Beware Covert War Morality Tales

For years I’ve been saying that fiction is mainly about norm affirmation:

Both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice. In addition to letting us show we can do hard things, and that we are tied to associates by doing the same things, religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on. (more)

People fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying. Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. (more)

Our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence. (more)

Nine years ago I said a study of 201 canonical 1800s British novels found related patterns:

Antagonists are not only selfish and unfriendly but also undisciplined, emotionally unstable, and intellectually dull. Protagonists, in contrast, display motive dispositions and personality traits that exemplify strong personal development and healthy social adjustment. Protagonists are agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, and open to experience. … The male protagonists in this study are relatively moderate, mild characters. They are introverted and agreeable, and they do not seek to dominate others socially. They are pleasant and conscientious, and they are also curious and alert. They are attractive characters, but they are not very assertive or aggressive characters.

New research confirms this account:

Why do humans spend hours listening to and telling stories, often of exploits that never happened? … We proposed that storytelling may function in hunter-gatherer societies as a mechanism to broadcast social norms, co-ordinate social behaviour and promote cooperation. Essentially, it informs others about the ‘rules of the game’ in a given society8 and the consequences for breaking these rules. … [In] narratives from … hunter-gatherer societies, over 89 stories, around 70% concerned social behaviour, in terms of food-sharing, marriage, interactions with in-laws, hunting norms, interactions with out-groups, and so forth. These stories also possessed a moral dimension, by either rewarding norm-followers or punishing norm-breakers. …

Nearly 300 camp-mates, over 18 separate camps, were asked to name the best storytellers, and from this we derived a camp-level variable of … level of storytelling skill in each camp. … We found that overall levels of cooperation were higher in camps with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers. … Skilled storytellers were almost twice as likely to be nominated as camp-mates relative to unskilled storytellers, an effect size on par with choosing to live with primary kin.

Now consider a striking trend:

Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books … and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics. … In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. …

Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight.

the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values. Good guys stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to die for a cause

One telling feature is that characters frequently change sides in conflicts: if a character’s identity resides in his values, then when he changes his mind about a moral question, he is essentially swapping sides, or defecting. … Another peculiarity in the moral physics of good guys versus bad is that bad guys have no loyalty and routinely punish their own; … bad guys are cavalier with human life, and they rebuke their allies for petty transgressions.…

Good guys, on the other hand, accept all applicants into the fold, and prove their loyalty even when their teammates transgress. … Good guys work with rogues, oddballs and ex-bad guys, … it’s essential that the good side is a motley crew that will never, ever reject a fellow footsoldier.

Scott Alexander comments:

Maybe modern stories seem more likely to have two clear sides (eg made up of multiple different people) separated by moral character. Villains (as opposed to monsters, or beings that are evil by their very nature) seem more modern. So does the idea of heroes as necessarily scrappy, and villains as necessarily well-organized. And just eyeballing it, modern stories seem to use this plot a lot more, and to have less deviation from the formula. But even if that’s true, the rise of nation-states seems like a uniquely bad explanation for the rise of these narratives. … The article gets this exactly right in pointing out the literary motif of virtuous betrayal. We are expected to celebrate Darth Vader or Severus Snape virtuously betraying their dark overlords to help the good guys. …

If nationalism didn’t drive the (possibly) increasing prevalence of good-vs-evil stories, what did? One theory: the broad democratization process marked by the shift from sword-based aristocratic armies to gun-based popular armies. … A second theory: this is just part of widening moral circles of concern. … A third theory: properly-written good-vs-evil stories are just better, in a memetic sense, but it took a long time to get the formula right. … Maybe this good-vs-evil thing is just really attractive, and naturally replaces whatever was there before – but it’s just really hard to get exactly right.

Yes, wealth has increased our emphasis on forager-like values and norms, story innovation has pushed for more extreme differences between good and bad sides, and citizens today can need more persuading to fight hard for their side. Its less that we tell new good-vs-evil stories to help nations fight wars, and more that such wars arouse strong reader emotions, which opportunistic storytellers evoke to gain readers.

It is striking that our emphasis on good versus evil war stories has not declined remotely as much as the actual rate of war. Even with far fewer actual wars, our desire to affirm war related norms remains as strong as ever. We want to project the image that we are as eager as ever to fight a good war, even if we are actually much less eager.

I also see a disturbing trend in good-vs-evil stories away from overt war, and toward covert war. Away from warriors in direct explicit conflict and toward warriors who move about in a nominally-peaceful society that doesn’t know their status as warriors. For overt war, consider Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan, The African Queen, or Enders Game. For convert war, consider James Bond, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or The Matrix. Most stories about spies or revolutionaries are about covert war. Many stories about fighting for social justice, such as against racism or sexism, are also on covert wars, in that bad authorities aren’t very aware of who is fighting hardest against them.

It makes sense that as overt war has declined, we can relate better to covert war stories, as these better match the world we see around us. Even if covert war is also rare, we retain a strong desire to project the image that we are eager to fight just wars. But I worry that our spending hours every week reaffirming our eagerness to participate in just covert wars is a major cause of our increasing political polarization. As outside threats wane, we focus more on inside rivals, and as a result our powerful storytelling industries have turned to telling us stories of extreme yet covert good versus evil wars. As political polarization seems near a geographic and historical high, I keep hoping that regression to the mean can cause a decline soon. But perhaps our stories are pushing for more polarization, and maybe storytelling innovation is making this worse.

Beware covert war morality tales. They could push us closer to civil war, which in practice wouldn’t be at all like a clear good versus evil conflict. As the TV show The Americans illustrates, covert warriors often act quite despicably in the service of their grand abstract causes.

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  • It seems like the “scrappy good guys vs well-organized villains” narrative is a narrative valorizing resistance to rentiers with structural power. This probably has a lot to do with the gradual emergence over the course of the 20th Century of a stable Anglo-American imperium without serious external threats. So, the interesting conflicts over resources are internal.

  • Nine years ago I said a study of 201 canonical 1800s British novels found related patterns:

    So, you mean a study of Romanticist literature discovered that that literature showed patterns typified by Romanticism? I’m shocked, just shocked!

    There may be an interesting story here in the rise of Romantic themes in modern story-telling, but that’s how the matter should be presented. Obsession with good-versus-evil is not a modern trend, it’s something that has fallen in and out of fashion across history.

    But this matter strikes me as being one of those situations where people have discovered a statistical correlation and are trying to fit it into a narrative about people’s dispositions. Big Data is becoming like a disease, where we use it to try to explain everything.

    When all you have is a database, everything looks like a segmentation problem.

  • I thought Lord of the Rings featured some rather overt warfare.

    • Sure, which was said to mainly be a diversion from the covert warfare.

      • andagain

        As I recall, Frodo is, with one exception, engaged in covert warfare only in the sense that submariners are.

      • What is the exception?

      • andagain

        At one point they pretend to be orcs, and are swept up into a marching column.

  • jim birch

    For me it is less the risk of civil war but the pervasive impression that one needs to leap into believing in something, no matter how simplistic and counterproductive it is.

  • Fanfiction is very different for story structures, and worth investigating. It may not be about fighting, but about personal relationships, cultural exploration, and problem-solving. That’s the kind of stories younger people tend to read and write, especially women. Consider The Shape of Water, in some aspects like that. Also The Arrival – it’s all about communication rather than a moral fight. Many under-25 people scoff at the very idea of a “villain” as presented by Tolkien and Co. That corresponds to the values shifting from being a fierce protector of a cause to being kind and nice. From fighting for a cause against others to building a better life for all.

    • Shape of Water is definitely a good vs evil war, even if a small war.

      • The Shape of Water does contain some good-evil theme, in way that feel different from Tolkiens’. Do you see other themes I mentioned being prominent? Does it make sense when I say that Arrival is mostly about relationships, communication, and problem-solving?

      • Arrival is notable because the short story has less moral conflict. The film adds in fear of the aliens, international conflict, sabotage, the protagonist using future knowledge to prevent catastrophe, and even an explanation from the Heptapods of why they contacted humans. I recall someone once saying that the movie is about “Why Trump is wrong”, which cannot be said of the short story. Of course, when I read the short story I thought the protagonist was merely writing AS IF she no longer distinguished between past, present & future, rather than actually having knowledge of the future. I guess granting any credence at all to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis struck me as sufficiently scifi that it didn’t even occur to me it could actually be going to a greater extreme.

    • lump1

      My experience with young people’s fiction is rather different. What they seem to love more than anything is to set their stories in a nasty dystopia. Libraries now have dystopia aisles. Their dystopias don’t even have to make sense. They just need to be clearly bad and really entrenched, so that when the heroes fight the power and make any gains, teens cheer them on.

      My non-expert diagnosis is that young people don’t know how to picture a meaningful life without some actual villain that needs defeating. If all their homework would add up to a blow against villainy, it would all seem worth it. When you ask them if they think the actual world has villains, they say nebulous things like “the corporations” or “the polluters” or “sexism” or “the one percent,” but it’s never “my parents” or “the principal of my school.” They want to join a movement – and some do – but the smarter ones realize that there isn’t one that they can believe in. So they get their fix in fiction, where they vicariously join the fight to take down the dystopia. They want a reason to abandon all their comforts and routines and “do something that matters,” and sometimes they will even admit that they fantasize about everything turning awful, so they could finally have the chance to unveil the hero inside them. (And of course fantasize this. That’s why there’s a dystopia aisle.) But for now they grudgingly accept rides to lacrosse practice from their helicopter parents.

      • Interesting points about YA literature. Do you know how YA themes have been changing, from Harry Potter to our days? I should have specified that by “young people’s fiction” I mean fiction written BY young people (tweens and teens to twenty-something), not FOR young people.

      • S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is the only example of a popular YA fiction work written by a teen that I can think of, but that’s from the 60s rather than “our days” in some present-sense. I’ve neither read it nor seen the film adaptation, so I can’t compare its themes to those written by adults (or at different time periods). I know Jane Austen wrote “Love and Freindship” when she was young, but that’s mostly been dismissed as juvenilia.

      • Young people share massive amounts of stories in online communities.

      • I know, I’ve written a few myself, but I was trying to think of popular examples of stories like the ones Robin listed so we can discuss specifics rather than make hazy generalizations.

      • Peter David Jones

        “Eragon is the first novel in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, and illustrator John Jude Palencar. Paolini, born in 1983, wrote the novel while still in his teens.”

      • Per the description of that series “the novels focus on the adventures of a teenage boy named Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, as they struggle to overthrow the evil king Galbatorix”, which fits in with the rebels-against-dystopia trend discussed above.

        Your comment reminded me that if we use the age of writing rather than publication, Eric Rücker Eddison conceived of much of “The Worm Ouroboros” in 1892 when he was ten, but didn’t publish until 1922. In keeping with the trend Hanson discussed, it focused more on overt war, and was regarded as too amoral by Tolkien.

    • Philippe O

      Western fanfiction (and my guess mostly girl fanfiction)
      Chinese fanfiction in Qidian often have very different morality
      Japanese fanfiction in syosetsu

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  • Excellent article. We can seldom discern what is a real trend and what is a temporary diversion while we are in the midst of it, but this seems plausible and has some support. Covert war is more individual, which may be preferred in our era. Overt war is about leaders as heroes. The covert gives a place and opportunity to the less-powerful to be heroes.

    I have read speculation, and have offered the theory myself, that today’s internal and social justice warriors are resentful that they don’t have the actual danger of 60’s civil rights protest, and so demonise their opponents so as to feel larger themselves. Yet your guess may be closer, that they are signalling that they _would_ be that courageous if they had to.

    As for Maria’s comments, yes, women’s fiction is different, as has been true since Austen, Bronte, and Alcott, if not earlier. Some people like that, and one would think that would move us in their direction. Yet the extreme cultural conflicts and demonising of opponents occurs among women as well today, perhaps in equal measure. Ironically, one of the battling sides claims to be against battle, and in favor of the “personal relationships, cultural exploration, and problem-solving” school instead.

  • DWillyB

    I have been teaching acting (and directing and writing) in Los Angles for over 30 years and now it appears cutting edge sociology (Robin Hanson and others) has come to overlap with my work, even to the extent its referring to “dramaturgy.” These particular theories on storytelling dovetail with a theory I arrived upon concerning charisma (briefly detail in my third book “You Can Act: On Camera”). The gist of my hypothesis is this: just as humans have an evolutionary predisposition to be attracted to average faces (koinophiia), what we call charisma is a response to someone we identify as having the ideal average for the values of our culture. We even refer to certain charismatic actors (Jack Lemon, Tom Hanks) as “an everyman.” I’ve articulated these values to include our ethics (Haidt’s five): fairness, loyalty, purity, authority and safety; as well as 7 character qualities: Consistency, Humor, Frugality, Adventurousness, Scope, Tempo, Vulnerability. In this way, the charismatic person demonstrates a close to perfect average for Humor between the poles of stuffiness and silliness, for Adventurousness between cowardice and recklessness, Purity, slobbiness and prissiness… you get the idea.

    The charismatic psychopath is no exception. First of all, psychopaths are rendered in fiction in a way rarely seen in nature, but, even so, these people, with their clean conscious, can fully mimic adjusted values for an in group of which you are then made to feel happily part of.

  • aNeopuritan

    The Mahabharata (at least) has values conflict.