often in baboon circles they're post-reproductive females, but not always. I call them the Weird Aunts. You have the male equivalent too, sometimes, but they don't mind if you call them Weird Aunts too. I asked. The Weird Aunts do a lot in the troop, often child-care (which is pretty important allowing lactating mothers to feed), or have other skills. Finding termites, or tubers that others just don't. They don't fit neatly into the layers of heirarchy. They do different things because they can, and because they're different. They're the agents of change and social evolution. They're to a large extent outside the heirachy. But they walk a thin line between being useful and tolerated, and pissing off the Powers-that-Be. They're not usually, as genes go, terribly successful at passing on theirs (and that's a key measure of success in troop, rather like money in humans), but, because troops are interelated, and troops don't have them, fail, Weird Aunts crop up, again and again. They undoubtably irritate the Alpha. But he's a little hamstrung because many of the troop would turn on him if he got too shirty with the Weird Aunts (or uncles). Besides that the Weird Aunts are capable of a nasty bite. Occassionally he'll try the turbulent priest technique to get rid of them. It's a risky strategy, though.

It's quite a metaphor for human societies too - whether you're talking about countries or scientists or businesses or knitting-circles. You've got the Alpha's the Beta's and the Beta's camp followers and then the rest(okay oversimplified. This is a post not a thesis). While the Alpha may change or may superficially be different - call it Mein Kampf or Das Kapital, Daily Kos or Fox News - it's still the same heirarchy. The same dissing of the others and the predecessor. The same turbulent priest techniques. And the same Weird Aunts.

Which is where this comes back to writing. You see some writers are Weird Aunts - somewhat outside the rules and brown-nosing, writing outside current trends and fashions. Others are Alphas, or Betas or Beta camp followers. When it gets really interesting is when a Weird Aunt is (or becomes) an Alpha (this doesn't happen that often. Weird Aunts don't care enough about status to persue it, and it needs to be persued. Weird Aunts already know they are valuable... RAH was my idea of a 'Weird Aunt' who ended up as an Alpha. (which is why some of the current Alphas are whispering to their Betas about how bad he was, and Betas are whipping their camp followers into the fray). Jack Vance, and Sir Terry Pratchett (although he may become a postumous Alpha, when he's not around to kick the idea into touch. He is one of the great satirists of the last 100 years) are my idea of Weird Aunts. As Kate pointed out, they make readers think for themselves, and do not push pre-digested current alpha-pap down their throats (I might point out though, that having travelled the world and speaking 13 languages can still leave you a Beta camp-follower, and living out your days in Kansas might make you a free-thinking great weird aunt though. Or a Weird Great Aunt). That pap can be tasty, possibly nourishing and if you're Beta or Beta camp-follower you will tell us it's delicious and try to produce the same.
At the bottom of pyramid you get whatever they're handing out, or go without. Or get something odd from the Weird Aunts.

It's my ambition to be a Weird Aunt. No, I'll never be RAH or TP. Or Jack Vance... I told you I am a monkey and an idiot to boot. But I do wonder how one stays useful enough to be immune from Alpha rage, and of course what makes a good writer Weird Aunt? I think writing things which require reader input helps for the latter, as does questioning everything (which are things I do), but I am blowed if I know how to evade the former. I must admit to no vast desire to be one, if that helps. I'd just like to write and make a living.

Do you think I'd look good with a violet rinse? Pearls? twinset? Tea in little bone-china cups? or am I kind of weird Aunt who wears a stained painting smock, Doc Martins, festoons of beads from Marrakesh and smokes small cigars?

What do you want to be?


MataPam said...

I want to be the lady with the weird hats. Since hitting 55, I figured I could start wearing purple, but I haven't had the nerve to go for the huge straw hat with the purple flowers yet.

I hadn't thought about how the role of the eccentric fit in the usual hierarchy. The trick must be to be so obviously outside the power structure that neither Alphas nor Betas feel threatened. But to be so useful that one is rarely used as a convenient target for, umm, expressing rage that can't be aimed at it's actual cause.

For most of us, the power hierarchy we deal with involves employment. We do what the (Alpha) bosses tell us to do. Chew out the subordinates (Beta Camp followers) who aren't helping you do that. But we have to be polite to the HR people, because they report direct to the Boss. And the secretary over there is so-and-so's niece.

And outside the hierarchy are all of us writers, artists, entrepreneurs, contract workers and semi-retired Mad Scientists.

The sad thing is, there appears to be a correlation between how much we kowtow to the Alphas (publishers, inhabitants of Ivory Towers, politicians), and even Betas (Those vicious slush readers and owners of art galleries), and how well we do financially.

Ori Pomerantz said...

In this period in history, the trick isn't to appear non-threatening to the alphas as much as to ignore the back ones and route around them.

Who are your alphas?

WangZheng259 said...

I am a follower of some variety. Beyond that, well, I am inclined to think that I make up my own mind, and do my own thing, but that may just be cultural bias speaking. (I think I've heard many people point out how much the same some of the 'I am a rebel and an icnonoclast' stuff can be. Also, I am an American, and I think merely imitating the usual things that people say would end up including the claim of freethinking and all that.)

What do I want? I don't know, beyond wanting my head to work in a reliable fashion.

Ori Pomerantz said...

WangZheng, being a follower isn't as bad as our culture sometimes claims. At the end of the day, there is a reason why Weird Aunts don't form their own baboon troops and get rid of this all Alpha and Beta stuff.

Stalin and Hitler had followers. But they couldn't have been stopped by a bunch of disorganized rebels, it took other groups that also obeyed orders as long as they were lawful orders.

WangZheng259 said...


I wasn't trying to say that being a follower is a bad thing. As you say, we are social animals, and cooperation is one of our strengths and strategies.

Mainly, I prefer following a good leader to trying to pull things together on my own, and get other people to come along. (I like accomplishing things and dislike failure. Me trying to lead has resulted in failure enough that I don't have much appetite for it. I still like power, I just would rather not have all of it, if this means wrecking what I am involved with.)

I am arrogant, argumentative, and socially deaf, which can cause problems working with organizations. (At least, if the leaders and other followers aren't willing to tolerate my weaknesses for what I am willing to do for them.) That alone does not strike me as enough to qualify for weird aunt status.

I don't know where this would put me.

I'm not sure I care where I am classified in the WA, Alpha, Beta, etc... system, so long as X. I don't know what X is. Maybe safety, security, peace of mind, or something else impossible?

Or maybe I am just stupid, and not comfortable thinking about this subject.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, Dave. LOVED your post. I was thinking something along these lines but in no way was it as wittily presented as your post.

At work one of the young women said to me You'd make the best Fairy Godmother!

So there you are. I'm the Fairy Godmother!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I'd like to be a weird aunt, but they keep locking me in the attic.

Kate said...

Oh, I'm already the weird aunt - the one that doesn't give a shit what anyone else thinks, and tells dirty jokes that embarrass the Alphas and intimidate everyone else.

I've given up trying to be "good", and decided I'll do what I think is right and screw what anyone else thinks. It's amazing how much that scares people...

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, the other curious thing about the Weird Aunts is they tend to be the only high(ish) status troop members who were not supporters of Beta who becomes the new Alpha at interregnum change, who survive. But generally speaking they don't get fat (although sheer experience and abilities and time may make them quite big). The company secretary who actually knows how the payroll system works is not subject to the purge, although management changes repeatedly.

Dave Freer said...

Ori - that depends on the troop you refer to. And in current writing terms that could either be writers or more plausibly senior editors at various publishers. You could probably consider David Weber an Alpha, and Lois as someone who runs close to being borderline WA and a reluctant Alpha in my book (she and others may see it differently). Some other authors setting themselves as the new Alphas have to be quite Picoult about it. Of course human societies are different in that Alpha are not always taken down, and the position is sometimes handed down. In those cases the new Alpha will praise the old. If the new Alpha is a strong one, that may be fulsome praise. If they're insecure or weak, sniping praise.

Dave Freer said...

WangZheng259 - the point about monkey society is that it's not good or bad. It just is. That's what it is and it works. In it some people follow. This is obviously an oversimplification of troop structure, and a gross oversimplification of human society. WA do however usually weild rather a lot of power. Occassionally more than the Alpha, although they don't make a show of this to alpha or the troop.

Dave Freer said...

Rowena - I think that is one of the strategies for surviving as a weird aunt: the fairy godmother - or the person who has helped so many of the members of the troop, that they all value her/him, despite the purple hat.

Dave Freer said...

Dear Sarah, then they must have confused you with the mad aunt. How could they!

Dave Freer said...

Kate, the key now is to get you to the point in publishing where you are indispensible. You I believe typify the other route - where what you produce is so good that the troop wants it, even if the alphas don't (they are threatened by it).

Amanda Green said...

Dave, great post. Like Sarah, I want to be the mad aunt. That's because I can't be a monkey -- can't climb trees anymore and my tossing of a coconut usually ends up with it landing on my head ;-p

My problem is, the powers that be don't seem to want weird aunts to be new to the field. Those they think are weird aunts are just flat weird and should be locked in the attic -- but not with Sarah!

Dave Freer said...

Amanda the line between 'mad aunt' that they want to lock away and 'weird aunt' that is too useful to lock away is one to watch.