Fighting injustice with fantasy fiction

I read a great trilogy this past week, and I’m going to tell you all about it, but bear with me a moment – first I want to share a personal story. My late step-dad, Arnold, was in many respects an excellent human being, but like many aging senior citizens, he was reluctant to give up driving. My mom was naturally loyal to Arnold, so telling her directly that he was having a few problems behind the wheel wasn’t likely to get anywhere.

I suspect that’s a fairly universal principle – social bonds generally outrank principles, so if someone says, “Your partner did such-and-such bad thing,” your first reaction is likely to be skepticism. Or if you do believe they probably did that thing, you’d start making the case that it really wasn’t that bad, there must have been good reasons, and so on. But there’s a way to get past that, which I used with my mom.

stop_signAt our post office, there’s a main parking lot, then there’s a special lane where cars can pull up next to a set of mailboxes and you can reach out the window and put your letters into the box. This special lane has right of way over the parking lot exit – if you’re leaving the lot, there’s a stop sign for you. And one day, when I was dropping off my mail, Arnold was leaving the parking lot and ran right through the stop sign.

Did I say to my mom, “Hey, Arnold ran the stop sign at the post office”? No. I said, “When I was at the post office just now, someone ran the stop sign in front of me.” She reacted sympathetically – she was concerned about me, of course, and she agreed with the principle of the importance of the stop sign. Then I added, “…and it was Arnold.” Sure enough, Arnold stopped driving soon after.

So if you want to get people to think in terms of principles, it’s good to bring the principles to the forefront, and to show how they affect people (or fictional characters) we can care about. And one of the best ways to do that, curiously, may be through speculative fiction – science fiction and fantasy. That’s because our own identities and relationships can’t get in the way, as they can when we’re reading something set in the real world and we already know how we feel about the different “sides.”

Science fiction has been doing this for decades. Alongside all the books about amazing technologies and what we could do with them, there are also writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold who let us see what the implications of amazing technologies, or different social systems, might be.

Fantasy novels, on the other hand, have long been associated with European-style castles, young men on quests, or wizards in training – which is fun too, but doesn’t really stretch the imagination the same way.

But things are changing. And that brings me to the WitchmarkStormsongSoulstar trilogy by C.L. Polk. I had greatly enjoyed Polk’s other book, The Midnight Bargain, set in a wonderfully vivid fantasy world modeled after Jane Austen’s Regency-era England (but with magic spells and powerful magical spirits), so I decided to try the trilogy too.

Witchmark had won the World Fantasy Award in 2019, and unlike many fantasy novels, where you start a bit disoriented, this book has a low barrier to entry. The setting is very much like Edwardian England Continue reading

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What it means to be a “we”

Today I read a really interesting idea in the New York Times. Columnist Jay Caspian Kang proposed that maybe it’s time to treat the “unhoused” (a.k.a. “homeless”) as a protected group. If this were to happen, he foresees three main effects. First, it would become illegal to discriminate against them. Second, the authors of the report he’s citing believe that talking about them as a group would help to humanize them and gradually reduce the stigma of homelessness. And third, treating them as “a people” could, they hope, increase support for building more, and more affordable, housing.

Here in Eugene, Oregon, we have an extremely high rate of homelessness (the highest in the country, in 2019), and along with all the great many attempts to try to help them, our local governments also put a lot of effort into keeping them out of sight. (I have to say, the homeless situation has really transformed our public library, with dozens of people finding it a good place to sleep away the afternoon, since maybe it’s not safe to sleep outside at night.) Figuring out how to solve this problem is a high priority.

I’ll get back to the homeless idea in a bit, but first I want to explore what it means to be “a people.” There’s a word for that: “entitativity.” (I always think that word has too many syllables, but no, there it is. It’s related to “entity.”) It means thinking about the group as a thing in itself, not just as a collection of individuals who have something in common.

Now, entitativity is not always good. In fact, it’s a theme that comes up all the time in genocidal thinking. Nazi Germany is an obvious and classic case, telling its Jews that they weren’t real Germans, that their true identity was based on their religion. With the power of the state behind it, entitativity for a minority group can become so much worse than simply persecuting random individuals who have that defining trait.

On the other hand, when people in power make a point to visibly include all the minorities as part of “us,” it can be a powerful protection against genocide and other forms of inter-group violence. After the end of apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela made a big point of referring to the primarily white members of the South African rugby team as “our boys.” This symbolic act that was both deeply Continue reading

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“Bracketing” – with spoilers for my least favorite episode of Perry Mason

This morning, as I sat down to eat my breakfast with Perry Mason, as one does, I made a disappointing discovery. My DVR had only one new Perry recording on it, and it was the episode I enjoy least of all – the one with a tragic, horrible twist at the end. (Someone online described it as “probably the darkest episode in the series.”)

gary_collins_1972_wikipediaAs the episode begins, Alex Tanner is late for a party. He’s the guest of honor at a bash thrown by his employer, Global News, as he’s just moved to town to become the new CEO. His pretty young wife (the daughter of the recently deceased man who owned the company) calls him back into the house – he hadn’t said good night to their son Robbie, who’s asking for him. She hands him Robbie’s favorite stuffed animal and enjoins him to be sure the side of the crib is up, as Robbie is learning his prayers. Alex takes the toy upstairs then returns and heads out.

Meanwhile, at the party, Danny Shine is drunk and insulting everyone. He’s the columnist for the newspaper and he has nasty things to say to each of the party guests, including Perry. His secretary takes him outside for some air (and did newspaper columnists really have secretaries _and_ assistants back in the 1960s?). Alex arrives, and the columnist mentions he dropped by his house today and met the wife and child, and he’s going to write a column about Alex’s ideal wife, ideal child, and ideal situation. Alex heads inside; the columnist then starts mauling his secretary, which the columnist’s stalker wife (played by Cloris Leachman, remember Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show?) observes from her car parked across the street. Back inside at the party, everyone is greeting their new future boss, while the secretary comes in to get cleaned up. Meanwhile, someone shoots and kills the columnist.

The wrong guy is arrested, naturally (and for no good reason). He’s the columnist’s assistant, played by one of my favorite Perry Mason actors, Douglas Henderson. And he has no motive, but the only one who can testify to that is Alex Tanner, and Alex refuses to help, as he has other worries. Baby Robbie has been kidnapped! The kidnappers won’t release him until the trial is over! Eventually, of course, Perry learns and reveals the truth – the killer was Alex himself. His career was on the line, and he was desperate. He didn’t want the world to know that his wife was psychotic… Robbie had actually died before the story ever started.

I paused the recording once breakfast was done, and before it was time to watch a few more minutes with lunch, it struck me that there could be a value to watching the episode more closely to better understand why – beyond the cheap horror written into the script – it struck me as so awful.

So I did, and I thought about it all afternoon. There’s a lot to dislike about the episode. I almost never want to subject myself to stories about dead children, and having a man who seems so kind to his wife turn out to be instead unspeakably cruel to her – that’s not great either. And there’s misleading the viewer: If Perry wanted to experiment with the “unreliable narrator” thing, I’d rather they’d introduced it long before the 270th out of 271 episodes.

But I also realized something else interesting about the episode, and that has to do with poor Mrs. Tanner’s coping strategy. Continue reading

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Career or hobby? The life-saving work of countering others’ recipes for disaster

I started my day today by reading Ezra Klein’s interview with Holden Karnofsky. He’s the co-founder of GiveWell, an organization that studies charities and helps figure out where donations really make the most impact. And now he’s the co-CEO of Open Philanthropy, which looks at the same questions from a much broader perspective – which decisions today could have the biggest positive impact for the long-term future of humanity?

As he describes it, “My job is to look for ideas that are not only important but also neglected. And so, I’m always looking for what could be the next big thing that could matter for a ton of people that’s not getting enough attention.”

And that got me thinking. The work I’ve done with Gerard Saucier at the University of Oregon is very much in this vein. Together we wrote a major paper about the patterns of thinking that underlie one of the biggest sources of premature death in the 20th century: genocide. Or rather, “democide,” a term that includes genocide, state terror, and other forms of politically or economically motivated mass murder of civilians. We studied 20 cases from around the world, reading everything we could get our hands on that Continue reading

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Practicing music, practicing empathy

Every morning, the first thing I do after checking my email is reading Carolyn Hax’s advice column. I love her sharp sense of humor, and her advice is always sound. This week, two letter writers wondered whether there was something lacking in them – they didn’t think they were feeling strongly enough when a friend was having problems. As one of them put it, “there are plenty of situations where a friend calls me about a problem they’re having and, while I’m happy to talk it out or to listen, I don’t feel their pain.” They wondered if that was abnormal and bad.

Carolyn reassured them that it was fine: “there’s a case to be made that not going through the emotions yourself enhances your ability to listen patiently and provide a shoulder. Some of the best caregivers are the ones who maintain enough detachment to keep their heads, and keep listening through what would be, for others, an exhausting level of duress.”

I was reminded of the work done by psychologist Mark Davis, 40 years ago, when he identified four types of empathy. “Empathic concern,” or sympathy, is a tendency to feel compassion and warmth for those going through negative experiences. “Perspective-taking” is a more cognitive process involved in taking others’ point of view. “Empathic distress” refers to feeling discomfort or anxiety when faced with others’ negative feelings. Finally, his fourth type involved being able to enter into the emotional worlds of fictional characters.

Basically, the first two go hand in hand, when you want to be supportive to someone. Sympathy works best when the person makes the effort to understand what it’s like to be in that situation, while making that effort without sympathy can feel cold and clinical. The third type of empathy generally gets in the way; it ends up making it about you, not them.

The fourth type has always seemed like it didn’t really fit with the first three, but later in the day I started to think about that differently.

I was attending a master class with renowned pianist Michelle Cann. michelle_cannThese master classes are a wonderful feature of our local symphony. Whenever the upcoming concert is going to feature a soloist, Continue reading

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What color is your pandemic?

One of the most interesting studies I’ve done during the help-people-quit-tobacco part of my career was a study of the metaphors people use when they think about quitting. Metaphors are so fundamental to how we understand things – if you’re still thinking of them as an optional and poetic form of self-expression, let me recommend Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. They’re everywhere.

In our study, we started with more than 2100 posts that were made in a social support forum for people trying to quit their use of moist snuff (like Copenhagen and Skoal) or chewing tobacco. I marked every metaphor I saw, and my colleague Shari Reyna did the same. (Shari’s so cool – she’s also an anthropologist and dairy-goat-farmer who loves socially creative science fiction by writers like Ursula LeGuin and Sheri Tepper.) Then we compared our notes.

We found that people had five ways of thinking about quitting tobacco: as a journey, a project, a battle, an escape from captivity, and ending a dysfunctional relationship. Why was this useful? When you know what metaphors people are using, you can think through the implications that follow from that way of thinking about things. If quitting is a battle, then you’re always on your guard against cravings, which makes sense for a while, but after a few years this attitude would be stressful. If it’s a journey, what happens after you arrive? Moving to a new community where you learn how to do some things differently could make more sense. And then if you’re designing programs to help people who want to change that part of their life, you have a better idea of what to take into account.

This week, I came across a new study using metaphors, this time about the COVID-19 pandemic. In the study, led by B. Liahnna Stanley, a grad student at Arizona State, they gathered their data in a much more efficient way: They just asked people directly. They interviewed 44 people and asked them, “If COVID-19 had a color, what color would it be and why?” and “If COVID-19 were an animal, what animal would it be and why?”

So what color is the pandemic? Their participants’ answers were fascinating. Along with the Continue reading

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The “make it so” mentality – some thoughts on trust and systems

Q: What do Donald Trump, Elizabeth Holmes, and an alarming fraction of the vaccine “skeptics” have in common?
A: Apparently, a belief in their own personal immunity from the basic laws of cause and effect.

Let’s start with Trump.

Well, first, let’s back up and think for a moment about that unnatural alliance between evangelical Christians and big business. Why do so many members of the white working class vote for policies that take good things away from themselves and people like them and add them to the absurd stockpiles of the ultra-rich? Part of that’s probably aspirational – people tend to vote on behalf of the future selves they hope to be rather than their actual circumstances, and thanks to lotteries, too many people expect to hit the jackpot.

john_calvinBut there’s a cultural reason, too. One trend in evangelical thinking is called the Prosperity Gospel, which has its roots in earlier Calvinism. John Calvin, one of the leaders in early Protestantism, taught that you can’t earn your way into Heaven, but that God tends to reward people on Earth commensurate with their religious merits. It’s a capitalist version of karma – if you’re rich, it’s because God sees the good in you. If you’re poor… maybe you deserve it, or Continue reading

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A story about family and community, for our time

During these polarized times, when even public health has become politicized, it’s extra-important to build bridges between our two “sides,” and to retain and strengthen the dialogues we already have. That’s why I want to talk today about the new novel by Holly Larsen, called Sisters, Plural. Holly was one of my closest friends when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, so of course I’m biased, but… after reading her book as light entertainment, I realized in retrospect that it’s actually rather profound.

Holly is a liberal, educated, cosmopolitan woman from a Mormon family, and if that sounds like an oxymoron, it’s not – I’ve known several. She’s also a gifted writer with strong connections to her family, and in her first novel she chose to tell the story of her great-grandmother’s unusual courtship, nicely fictionalized, with a parallel story that she invented for her great-grandmother’s sister.

The story is set in 1910, in St Johns, Arizona, which the map tells me is midway between Phoenix and Albuquerque. Betsy Harris is heartbroken because the lovely young man she’s got a crush on, Heber Orchard, has become engaged while off in Los Angeles on his mission. (All Mormon young men go on a mission, a religious rite of passage.)

Her sister, Eliza, has relationship complications of her own – everyone thinks she’s involved with her best friend, Frank, because they keep wandering off together, but really it’s a cover. She and Frank have an “understanding,” and she’s actually meeting a handsome young Mexican, Raymond. She fantasizes (naively) about converting Raymond to her church, but when his family finds out about her, they ship him off to Los Angeles to work for his uncle.

Suddenly, though, Heber’s fiancée Virginia dies. Betsy feels so guilty – what if it was her prayers that caused this? When he returns to St Johns, though, he finds that Betsy is the best person to talk to about how he feels, and soon he’s falling in love with her too.

Eliza becomes determined to follow Raymond to Los Angeles, and she starts raising money for her trip, which will have to be a secret. She tells only Frank, who also wants to move to the big city.

The story alternates between the perspectives of the two young women. Betsy is obviously a very kind person, while Eliza… can be. She’s also self-centered to a humorous degree.

And all of this is taking place in the two-building household formed by three adults: Eliza’s mother, Betsy’s mother, and the husband they share in a “plural marriage,” along with their other six children. One of the gifts of fiction is that after a chapter or two, this all feels perfectly natural.

(And what about Frank, anyway? Why this “understanding”? Is he really not interested in Eliza, or maybe he doesn’t think he could aspire to the local girls because he’s apparently somewhat funny-looking? Or is there more going on?)

After I’d finished the book, which resolves all their stories most satisfactorily, I kept thinking about the two women. In our lab discussions of worldview psychology, we’ve often discussed the sociological ideas of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft – the former refers to communities Continue reading

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Empirical and conceptual science: a vital partnership

It’s great fun to be an interdisciplinary thinker. It’s exciting to make connections that shed new light on old problems. I love the world “outside the box.” Or rather, here’s the graphic on my ironic Halloween t-shirt:

think_inside_the_box

Even though it’s amazing to work in this world, it’s also frustrating, because you can do careful, precise work and still run into the square-peg-round-hole problem. What I’m referring to here is the distinction between empirical and conceptual science.

Empirical science works like this. You make observations. You notice patterns in your observations. You come up with an idea that would account for those patterns. But before you can have confidence in your idea, you need to test it – to compare it with other ideas that could also account for those patterns. You follow the standards of rigorous testing, you get your results, and you compare it with your original idea. Maybe it supports your idea, or maybe you need to tweak your idea a bit, or start over. If it supports your idea, great – now you test it again under different conditions to see whether your findings “generalize” more broadly. And so on. This is a world of methods, findings, rigor, and validity.

Empirical science is very important. Without empirical science, we don’t get medicine or advanced technology. (Like effective vaccines for a worldwide pandemic!)

But empirical research isn’t all there is to science. There’s also the conceptual part, the framework that helps us make sense of the world. This is the part of science I most enjoy – coming up with a new way to look at a situation, then exploring its implications. Or, to be more precise, bringing together existing ideas into a model that gives us new tools for thinking about important problems.

That’s what I’ve been doing in my research on meta-narratives. The idea that there are Continue reading

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How the War on Terror gave us Donald Trump

Twenty years ago, the United States began waging a “war” on terror, and now we learn that it was War on Terror ideas that fueled Trump’s rise to power.

Today, the NYT’s Ezra Klein interviewed his colleague, Spencer Ackerman, about his a new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. In the book, Ackerman talks about how all of Donald Trump’s most egregious campaign themes were actually War on Terror themes, and how Obama missed vital opportunities to repair the situation. You can read the transcript of Klein’s interview here, or listen to the podcast here.

Klein starts right off by laying out the War on Terror meta-narrative. Here it is:

“America faces an existential threat from an undefined, though implicitly brown immigrant Muslim enemy that must be defeated at all costs. America is innocent in this threat. They hate us for our freedom. They hate us for what makes America America. And they are not just trying to defeat us. They are trying to change us. We are in a war of values, a civilizational conflict.”

Once you’ve spelled it all out like that, it’s easy to pick holes in it, especially when you remember that every time terrorists have attacked Americans, they’ve told us why. It’s not that Continue reading

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