Whose Law? Whose Order?

The shocking, yet not at all surprising, events in the U.S. Capitol this week revitalized a question I’ve been asking myself lately: How do we reconcile a president’s repeated call for “law and order” with his obvious delight in sheer, utter chaos?

Way back in the mists of time – that is, when I was a college freshman – my friends Dave and Wayne introduced me to a fun new game, Dungeons & Dragons. I soon learned that everything in D&D, from characters to monsters to random objects, has an “alignment.” Everything is somewhere on a scale from pure good to pure evil, and also on a separate scale from “lawful” to “chaotic.”

In ancient Babylon, their creation myth tells the story of how the human-shaped god, Marduk, representing order and civilization, vanquishes Tiamat, the “mother of monsters,” a force of primordial chaos.


If they thought seriously about such abstractions, the Babylonians may have conflated “lawful” with “good” and “chaotic” with “evil.” But today we can think of the two ideas independently. We are certainly familiar with “lawful evil,” as in Adolf Eichmann and the Nazi death camp personnel, people committing heinous atrocities while “just following orders.” There’s also “chaotic good” – I tend to picture dreamy young ditzes from the Summer of Love, or any number of fairies and “good witches” in popular culture. Humanity’s favorite Time Lord is a classic example of chaotic good:


Two advanced degrees in personality psychology later, I can tell you that the good/evil and law/chaos axes are not formal categories of study in today’s science. But they’re still fun to think about.

One issue that comes up, whenever people are playing with these ideas, is that “lawful” can mean at least two distinct things, depending on whether the laws and order are internal or external. Someone can be lawful by following rules and valuing structure, but they can also be lawful by practicing inner discipline and creating their own system of order. In D&D, they recognize this by noting that lawful good encompasses both paladins (think Sir Galahad, or Captain America) and altruistic martial arts practitioners (Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon).

Here’s another example: dogs and cats. Domesticated dogs are obviously lawful. They learn the rules of behavior and their place in the hierarchy of their pack, and they’re most comfortable when things happen consistently with their sense of order.

But, contrary to popular conceptions, cats also have a sense of order. They value routines and expectations; they have internal clocks and some sense of hierarchy. Based on my own personal semi-feral cat colony (yes, they’re all spayed/neutered), I can tell you that mama cats eat first, and kittens get cuffed if they do something undesirable. But in general, cats don’t follow rules; each does their own thing.


(For a fun fictional example, see Eugene author Mary E. Lowd’s “furry” science fiction trilogy, beginning with Otters in Space. Dogs get confused if they don’t know the rules and who’s in charge, while the cat gets things done.)

One special thing about being citizens in a democracy is that we, collectively, get to decide what the law is. Some, especially those who are more conservative, will prefer to defer to existing law, while others work to adapt the law to changing circumstances. Both liberals and conservatives want the law to match or support their sense of a “higher law,” moral principles, but they can disagree about what that looks like. There’s also the premise that if we abide by the law, we will have order (although the lived experience of too many law-abiding Black Americans, for example, shows that’s not always the case).

The differences between conservative and liberal attitudes toward law are paralleled in George Lakoff’s observations about parenting styles. Conservative families often have a rigid hierarchy, what he calls a “Strict Father” model, where children learn to defer to their parents, especially their father, or be disciplined. In liberal families, Lakoff’s “Nurturing Parent” model is more common – parents encourage their children to learn to make their own decisions and develop their own discipline, in pursuit of their own ends. And Lakoff believes their expectations of government follow these family models, with conservatives expecting “law and order” to maintain community discipline, while liberals want to ensure that everyone has access to opportunities and has their basic needs met so they can focus on higher priorities.

Meanwhile, I’m reminded once again of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory. His idea is that there are five moral foundations: Harm/Care, Justice, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity, and he claims that liberals value the first two of those, while conservatives value all five. It’s fun to think about his categories, but! The underlying science is fatally flawed. It’s based on a survey, and the survey lacks what scientists call “face validity” – it’s not measuring what they claim it’s measuring. If you read the survey itself – at least the version they were using back when they came up with their theory – you’ll see that they’re basically asking people how much they agree with liberal ideas about harm/care and justice, and how much they agree with conservative ideas about loyalty, authority, and purity. Of course liberals scored more strongly on the first two, while conservatives endorsed all five! Liberals value loyalty, authority, and purity in different ways than conservatives do.

gyreOkay, anyway, let’s circle back to Donald Trump. It’s pretty clear that Trump sees himself as the top of a hierarchy, such that lawfulness means following him and what he wants. We’ll have to leave for another day the question of why so many law-abiding folks would accept (even welcome) a force of Primal Chaos as their lodestar for what constitutes lawful, but they do. And when the right-wing media and the other party leaders collude with someone like Trump, it basically creates what someone on Facebook recently felicitously called not an echo chamber but a “gyre,” a massive whirlpool that pulls people in and agitates them.

Trump is the Top Dog in his world, and the people he unleashed on the Capitol this week were his well-baited pack. To us, they looked like anarchy itself, but he convinced them that some higher law had been violated – the integrity of the election – and his say-so was sufficient.

Thankfully, order has been tentatively restored in Washington. The wheels are in motion for those who perpetrated this week’s assault on the Capitol to meet America’s real law, up close and personal.

There will always be those among us who prefer the comfort of orderliness and knowing their place in a stable hierarchy. Conservatism is not going away. I think one of the most important lessons of this week is that being a person whom conservatives look up to is a special responsibility, and that we should all hope that in the future they’ll better screen their candidates for this role and choose people who won’t abuse this trust.

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Postcards from my Istrian “stay-cation”

If I were to step outside here in Eugene, in the final days of 2020, I’d find rainy, windy, winter. Thankfully, I’ve had an alternative – I’ve spent much of the past week or two in sunny, cheery, Trieste and the nearby Istrian coast. I’ve never been there, mind you, but the powers of “narrative transportation” have let me experience my chosen destination from many angles.

It started a few weeks ago, when Finding Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS genealogy show, dove into the background of TV chef Lidia Bastianich. Lidia was raised Italian, in the coastal city of Pula, which was part of Yugoslavia when she was born (more or less) and is now in independent Croatia. The show got me thinking about how complicated it must be to live in a city where your ethnic identity has to change, depending on who’s in charge – her family name (Matticchio) was changed from Italian to Croat, but the researchers found that it had been Croat even earlier too.

Then, last week, our PBS station showed a 2010 episode of Rick Steves’ Europe, in which Rick visited a fascinating part of Slovenia near the coast (just miles from Bastianich’s Pula), where the Soča river cuts a deep gorge through limestone cliffs, and where the beauty of the Julian Alps is sometimes overshadowed by memories of some of the bloodiest fighting in the first World War.


At this point, I remembered that the library had recently lent me a book by British writer Jan Morris – her meditations on the city of Trieste, once the seaport for the Austrian Empire and now at the very edge of Italy, right next to Istria, all that limestone, and those gorgeous Julian Alps. So I’ve been having great fun reading what Morris has to say about the people, history, and places of this fascinating city, and looking up sites she mentions using Google Images. Here’s Trieste:


And here’s the Volosko neighborhood of Opatija, which Morris mostly knew as Abbazia:


So cheerful!

case_einsteins_violinMeanwhile, I remembered that I have a fun novel by local writer Bill Sullivan, in which two young women from Eugene travel to Europe to solve a family mystery, The Case of Einstein’s Violin. So that’s been my bedtime reading (or rather, re-reading). So far we’re only as far as Vienna, but soon we’ll visit a physics lab in Trieste, then drive up through the Julian Alps on their way to Germany, and I’ll be visiting the very same stay-cation region from yet another perspective!

Thanks to these books and our local PBS station, I’ve been able to spend some of the bleakest winter entirely elsewhere, in my imagination. I could immerse myself more thoroughly, of course – I could be cooking Istrian food, listening to music from Trieste, looking for live webcams in Croatia and Slovenia – but that’s more than I need.

I owe my stay-cation to the psychology of “narrative transportation,” or immersion – putting your attention somewhere else and tuning out the world around you, recreationally. It’s the same as when you watch a movie, play a game, or get caught up in a sporting event. You disengage from the stresses of your daily life and take on a different world, one that captures your imagination, but that you can set aside whenever Real Life calls again.

And the Istria-Trieste region is hardly the only place I’ve visited recently. I’ve strolled around a Nordic village celebrating Christmas; I’ve attended a Japanese high school; I’ve tried to escape from the ancient Greek underworld; I’ve wandered the backroads of Westeros with Arya Stark. The possibilities are endless.

Years ago, we used to tease my mom and step-dad for crafting their lives around Italy. “Italy, Italy, Italy!” They’d visit Florence or Rome for a few weeks every spring or fall, they’d study Italian in an adult ed class, and my mom would cook up “pasta parties” for a dozen or more friends. They’d see every Italian movie that came to town. They’d even follow Italy in the World Cup, which seemed a bit forced, since they abhorred sports otherwise. And during his last illness, when asked if he knew where he was, my step-dad was pretty sure it was Venice.

Personally, I like more variety than that. I wouldn’t devote my life to a single country, and my next imaginary stay-cation will probably be somewhere other than the northern Adriatic. I recommend this lifestyle, though.

The next time you’re feeling too oppressed by the weather and, erm, the pandemic, consider a stay-cation journey. It’s efficient and inexpensive! Choose somewhere else in the world, see what resources your local library can offer, and spend some time “living” somewhere altogether different.

Bon voyage!

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Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 2

Welcome back! It’s time for more ideas about ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Alan Page Fiske’s way of categorizing human relationship types. In our social worlds, there may be contexts where people are essentially the same as us (as in, our votes all count equally). People may be ranked higher or lower, as in an aristocracy or in the military or other organizations that value hierarchy. We can think in terms of reciprocating, an important type of fairness. And we can think in terms of ratios and exchanges, where one hour of my time is worth some amount of dollars, which I could then take to the supermarket to trade for beer-cheese soup and ciabatta rolls, like we had tonight for dinner. One thing that especially interested me about Fiske’s ideas was that he came up with a system of four distinct categories that are also related.

Today I want to turn to another cool category system. This one’s from philosopher Stephen C. Pepper, who published a book in 1942 on what he called “world hypotheses.” Pepper believed there were four “adequate” ways of understanding everything that goes on in the world (and two that weren’t adequate by his standards, mysticism and animism). The four are:

Formism. This way of looking at the world focuses on categorizing things, and people thinking in these terms are concerned with truth, as defined by how similar something is to its object of reference.

Mechanism. This way of seeing the world is about relationships between things, the laws governing how they interact and what results from them doing so. It’s about systems and seeing the world as a bunch of moving parts that operate together predictably, rather like a machine.

Organicism. This way of thinking about the world focuses on fragments organizing themselves toward transcendent ends. In these systems, we can talk about intentions and purposes, higher goals, progress.

Contextualism. In this way of looking at the world, we are considering specific events, changes, and novelty. Its focus is on the real world, not the abstractions emphasized in the other three ways of seeing the world, and it appreciates subjective experiences and specific contexts.

Now, Pepper believed his four systems were mutually exclusive, and from the perspective of philosophy, that may be so – I’m not qualified to judge. However, from the psychological point of view, we can do something slightly different with Pepper’s system than what he had in mind for it. We can see each of the four ideas underlying his world hypotheses as components that we use, mentally, when thinking about how things work.

I see them as form, functionality, intention, and experience – a kind of “dimensionality of functionality.” We have building blocks with their basic essence (forms), we have these blocks put together into systems that do things (functionality), we have these functioning systems directed, sometimes consciously, toward ends (intentionality), and we can experience each of those from the inside, with our subjective perspective in real-world, particular circumstances (experience). We could maybe even treat the system of four categories as a simple type of “emergence.”

I’ll add here that psychologist Steven C. Hayes and many others have been actively developing “scientific contextualism” as an alternative to mechanistic understanding of the human mind and human behavior. They aren’t interested in abstractions and creating cut-and-dried rules of human psychology; rather, they’re looking for guidelines and principles that emerge from specific situations that may apply elsewhere. I think this approach is much more respectful of the complications of people’s lives and realities.

Back to the category system. Last summer, I read a really interesting paper about different types of authenticity, and as I was reading, I noticed how neatly they each lined up with the four Pepper-inspired categories. The author, Glenn R. Carroll (a Stanford professor of organizational behavior), didn’t mention Pepper and didn’t offer his own systematization of his different types, but… see what you think.

First he writes about two traditional forms of authenticity. His first category is “type authenticity” – something correctly fits the classification it’s been assigned to. For example, does this dish qualify as “authentic Greek cuisine?” The second traditional category is “moral authenticity” – something that truly expresses a person or society’s values and beliefs. Carroll gives the example of a restaurant choosing to feature food that is organic or has been locally sourced, assuming that the owners are doing so because of their values.

Anchor_Steam_beerTo these traditional meanings of authenticity, Carroll offers two more. He notes that we’re talking about “craft authenticity” when something has been made by following appropriate methods, and gives the example of the Anchor Brewing Company, the pioneer of microbrewing, where beers are made using a set of skillful and specialized techniques.

His fourth category is “idiosyncratic authenticity,” which involves “the symbolic or expressive interpretation of aspects of an entity’s idiosyncrasies.” In other words, there might be legends associated with a particular business that become part of its quirks when people think and talk about it. Carroll then ties together all four types by showing how they’re characteristic of Berkeley’s famous Chez Panisse restaurant.


If you’ve been mentally categorizing these along with me, you’ll probably agree that “type authenticity” is about forms, “craft authenticity” is about functioning systems, “moral authenticity” is about intentions, and “idiosyncratic authenticity” is about particular experiences. Cool, huh?

I think these category systems are pretty nifty. Now, Fiske and Pepper aren’t doing the same thing. You can’t reduce Pepper’s world hypotheses to Fiske’s math. But they’re both going about things in the same way – creating categories where one is the most basic building block, then the next adds something, and the third something more, and the fourth yet more. In Fiske’s case, what you’re adding is a series of mathematical restrictions, and in Pepper’s case, you’re adding new levels of functionality, more types of things that can happen.

That’s enough for today. Coming soon – why I’ve been thinking about this!

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Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 1

Here’s a post for those of you who like playing with ideas. It’s not politics or history, and it’s not narrative psychology, exactly – rather, it’s about some of the ways that are sometimes used in social science for organizing ideas and making categories that are, intellectually, really cool.

I’ll start with Alan Page Fiske, who wrote a fascinating paper in 1992 called, “The Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of Social Relation.” Fiske is a “psychological anthropologist” who’s studied the nature of human relationships, and how the types of relationships vary in different cultures. While doing fieldwork in a traditional West African village, he discovered four patterns of interaction that apply to all human relationships. Different cultures do things differently, of course (by definition), but these same four patterns come up everywhere. They are:

Communal Sharing. Everyone’s essentially the same, they all have something in common, they’re basically equal (in this context). Using the language of math, we’d say that the relationships are reflexive, symmetrical, and transitive.

Authority Ranking. Everyone is ranked, there’s an order where each person is above or below others in some context. Think of it as Downton Abbey – everyone at the dining table knows exactly who’s higher and lower than themselves, which is often reflected in the seating pattern (e.g., the earl > Lady Mary > Tom Brandon). And everyone downstairs knows where they fit in their hierarchy too. In math terms, relationships are linearly ordered, reflexive, transitive, and anti-symmetrical.


Equality Matching. This is a model of even balance and reciprocity. If I drive our kids to play Magic at the game store, the next week it’s your turn. Fiske says this model has the properties of an ordered Abelian group, and I’ll have to trust him when he says that means there’s linear ordering and that we can add and subtract some number to regain the original balance.

Market Pricing. These relationships are based on proportionality, where everyone thinks in terms of ratios and rates. Numbers become useful – I’ll deliver your newspapers for $12/hour (the minimum wage in my county). These relationships have that ordered Abelian quality and also fit what’s called and Archimedean ordered field (sounds fancy!), which means now we’re dealing with multiplications and multiplicative inverses (x and 1/x) and have ways to make comparisons.

And then finally, we have “asocial and null relationships” – the people we don’t bother thinking about, which is most people, most of the time.

Fiske tells us that most writers agree that in any society, these relationship types tend to develop in this order. Also, children tend to learn them in this order – young children are aware of rank before they insist on turn taking and equal shares, and that both come before they start thinking about “proportional equity” or understanding the idea of prices.

penniesFiske credits Harvard scientist S.S. Stevens with the underlying framework for his system. Stevens published “On the Theory of Scales of Measurement” in 1946, describing four ways things can be measured: nominal, ordered, interval, and ratio. With nominal scales, we’re counting things that are in some sense equal, like the number of pennies in a jar. Ordinal scales are used to rank things, like how a diamond is harder than quartz, which in turn is much harder than talc. Interval scales let us measure things, like the number of days between two dates, where the distance between two points is what matters and not some absolute point (that is, the total days in March and January are the same, even though March comes later in the year). Ratio scales let us talk about differences where some absolute point does matter – your dog can weigh twice as much as my cat.

Fiske later built on this work to come up with a thought-provoking way to think about morality. In a 2011 paper with Tage Shakti Rai as the lead author, they translated these relationships into four distinct categories of moral motives. Unity describes a need to protect the sanctity of an in-group (everyone within the group is worthy of protection and care, based on their group membership, versus everyone else). Hierarchy leads to a morality like the European feudal system, where you need to respect and obey those above you in rank, but they need to be protecting and providing for you in return. Equality is the motive for balance and reciprocity, like equal pay for equal work, or equal opportunities to go to college. Proportionality underlies the expectations that rewards and punishments will be fair and match what people deserve. In the paper, they go on to explain that different societies use these motives differently, sometimes even justifying violence for moral reasons.

cute_mouseConflicts between these motives come up all the time. One example Rai and Fiske use is experimentation on animals. If you weigh the benefits to human lives against the smaller number of animal lives killed in medical research, you’re using a Proportionality argument. If instead you believe that all mammals deserve to live, it’s not that you can’t do the math to get the Proportionality answer. Rather, you’re including mammals in your in-group of beings worthy of protection and care, with a Unity perspective.

So that’s Fiske’s system of four models of relationships. Next time (or so), I’ll tell you about Stephen Pepper, who also had a cool model with four categories that built on each other, but not like Fiske’s. And then, if I have the time and space, I’ll explain where I’m going with all this. Stay tuned!

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The secret to social change

We all have a lot of ideas about what people should be doing differently. What am I talking about? Well, pretty much everything – every topic of laws and norms and morality that affect other people’s decisions. It could be smoking cigarettes (or something more potent); it could be recycling; it could be sex; it could be buying cars that use gasoline rather than some alternative fuel.

And that’s our job as citizens, in a democracy – deciding collectively what people should be able to do and encouraged to do. We don’t just leave it to a king or some other power to declare from on high; we get to have these discussions ourselves.

vote_dryIf you don’t want people to do something, one obvious approach is to make it illegal (like Prohibition) or unavailable (like shutting down abortion clinics, or deciding stores can’t sell the kind of light bulbs we all used ten years ago). But people don’t always comply with laws (again, like Prohibition), and sometimes we might want people to be less likely to do something that’s both legal and ordinary (like eating meat). It’s quite challenging to get people to change an ordinary behavior, especially if it’s pleasurable or wrapped up in traditions.

At the other extreme, maybe whatever we want people to do differently is actually none of our business – more of a “social libertarian” perspective. Why should it matter to me if one young man falls in love with another, or if a consenting couple want to get intimate without a marriage license? For the rest of this post I’m going to assume there are solid reasons affecting our collective well-being to actually encourage different behavior. People may disagree about the validity of those reasons, of course, but let’s imagine that I’m only talking about influencing others respectfully and ethically.

The usual approach to changing people’s behavior is to have a campaign to raise awareness, coupled with laws and regulations to create incentives, and sometimes this all gets “moralized” so that people are treated as being “good” if they do what’s now considered desirable and “bad” if they don’t. An example here would be cigarette smoking. Everyone now knows that smoking can cause lung cancer and that second-hand smoke can be harmful to others. Taxes have been added to discourage consumers (especially young people) from buying cigarettes. And at this point, people who still smoke are often stigmatized and treated as though they should be ashamed of their nicotine addiction.

vegan-red-beans-and-rice-image-720x540When I was in grad school, for my first-year project I studied vegetarianism and veganism, so that I could learn more about how acting consistently with ideals affects our well-being. (Short answer – making life choices that feel meaningful to you leads to greater well-being, no big surprise.) It was very interesting to learn more about other people’s research on the psychology of not eating meat. People have a lot of reasons for becoming vegetarian. Sometimes it’s for health reasons; those with heart disease are often encouraged to shift to plant-based diets, for example. Sometimes it’s for economic reasons – beans and rice are much less expensive than steak and salmon. And sometimes it’s because eating meat just seems wrong, which is what I meant by “moralized.” The interesting thing is that once you see eating meat as wrong, you’re often likely to start adding all the other reasons, too, whereas if you’re just doing it for health reasons, your thinking doesn’t change as much. And of course, once you see it as morally wrong, you’re more likely to try to influence others in the same direction.

Where it gets complicated is when beliefs about what everyone should do, or not do, get adopted disproportionately by some sub-group. Everyone agrees that smoking tobacco is problematic, but in 2020 in America, believing we should drastically cut our use of fossil fuels has become associated with the political Left. It didn’t have to go that way. Scott Alexander wrote up what he thought a “Red Tribe” version of a climate change argument might have looked like, and it’s great, so I’ll quote the whole thing here:

In the 1950s, brave American scientists shunned by the climate establishment of the day discovered that the Earth was warming as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to potentially devastating natural disasters that could destroy American agriculture and flood American cities. As a result, the country mobilized against the threat. Strong government action by the Bush administration outlawed the worst of these gases, and brilliant entrepreneurs were able to discover and manufacture new cleaner energy sources. As a result of these brave decisions, our emissions stabilized and are currently declining.

Unfortunately, even as we do our part, the authoritarian governments of Russia and China continue to industrialize and militarize rapidly as part of their bid to challenge American supremacy. As a result, Communist China is now by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, with the Russians close behind. Many analysts believe Putin secretly welcomes global warming as a way to gain access to frozen Siberian resources and weaken the more temperate United States at the same time. These countries blow off huge disgusting globs of toxic gas, which effortlessly cross American borders and disrupt the climate of the United States. Although we have asked them to stop several times, they refuse, perhaps egged on by major oil producers like Iran and Venezuela who have the most to gain by keeping the world dependent on the fossil fuels they produce and sell to prop up their dictatorships.

We need to take immediate action. While we cannot rule out the threat of military force, we should start by using our diplomatic muscle to push for firm action at top-level summits like the Kyoto Protocol. Second, we should fight back against the liberals who are trying to hold up this important work, from big government bureaucrats trying to regulate clean energy to celebrities accusing people who believe in global warming of being ‘racist’. Third, we need to continue working with American industries to set an example for the world by decreasing our own emissions in order to protect ourselves and our allies. Finally, we need to punish people and institutions who, instead of cleaning up their own carbon, try to parasitize off the rest of us and expect the federal government to do it for them.

Please join our brave men and women in uniform in pushing for an end to climate change now.

WagingWater_USArmy-637x425Isn’t that powerful? Unfortunately, though, America has decided that climate change is a liberal or Leftist idea, even though career military leaders remain deeply concerned about it.

Once an idea about behavior has been labelled as partisan, everyone else tends to think they can ignore it. And a great many American beliefs and behaviors have been labelled as partisan. Given that we’re in this situation, what do we do? It’s a tough question, and last summer I was excited to read a paper by Dan Kahan, a Yale law professor, that has a really good answer. Kahan explains that policies and laws will be most effective when multiple groups see their values reflected in them. He gives examples of tradeable emissions credits, social welfare policies (which had bipartisan support for decades), and France’s abortion reform laws, which manage to simultaneously satisfy those concerned about the sanctity of life and those defending women’s personal autonomy.

The bottom line is, if you really think people should do X, and X has become associated with a particular belief system, the answer is NOT to fight for that belief system. Or rather, fight for that belief system if it’s important to you, but recognize that doing so is not going to increase the general public’s rate of doing X in the near term. If getting X to happen is more urgent than changing other people’s belief systems – for example, to address climate change – then you’ve got to take a different approach. In fact, maybe you’ve got to take a lot of different approaches.

As long as people are working toward the same goal, it’s fine to have Blue Tribe reasons for the liberals and Left, Red Tribe reasons for the traditionalists and Right, Christian reasons for the believers, secular reasons for the non-believers, and so on. Multiple means, one end.

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The burden of George R.R. Martin – and what suspense and its resolution mean for us in the real world

I can still picture the display in our local university bookstore, sometime around 1999 – a major new fantasy series, with at least two books in print: A Game of Thrones, and A Clash of Kings. It looked medieval, and epic, and soon I was learning about the Starks and Lannisters, Baratheons and Targaryens. The author, George R. R. Martin, had sold the series to his publisher as a trilogy, but clearly the scope was beyond that.

And these books were complex. So many mysteries! Friends and I were speculating, early on, that Jon Snow was a secret Targaryen heir, but even if that were the case, there was a massive number of other storylines that needed to be resolved. And so we waited. The third book in the series was published in 2000, the fourth in… 2005, the fifth in… 2011, and here it is, 2020, with at least two more books to come. Martin is now 72 years old.

you_know_nothing_jon_snowPersonally, I stopped reading after the third book, although I’d probably return to the series if the rest are ever published. Other fans are more emotionally invested and have had stronger feelings on the topic than myself. Responding to these fans, in 2009 novelist Neal Gaiman published a famous essay that included the now-classic line, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” But, he kind of is. Martin created a need that only he can fill, with the implied promise to do so. Of course he’s as entitled to spend his time however he pleases, as much as any of us are, but…

When I was a girl, on Thursday evenings we always watched The Flip Wilson Show, and one week, Flip told us a long, convoluted story that just, abruptly, ended. My parents laughed and told me it was a “shaggy dog story.” That sort of thing can be amusing when it’s a 5- or 10-minute standup act, but not when you’ve invested dozens of hours in the story, over many years.

When we read a book – or watch a TV show or movie or play or sporting event, or listen to music – we experience suspense, which has two parts. First, there’s the anticipatory tension that builds over time; then, there’s the satisfying resolution of the suspense. We enjoy both the tension and its release. It’s hard-wired in us. Looking forward to a good meal when you’re hungry is one example of a biological drive that takes this form; I’m sure you can think of other examples. The problem, psychologically, is that we need the tension and the release to be in balance – all tension and no release makes us unhappy.

JheregAs a writer, I would never take on a huge, multivolume project like A Song of Ice and Fire – whatever the benefits of all the success Martin’s experienced, the flip side would be way too oppressive. Other authors have embarked on epic stories with different strategies. In Steven Brust’s Jhereg series about the sardonic assassin and mobster Vlad Taltos, a member of a lower-class species (humans) living among much more powerful and longer-lived Dragaerans, each book can stand alone, like episodes of a TV series with recurring characters. He’s telling a larger story, designed to take 19 books to finish, but cynical Vlad isn’t anticipating a resolution, and the readers aren’t either. We hope Brust will get there (and happy 65th birthday tomorrow, Mr. Brust!), but the suspense he’s creating is mostly within books, not between books. For contrast, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was clearly going somewhere specific from the beginning. Jordan had planned six books, but the story required fourteen to tell, and Jordan died (at age 58) without finishing it, 23 years after the first book debuted. He left copious notes, and his wife and editor hired Brandon Sanderson, an unusually prolific young writer, to finish the story. (Martin has said he’s not interested in this option.)

As everyone knows, HBO decided to televise A Game of Thrones, a project that lasted eight years. At first, fans were pleased that Martin would have a clear deadline to finish the story, then they were concerned that he was spending so much time on the TV series instead of writing the books. Finally, it was decided to complete the TV series in advance of the books.

Having one answer to his story out there takes some of the burden off Martin. I hope this means it will be easier for him to write the rest of his story now. And if he does write the books he’s planned, we can read them just for pleasure, not because we need a resolution of our built up need.

The thought I had today, that I wanted to share with you, is something of how this relates to the real world. First, though, I need to make a distinction between two types of works that people can write about things that have happened: a “history” and a “chronicle.” A “chronicle” is a description of many things that happened for a group of people over a certain span of time. It’s selective, in that it only includes what its writer considers important, but it’s not leading anywhere. There’s no larger meaning. (An “annal” is a chronicle that covers only one year.)

A “history,” on the other hand, has a general story form: a problem or category of problems, ways these problems were addressed, and some sort of resolution or closure. That is, it has an interpretive framework and the author is selective in what she or he chooses to tell about this story, emphasizing what fits into this framework.

When we’re paying attention to what’s going on in the wider world, our experience is much like a chronicle. Things happen, then more things happen, and sometimes we notice causal patterns, and sometimes things just seem random. But there are people who interpret it for us, using the very same type of frameworks that historians might use. Unlike most historians, however, these interpreters – often politicians and the leaders of social movements – are hoping that they can get us to share their vision, so they can get us caught up in suspense the same way storytellers do and harness our excitement to do what they think we should be doing – vote for them, or devote our lives to the goals we share with them, or join their faith, and so forth.

If we live in a totalitarian society, like the Soviet Union under Stalin or modern-day North Korea, the official story is the only story. Everyone’s life is supposed to serve that story. When enough people are disenchanted, the story fails, but until that happens, it is all powerful.

In a pluralistic society like ours, we can choose the story that makes the most sense for us. We’ll set our goals and hope they’ll be at least partially met, since they’re competing with the goals of the other party or parties, too. And we learn not to expect that the stories our leaders tell us can unfold as smoothly as a story in a book. It’s not realistic to expect resolution.

The reality is that there’s no one story that’s necessarily better than all the others. Our real history is the sum of all the parallel histories – it’s polyphonic, many voices singing different melodies at the same time, not just joining into one simple song.

The bottom line is: Sure, we can choose stories to live by, and our lives can be especially gratifying if we do so. But we should choose stories that don’t require a resolution to be worthwhile, and we should always be aware that we’re choosing a story and not just let it happen to us blindly. Full immersion in stories is best saved for recreation.

(Also, while writing this, I realized that I should try to teach myself to read each book in an ongoing epic fantasy series as a chronicle, not a history – if I can do that, I won’t have to wait 20 years to start Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive!)

That’s it for now. Whether or not you’re celebrating a holiday this week, please take care.


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The story of Dido, Aeneas, a gender-queer Sorceress, and the fate of… England?

This past weekend I had the good fortune to see a most unusual opera. I confess, I’m not actually an opera fan, not in the conventional sense – as of yet I have no interest in Verdi, Puccini, et al. (although like everyone else, I adore the instrumental music in Carmen).

Live performances* of Early Music, though, are endlessly fascinating, and this work was no exception. It was Dido and Aeneas, written by the English composer Henry Purcell, who lived in the late 1600s, and performed by the Boston Camerata, under the direction of Anne Azéma.

Dido_Aeneas_ManettiIf you’ve studied classical literature, you might remember the story from Virgil’s Aeneid. Aeneas, a young warrior and prince of Troy, has escaped from the fall of his homeland, and the gods send him to Italy to found a new Troy, which we know better as “Rome.” On the way, he stops at Carthage, the major ancient city in modern-day Tunisia founded by the Phoenicians, and he falls in love with its queen Dido (in English rhymes with “Fido”). But he cannot stay. The gods remind him of his destiny, and off he goes, abandoning poor Dido, who dies of grief (and the sword she chooses to fall upon).

The story of Dido and Aeneas is great on two levels. First, they’re star-crossed lovers, one of the classic themes of literature. And second, since they’re both more or less heads of state, we also find ourselves in meta-narrative territory. Their stories are at the same time the stories of two powerful groups. We have the mythic founding of ancient Rome, although many generations elapse between Aeneas and his descendants Romulus and Remus, those famous babies saved by a wolf-mama. We have Rome as the heir of far-more-ancient Troy, a tragic fall from its noble renown and a new beginning. As we know, Restoration meta-narratives are especially emotionally appealing (Make Troy Great Again!) – Romans get to share in the glory of a remarkable world power and feel very proud of themselves for having brought that world back to light and life again. But then, by mistreating the queen of Carthage, Aeneas sets his future city up for trouble, foreshadowing the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome – more than a hundred years of violence.

So that’s Virgil’s version. Purcell, though, adds a twist. Instead of the gods reminding Aeneas that he’s supposed to go to Rome, we have a malign sorceress/sorceror who thinks it would be worth their while to tear the two lovers apart. In Purcell’s words, they hate Dido, “As we do all in prosp’rous state.” (Down with the One Percent!)

What’s the deal with that, anyway? That is, obviously it’s way more cool to have a powerful magician conspiring in a secret cave with their witch-friends than just the usual divine reminder. The marvelous Jordan Weatherston Pitts was mesmerizing on Saturday. But was there a bigger point, for Purcell?

In the 1600s, one of the biggest worldview challenges facing England was the religion of its monarchs. Since the time of Elizabeth, the English powers-that-be generally felt strongly that England should stay Protestant (the queen or king was the head of the Church of England, after all), but of course the pope wanted it back. And then along came James II, who decided as an adult that he’d rather be Catholic. He went and married an Italian princess and they had a baby boy, who was going to displace his older, Protestant sisters (Mary and Anne) in the line of succession and portend an entire dynasty of Catholic kings. That would just not do (and besides, I guess the king was a jerk?). So a group of leading Protestants invited Mary’s husband William to invade, and James was overthrown, in the “Glorious Revolution.”

And apparently, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was an allegory for all that.

The libretto (text) for the opera was written by Nahum Tate, an Irish poet. According to Wikipedia, around the same time, Tate wrote a poem alluding to James II as Aeneas, who had been tricked by the evil sorceress and her witches – apparently a common metaphor at the time for the Roman Catholic Church – into abandoning Dido, the British people. Adding the sorceress flips the meta-narratives upside down. Our perspective is no longer with Aeneas and his destiny; we’re the sad queen of Carthage, ruined by his folly.


But there’s one more thing – back to the personal level and Dido’s reasoning. After starting to make plans to resume his journey to Italy, Aeneas changes his mind and tells her he’s going to stay with her. But nope, she’s not having it: “’Tis enough, whate’er you now decree, that you once had a thought of leaving me.” From her perspective, once the possibility of doing what he had, after all, promised to do had entered his head, that was the end of it.

If she was going to be that intolerant of ordinary human ambivalence – let alone the conflict of a man having made two sets of contrary vows – they were probably doomed before she even met him. I mean, any competent 21st-century advice columnist would tell her that their relationship was the stronger for him having thoroughly considered his alternatives and making an informed choice. Instead, Dido had fallen victim to the seductive thrall of purity-thinking – a topic I’ll have to save for another day.

So there we have it – meta-narratives everywhere, even in an English baroque opera. If you’d like to see Dido and Aeneas, it’s available to ticket holders online until November 29. And by the way, if allegory entertains you, and you’re familiar with the Game of Thrones storyline, check out the first part of Zvi Mowshowitz’s recent post on the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the pandemic. Ha!

Until next time.

* Or at least the pandemic version of “live” performance, and they didn’t even have to travel to Eugene for me this time!

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The “Nixon-to-China” theory of change

For my friends who’d rather have had Bernie for president… don’t lose hope. Here’s why I think the Biden presidency may be just what we need.

In the early 1970s, mainland China was still recovering from the Cultural Revolution, a violent and disastrous experiment in totalitarianism, and the United States had been holding it at arm’s length, keeping China largely isolated from the rest of the world. Then Richard Nixon shocked America by announcing plans to visit China as a step toward normalizing relations between the two countries.

Now, where capital-c Communism was concerned, Nixon was an arch-conservative. He wasn’t all that conservative on women’s rights, environmentalism, etc., just as many Republicans weren’t back then, but he had very firm credentials when it came to the “godless commies.” So for Nixon to decide it was okay to meet with Chairman Mao and shake his hand, making peace between our countries – that made it okay.

nixon_maoIf anyone else had tried it, let alone anyone on the American Left, there would have been a major domestic crisis. The Right would have been up in arms, possibly literally. The president’s standing, if not his career, would have been ruined. And the whole debacle might not even have led to peace with China. Hence the common political truism from my childhood: “Only Nixon could go to China.”

Likewise, it was Ronald Reagan who could work with Gorbachev to end the Cold War. If instead the Democrat, Walter Mondale, had been elected, he may also have welcomed Gorbachev’s overtures. But he wouldn’t have had Reagan’s credibility on national defense, and many Americans would have been skeptical.

Nowadays, there are many things the vast majority of Americans want – jobs and a living wage to go with them, health care without financial ruin, higher education without massive debt, energy security, clean air and water, affordable homes, equal opportunities and justice for all Americans regardless of race, religion, or consenting intimate activities. As a maverick with an (R) beside his name, Trump could have been “Nixon” and done all that. He would have been a hero, but… well, he had his chance.

sanders_biden_laughingIf Bernie Sanders had won, he could have used the presidency as a great “bully pulpit”  to make his ideas more mainstream, but the Right would have done its best to tar them with a “socialist” label. Given the existing polarization in the U.S., it may have been very difficult to get his actual policies through Congress – even though most of us want them.

Now, however, we have President-Elect Biden. He’s positioned as a moderate, but we know he listens. It’s his very positioning as a mild-mannered, widely respected moderate that can make him effective, which in turn makes those changes possible. Will he do what we hope? Only time can tell – but after four years of Donald Trump, the American Left and center are far from complacent.

So I suggest, for now, let’s trust Joe Biden, and let’s keep working for what we believe in. Above all, let’s keep reminding everyone that equal opportunities, fairness, health care, et cetera, are not just “socialist” values, they’re American values.

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Choosing your battleground: Joe Brewer’s story

Today is my friend and colleague Joe Brewer’s birthday. In honor of Joe’s special day – and tomorrow’s U.S. election – I’m sharing part of my in-progress book’s chapter 11, “Transcending Loss,” where I write about Joe and the importance of choosing not just your battles, but your battlegrounds.

My book is about the psychology of “meta-narratives,” the stories about the groups we identify with – our countries, our people, even all of humanity. Although optimistic meta-narratives are generally the most inspirational, sometimes decline and loss may be the most accurate representation of reality – and if we accept and grieve this loss, we can find ways to make a difference. Empires do fall; ecosystems can collapse. Our usual emotional responses to collective loss include denial, a sense of helplessness, and sometimes a paralysis born of communal guilt. How can we craft meta-narratives to help us function effectively when systems are failing all around us?

Joe-Portrait-for-WebIn 2007, Joe Brewer, a young man from rural Missouri, found himself reading George Lakoff’s books on cognitive framing, the conceptual models we use to make sense of the world (which include meta-narratives). With an academic background in atmospheric science, and deeply concerned about climate change, he began working with these frames to learn more about the thought patterns that can facilitate or hinder positive social change.

Three years later, his parents died in the same year. The sense of loss in his life was no longer an abstraction. He discovered, however, that the idea of “hospice” that he’d experienced at the end of his parents’ lives could be a fruitful frame for learning and training others to cope with the dramatic transformation he now believed was inevitable for the Earth. In other words, actively grieving the loss of something cherished, whether a person or a story, can release us to move forward.

For Joe, accepting that the changes the Earth is experiencing are real then freed him to take a second step: shifting his focus to a domain that did allow for effective action – in his case working on a more local level (“bioregions”) rather than a national or planetary one. His strategy feeds our innate psychological needs for meaningful action, competence, and connectedness, and suggests a more general role for meta-narratives in times of undesired change: accepting the change and shifting the context of concern to an area where individuals can make a difference.

Joe is not only working to restore and regenerate the bioregion where he is now living – the mountain village of Barichara, Colombia – he has also written a book, The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth.

Joe_EliseJoe chose three vital contexts where he really can make a difference: Barichara and its ecosystem, the broader community of people working together to regenerate the Earth’s damaged environments (including the well-being of the humans in those environments, of course), and the micro-community of his family – his wife Jessica and their inquisitive and lively daughter Elise.

Tomorrow we’ll close the polls on the U.S. presidential election, choosing between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden. We all know that much is riding on the election, and at least a third of Americans will be unhappy with the outcome. But whether the outcome you’re hoping for is four more years or a massive blue wave, we can all take a lesson we can take from Joe’s example. No matter who’s in power in one important context, like the U.S. government, there are always other contexts where every one of us can use our energy and values to make things better. So let’s all choose our battlegrounds wisely – invest our hearts where we can make a difference – and the best of luck to all of us.

For more information about Joe’s work, visit https://culturalevolutioncenter.org/design-institute-for-regenerating-earth/

You’re also invited to join a study group, where you can read his book: https://earth-regenerators.mn.co/

If you’re interested in narrative psychology and its powerful influences on social movements, please follow my blog, using the link above, and I’ll see you again soon!

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America’s Irony Problem

Irony can be a lot of fun.  And it’s everywhere, from the most scathing sarcasm to the gentle wit of Kermit the Frog. We love to laugh at satire and parody.  The “mockumentary” has become a popular film genre – a few weeks ago we greatly enjoyed the vampire satire, What We Do in the Shadows.  Yet there are some contexts in which irony may be altogether inappropriate and a serious problem for democracy.

Let’s start with definitions.  Irony requires us to have at least two levels of awareness.  There’s what we literally see and hear (or read).  Then there’s also a secondary level of meaning, more sophisticated, requiring familiarity with additional, unspoken knowledge.  That’s why irony is so popular with teens and young adults – appreciating it lets them show that they’re familiar with that deeper layer of knowledge.  Not only is irony fun, it’s also a metaphorical badge of mastery.

(This also, incidentally, probably explains why the fabulous Northanger Abbey is the one of the least popular of Jane Austen’s novels today – it’s a satire on a whole genre of popular Gothic romances that were familiar to readers in her time but not so much in ours.  But those of us who like it can claim membership in a particular in-group.  We “get” it.)

But I should also note that irony is not always the same as “double meaning.”  Another kind of double meaning is when the ordinary meaning is just a pointer to the supposedly more real, behind-the-scenes meaning that we get with conspiracy thinking.  Irony, by contrast, is the type of double meaning that’s making a point to comment on the ordinary meaning.

Irony is probably our best answer to when people are too caught up in, or loyal to, a way of thinking that discourages critical reflectiveness, what I elsewhere call a “full immersion mindset.”  Sometimes our “bubble” or “echo chamber” can do great harm, like when it gets involved in excessively Romanticizing a people’s situation – like lamenting the tragic loss of their beautiful history at the hands of some other group – that classically motivates those people to violence. 


But irony can help.  The marvelous satire Monty Python and the Holy Grail illustrates this neatly.  Once you’ve laughed along with Dennis the Peasant’s shocked argument that “you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!” well, that’s that.  You may still appreciate the considerable beauty in historical and modern-day Arthurian literature – but I suspect you’d be singularly resistant to recruitment by a future Militant Avalon Resurgency. 

This harmful type of Romanticizing is at the root of America’s alt-right movement. Certainly you and I are in no position to make jokes about Nazis that would actually change these people’s way of thinking, but we can hope that eventually, insiders they respect will wield a harsher, scathing irony to some effect.

(Harmful Romanticizing is not unknown on the Left either, but lately it’s much more likely to result in property damage than death counts.)

All this serves as background for why I found the recent NYT article “How President Trump Ruined Political Comedy” to be both fascinating and troubling.  The author is Dan Brooks, whom I should note is not the NYT’s David Brooks, but rather, a journalist from Montana.  He begins by explaining why the satiric liberal talk show has actually declined under the Trump presidency.  In an interview with Brooks, the showrunner for The Daily Show put it like this: “We have to signal to the audience, ‘Hey, we know how you’re feeling,’ so it doesn’t seem like you’re making light of a serious thing.” As Brooks summarizes, “Consumers of this brand of comedy are so horrified by Trump that irreverence can feel like betrayal.”

This explanation is valuable in its own right, but then Brooks goes on to explain what many of us have failed to understand about Donald Trump:  Rather than immersing himself in the presidency, he’s just playing the role, as a comedian.  “In his love of insults, his penchant for hyperbole and his commitment to shtick — that knowing performance of himself that blurs the line between personality and persona — Trump is unprecedented among American presidents.”

I’ll quote Brooks at length for a bit here.  “The most striking feature of his rhetorical style is how much it resembles that of a nightclub comic. He is known to work out material on the road, presenting rally audiences with variations on the same bits until he develops something that works. The idea of a border wall with Mexico is rumored to have emerged from this process. His unhurried delivery — which eschews setup/punch rhythms in favor of a meandering conversation with the audience, punctuated by audacious remarks — calls to mind a late-career Don Rickles. Unlike Rickles, though, Trump rarely laughs. He delivers his jokes in the same tone he delivers serious remarks. The insult comedian always ends by telling his victim he’s a good sport, but Trump doesn’t offer such signals.

“In October 2019, for example, he tweeted a photograph of himself giving the Medal of Honor to a dog. This event did not happen. The conservative website The Daily Wire created the image by photoshopping Conan, the U.S. Army dog that helped kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, into an existing picture of Trump awarding the medal to the Vietnam combat medic James C. McCloughan. On the Louder With Crowder website, the writer John Brodigan ridiculed The Times and the CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta for reporting that the image was doctored, writing, “You’d have to be an idiot to think this actually happened in real life.” But the president gave no indication that the photo was a joke; he simply tweeted “AMERICAN HERO!” and the picture. A close acquaintance of mine, who is not an idiot, saw the photo on Facebook and assumed Trump had in fact given the medal to a dog. She thought it was absurd, but she did not assume it was ironic, because what previous American president has disseminated fake pictures of himself performing official functions?”


If Brooks is right, this means that Trump has been working both ends.  On the one hand, we have the hyper-sincere MAGA faithful, the evangelical Christians, and everyone who’s admired his “straight talk” and “telling it like it is.”  This group takes what he says at face value and appreciates it.  On the other hand, we have the right-wing audiences who appreciate his irony – it lets them feel like privileged insiders and gives them a “parasocial relationship” with him, a way of feeling they really know the man, and it also lets them delight in watching the “libtards” stupidly taking him seriously.  The rest of his supporters, I suppose they don’t always believe what he says, but they like the resulting policies so they privately roll their eyes and hope for the best.

Brooks again: “The real Donald Trump acts as if he’s doing an impression of some normal-looking, occasionally self-aggrandizing president we don’t know about. His supporters know this impression is fake. They don’t think Trump is the guy he pretends to be; they know he is the guy who pretends to be that guy, which is a hilarious thing for the president to do.”

Especially key to Trump’s style is his use of “ambiguous irony” – saying something that might be sincere or might be humor, without signaling which it is.  Brooks explains that this is what was going on with Milo Yiannopoulos. “The conservative brand of ambiguous irony looks to create asymmetries in how insiders and outsiders interpret what is being said, so that any statement that gets too much blowback can become someone else’s failure to take a joke.” … “At a moment when American conservatism is flirting with ideas that have been outside the realm of mainstream politics for 50 years, ambiguous irony has allowed both political comedians and pundits to say what cannot be said.”

We can see this in action in a speech Trump gave in September, when he suggested he might use an Executive Order to prevent Biden from winning the presidency.  It’s horrifying on the surface, but when you read what he actually said, it’s clear he was joking (although also possibly testing the waters to see whether to consider it for real?).

And apparently he doesn’t always know how to turn it off, like the joke about injecting bleach – not only was it a singularly ill-judged joke to make, considering how credulous some followers are, but why would a pandemic briefing ever be a time for a joke of any kind?

So this is our problem.  If irony, the outsider’s best tool to critique a government, is instead co-opted by the highest level of leadership, what recourse do the people have?  I should note that this is not exclusively a Trump problem, it’s an anybody problem.  Should we add “sincerity” to our list of essential criteria for judging U.S. presidential candidates?  And given how suspicious we have all become of the “other side’s” motives, how could we even tell?

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