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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