Treating Traitors and Collaborators Harshly

It is built into us.

Without delving too much into politics, there has been a hell of a blow-back lately on many popular figures and their supporters on both sides of the aisle, typically coming from people on that same side. On the right this dust-up has been mostly centered around the term “cuckservative” — the people using it are lashing out (and how) at the people being called that. And a deal of media figure types and politicians are just stunned.

This is because they’re a bit ignorant of human behavior.

The Traitor’s Gate

Imagine an epic, historical writing — be it the poems of the Greeks and Romans (actual epics), Biblical narratives, or even the mythos surrounding medieval heroes, you likely thought of a story that involves someone being a traitor to their cause at some part of the narrative. And everyone on their side really hated them for it. Judas isn’t remembered for his time as an Apostle, he’s remembered for thirty pieces of silver and betraying his Lord.

And the name itself has come to mean traitor. Cain is remembered not just because he murdered, but because he betrayed his brother and murdered him. The writings of the Greeks, Romans, even Shakespeare are littered with traitors and those characters are reviled.

History, too, is littered with these examples: “And you, Brutus?” Benedict Arnold is almost never remembered for his bravery in war, or for Saratoga. He’s remembered for betraying his countrymen, often with bitter motives ascribed to him.

Not only do we not like people who betray us but the people they turn their coats for often mistrust them. How can you trust someone who would so easily give up his friends, his brothers?

This is such a basic part of our psychology that it is often used in even the most simple good and evil stories of our popular media: professional wrestling. The most prominent example is the moment when Hulk Hogan — the most famous “good guy” of his time — turned on his friends and allies to join the Outsiders. While wrestling isn’t much more than a footnote in our pop-culture history that turn sent shockwaves through the wrestling fan base and is still emulated (poorly) today. What made his turn so shocking was the utter suddenness of it all — there were no hints he had an inkling toward turning coat.

And that was devastating to his former allies, in the story that World Championship Wrestling told — he became the most hated (and, ironically, loved) character in the line-up.

Collaborators and Scalawags

One of the only groups viewed with as much revulsion and contempt as traitors are collaborators. In Europe, when the Nazis were driven out they left collaborators behind to face harsh fates. Women were humiliated for sleeping with and providing aid and comfort to the enemy. In the Reconstruction south, the term scalawag came to mean a Southerner that collaborated with the, as it was viewed, occupying north. Both groups supported the “occupation” with various levels of real support, and for their own reason — and both faced condemnation.

Often, these types are just lumped in with traitors, but they are a special, hated type of traitor because their betrayal continues to burn the betrayed. It doesn’t even have to be logical. We are primed to dislike that — and again, their masters don’t particularly care for them. They are, at best, useful idiots.

Bringing it Together

This isn’t solely something from one political side of the aisle; for decades on the left people have been referred to as a “traitor to their race” or “traitor to their gender.” Both sides of the aisle look upon those they suspect of treachery with hate filled glares.

There is a really simple reason for this: the betrayal of someone we trust, someone we rely on, someone we allow ourselves to be vulnerable around, is a great danger and threat. Way back in our ape brains we recognize that those closest to us would have us at a disadvantage if they suddenly turned on us.

Because of that our minds shape the perception of those traitors: we must hate them, and we must make an example of them to discourage such behavior in the future. Traitors are the greatest danger to the tribe and self because they are the ones with the greatest chance to cause us severe damage.

This taints the view of traitors from the other end, as well: once you know someone is open to betraying a trust you know better than to trust them. We seek honor in our allies, and don’t respect dishonorable tactics. Think of all the times people say “a fair fight.” “That’s not fair.”

It isn’t that we expect equal results — “fairness of outcome” — so much as an equal starting point — “fairness of circumstance.” We want to be honored by being treated as equals — and we don’t want to be dishonored by association with treacherous behavior.

When a politician or a talking head disagrees with his constituents or audience that is one thing. Disagreement is fine for adults (children and the under-developed often see disagreement as a personal slight; that is no way to live) and it is a healthy part of the process.

But once the disagreement crosses into betrayal — you cannot come back from that.

An Example: Music

Often, bands are accused of “selling out” by fans. One prime example of that is the band Metallica. In their early days Metallica gave out cassette tapes of their songs, they encouraged sharing, they were all about spreading themselves about to get their name out there. To get to that contract.

In the late 1990s, when Napster enabled folks to share mp3 files, Metallica (specifically the drummer) lashed out at fans. This, despite the fact the band got pennies on the dollar for each album sold. At the time, compact disc albums were far overpriced and many young fans couldn’t afford $18 for a 10-12 song plastic disc — especially when they only really wanted one or two of those songs. (Note, since then, disc prices have come down significantly and legal digital downloads have made many people rich.)

Metallica faced a hell of a backlash. They still make music, and still sell music, but they have not recovered in the eyes of many fans.

See, they attacked their fans for wanting to listen to their music — and it blew up in their faces. People hate those men even today, almost twenty years later, over music and some harsh words.

We don’t like to feel betrayed. When we do, our reaction is almost certain to be an angry one. Anyone surprised that their former audience or constituents are throwing nasty names their way is ignorant of human emotion and psychology. They’re lucky a horde of pissed off citizens haven’t surrounded their studios and campaign headquarters with pitchforks, torches, tar, and feathers. Because historically, betrayals are met with swift, violent retribution.

We’ve come a long way since then (well, most of us), which has allowed these betrayals to fester. The angry mob keeping talking heads up at night is a natural re-alignment, an attempt to discourage further betrayals.