See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Category Archives: Language

Emergent Evil, Perspective, and Responsibility

In these last couple weeks, I’ve been circling around a recurring theme of the complexities of responsibility for evil. When we talk about particular evils that are in the world, the stakes and baggage tends to cloud up our discussions, so I’d like turn to the weightless world of video games as a venue to examine evil and who is responsible for it.

In video game design, there is a lot of talk about designing games with emergent gameplay instead of curated gameplay. Curated gameplay is what most people think of when they think of a video games: game designers provide a top to bottom engineered experience, scripted to suit the beginning, middle, and end of the game’s story. When you play, say, Mario Bros., you run through the same levels, interacting with the same enemies, entering the same castles where your princess is still not available for rescue. Emergent gameplay, on the other hand, occurs when designers create a set of game mechanics and rules, and player interaction with those rules and each other causes complex game systems to emerge.

A particularly interesting example of emergent gameplay occurs within EVE Online, a MMPORG best described as a nightmarish combination of multiplayer Sid Meier’s Pirates! in space! and Microsoft Excel. Within the EVE Online game space there have emerged complex societal and financial transactions, specialized roles, and factions made entirely of players creating their own norms and behaviors, without the benefit of the computerized game to enforce them.1 That’s pretty amazing, but it comes with an enormous amount of bad, anti-social behavior, even virtual crimes. Players will often find their in-game avatars killed for the amusement of other players, have their assets stolen by supposed friends, and a whole host of advanced predation. It isn’t just virtual reputation and blood, sweat, and tears at stake either, virtual in-game cash is sufficiently fungible to turn into out-of-game currency.

The game designers respond to all of this predation by smiling and disclaiming responsibility.2 Perhaps this is disingenuous. After all, the designers of EVE Online chose to create a mostly lawless environment, and then they encouraged players to take advantage of it. Surely then, they have some sort of responsibility for the predators they enable. But, wouldn’t there also be a special sort of responsibility, perhaps even an intervening one, for the predators who take advantage of that lawless environment? Aren’t the designers of EVE Online less responsible for the emergent predation that they could not have foreseen compared to the ones they foresaw or even encouraged?

When I criticized Ta-Neisi Coates’ Case for Reparations, I focused on his vague, even incoherent, description of the reparations themselves. This incoherence stemmed from his treatment of the different sorts of predation he cataloged. From slavery, to redlining by Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to contract sellers, to rogue grand juries to lynchings, Coates never paused to dwell on the diversity of bad actors, treating sovereigns and mob members alike. When the contract sellers preyed on Black families in North Lawndale, was the city of Chicago (or the FHA, or the realtors or…) curating that evil, or did it emerge?3 The Case for Reparations clearly demonstrated that the FHA directly and maliciously harmed Blacks with redlining, and redlining gave rise to an environment where predators thrived. It is not clear however, that contract sellers were cultivated or merely emerged as an unhappy accident.

Emergent evils were at work in a different way during Elliot Rodger’s lethal rampage on a UC Santa Barbara sorority. Rodger was apparently spurred on by his misogyny and frustration with his “involuntary celibacy”. Rodger’s evil was emergent, doubly so. There is little doubt in my mind that Rodger was mad, but his madness filtered through a cultural substrate, colored, glossed, and tweaked by the particular sorts of horrors our society produces at its fringes.4 Just as the paranoid take unconscious inspiration from the news and TV shows to imagine themselves the unwitting stars of reality television, Rodger’s rage was stewed in misogyny and a toxic sort of masculinity. In response to Rodger’s attack on women, many women went online to share their perspectives and experience using the hashtag #YesAllWomen 5 The common thread that emerged throughout the tweets was an overwhelming sense of fear of predation by men. Not all men, but not any particular man or group of men either.

The Rogers of the world are not the fault of Patriarchal video-game-of-life designers using the Rogers of the world as their victim-assailants on women.6 The appearance of such a design is illusory, the result of invisible strands of culture taking hold as they tug, shift, and channel ideas, even with the supposed puppet masters of our society. The commonality of experiences do not indicate a commonality of cause, a conspiracy of predation. To what degree are the Rodgers of the world and other threats to women emergent and what to degree are they curated? That is the sort of question that doesn’t get answered much by those advocating social justice, and while I have plenty of uncharitable guesses as to why, the fairest explanation seems to be that from the victim’s perspective, whether predators emerged or were curated is pretty unimportant. The victimization happens either way, and whether implicitly or explicitly, social justice advocates are advocating on behalf of victims.

It does matter whether the threats from men described in the #YesAllWomen tweets were emergent or curated, and it matters whether the contract sellers emerged or were curated. Not just because that will shed light on who the villain, if any, of the tale is. If social justice advocates speak for the victims, and lawyers speak on behalf of the accused, it leaves the rest of us as third parties. Paying attention to whether evils are emergent gives an accurate and precise description of the how and why of the problem at hand. If you’re in the business of making the world a better place, an accurate and precise description of a problem puts you a well designed and implemented machine away from solving that problem.

That problem has to be solved. Both #YesAllWomen and the Case for Reparations drove home experiences held in common that have infected the very warp and woof of the daily life of too many people. Emergent evil is not satisfying theory of those crimes, and it is not meant to be. To recognize emergence is to recognize that very few are actually guilty. In fact, emergence can produce good as well as evil, so it also denies us many heroes. But if a theory of emergent evil denies an illusory justice for victims, it does not deny that there are victims. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “[f]ew are guilty, but all are responsible.” Emergence denies guilt, but it does not absolve us of our responsibility.


The Illusion of Accountability

Accountability is a word that gets abused a lot in day to day life. Just in the news last week was the firing – sorry, resignation under pressure – of Secretary Eric Shinseki, just now formerly head of the Veteran’s Administration and before that, a little backwater post as the Army Chief of Staff. Now, I don’t know anything bout Shinseki except what I read, and what I’ve read suggest that most people think he was an honorable and impressive man trying to head a massive bureaucracy with systemic failures accumulating over the decades. Except in the most formal of senses, Shinseki was not at fault for what happened at the V.A., (or even there for the origin of these problems) it just happened to blow up on his watch. This happens a lot, and maybe it’s a good thing. But whether we are normal, everyday people or professional reporters, we have got to stop calling it accountability when the head of an organization is fired, – sorry, pressured to resign – without regard to their actual connection to the events at hand. That’s not accountability, just an illusion.

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False Friends at Strange Shores

Probably the most foundational idea in my life isn’t religious, ethical, or relational. It’s a pretty simple observation, a rule of thumb really: an advantage can be a disadvantage, and a disadvantage can be an advantage, it depends on context. Not merely social context, but as an inherent property, most everything is a mixed bag. It’s pretty much the only that gets me through the day being, well, me.

As I’ve indicated before, my youth was troubled, even if I was too pro-social to be considered a troubled youth. I had – have – focus problems and impulse control problems stacked on top of a compulsive need to analyze and systematize everything. It wasn’t all bad. I was – am – a pretty smart and I was – am – a strongly intuitive learner, good with systems, patterns, and stealing extra efficiency out of a studying routine. It’s a gift of nurture and nature and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But for all of the advantages, there are some real downsides as well. I was unused to being genuinely bad at something. Even if I hadn’t been convinced that a lack of complete of all intellectual pursuits was a tremendous moral failure, my long reliance on intuition would have – did, does – doom me to frustration and failure, especially as a child.

If you sat me down before a list of things and asked me to memorize them, I’d get fidgety and bored fast. And then, when I tried my very best, I’ll turn out to be really bad at it – even worse than “normal” kids – which will frustrated me quite a bit. When you’re 7 and your parents are legacies of an effective but brutal rote memorization school of education, it just looks like you’re lazy. I certainly thought so anyway. 1 And as narcissistic and ridiculous as it is to complain about being so gifted that being brought down to normal is torture, when you’re 7, you don’t know any better. The bad habits have stuck around long past me getting a good dose of perspective.

It wasn’t just the let down from relying on a talent and having that talent fail you, but in some cases, that talent, that asset, led me astray. I have failed at a truly staggering number of things, and I carry a perpetual sense of shame for having “gotten away with” less than stellar work on multiple occasions throughout my educational career. As bad as all of that can be, nothing haunts me the way that failing to learn Chinese, and to a lesser extent, French has. Probably because of all of the academic failures and false starts, not knowing Chinese has cost me the most. More, infra

A Brief Follow-up on the Tragedy of the Hitler Commons

I generally hate columns. The format and genre encourages short, definitive, statements; brusque, poorly-constructed, arguments; and overreaching conclusions; none of which is particularly useful for the typical audience member. I feel like yesterday’s post was very much within that mold, and for that I am sorry. The last thing I want to do as a writer is to waste your time, and I should have spent more time sanding down the sharp corners and rough edges of the essay.

That all having been said, I stand by the basic thrust of the argument. Classifying persons, ideas or groups into class nouns of “bad people” is a poor rhetorical technique and is very nearly always asking for trouble. Not always, but cautiously avoiding those words will generally get you farther  There is also an importance difference between talking about a class of problems as a force in the world and fingering someone or something as part of it. It is almost always more useful to talk about homophobia than homophobes, climate change instead of climate changers, greed instead of the greedy.

Relying on class nouns comes from the same place in arguments that all ad hominem attacks do. It is a place of frustration. Whether the motivating desire to hurt, to manipulate, or simply to save face, it stems from failure of imagination on the part of the writer. Let me put it another way, can you really not describe the wrong of what a person does without using this class words like a bludgeon? Why not describe in detail what is wrong, and why it is wrong instead of tossing it in a bucket? It isn’t that these class words should never be used, it is that we should use them rarely cognizant of the gravity and power. In the words of my favorite fictional President of the United States “[e]very once in a while, every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts.” For the writer, proper nuance can be a trap yes, but it is also a sacred responsibility that came with the power of the pen.

Tragedy of the Hitler Commons (Or, Making the World a Better Place for Assholes)

A prefatory note: I’ve been reading that one of the problems with young, inexperienced writers in the post-blog world is that we have a tendency to publish reams of controversial material before forming a relationship with an editor. 1 So here is my entry into the genre.

Over at The Anchoress Elizabeth Scalia is taking issue with the use of “homophobia” explaining:

So, “homophobia” is inexact; it is divisive; it is over-used. Most troublingly for a thoughtful writer, it is a word whose use risks an idea going unread — often by an audience that most needs to ponder it — or getting so bogged-down in ideological cant that its point is lost.

Scalia is trying to protect the ability of writers to have good faith discussions and reasonable but unpopular differences. Great! She’s also underselling the problem. Homophobia is a real problem and an absolute murderous scourge on the world. Homophobia has torn apart families, created enormous amounts of psychic harm, and has actually motivated murder. So no, it isn’t a good idea to freely declare anything insufficiently progressive and enlightened vis-a-vis gay folk to homophobia, and it isn’t just because it is troublingly inexact to do so.

No, the problem is that when you indulge – and it is a slothful, wrathful, and prideful indulgence – in classification-as-argument you’re defrauding your audience and harming the people you claim to be protecting. If you, say, call President Obama (or former President Bush) a tyrant in general or Hitler-esque in particular, you’re invoking the whole class of murderous historical figures, stealing all of the revulsion your audience feels and hoping no one notices when you slip in another figure whose major offense is frustrating your moral imagination. Instead of convincing me on the merits, you’re trying to blackmail me into both agreeing with you, but also into pretending, as you do, that it is so Very Important. 2

Even if you’re not trying to manipulate your audience on purpose – you are, but we’ll pretend for the moment – every single time you try to amplify the awfulness of your pet peeve it comes at the price of making the class of horribles you invoked more likely to occur! You cannot expand a class to include a poor-fitting member without damaging the class. For example, when the list of things that make you a felon includes both writing a bad check and writing out an order to have someone killed, the class of “felon” is less horrifying than if it only included writing out orders to have someone killed. 3 This is one of those places where being a lazy writer makes the world a worse place – you weaken the word through over use, stretching it past its breaking point, and like over fishing a sea, you, along with everyone else destroy all the moral weight left in the word and the ideas behind them.

You already know this to be true, because I can give you a simple example nearly universal to the English-speaking audience: “sin”. 4 Sin doesn’t mean much anymore, and that is in no small part due to a centuries of hucksters, schoolmarms and the occasional well-meaning hand-wringer labeling anything remotely fun or discomforting with the word. “Sin” invokes two ideas simultaneously: trivial indulgences and long discredited kill joys. So much so that the very idea of sin as a harmful indulgence, a wrong done to the self and others has receded back into our cultural memory. 5

Please, by all means, talk about tyranny, and how terrible it is. Talk about homophobia, and racism, and antisemitism. Talk about the evil that exists in the world, and our little tiny contributions to making the world a terrible place. We do need reminders of the pervasive nature of evil. But we also need to remember that evil is also boring and banal. For all the high-profile causes of mass misery, you’ve done more evil in your day by being an asshole to some stranger that you don’t even remember. And every time you get high calling some stranger on the internet a nasty name for being nasty to weak people, every pat on the back you give yourself for “standing up” from the comfort of a comment box makes it that much less likely you are actually going to give a damn about the people you actually encounter every day.

That, I think, is the most infuriating aspect of the whole thing. There is the almost understandable tragedy of the commons – so many people demand you care about their cause and they are all competing to be sure, and that makes the verbal pollution spewed forth by sanctimonious partisans disgusting, but at least supposedly linked to some good. It is really the smug self-satisfaction that comes from people dressing up scarecrows like dragons just to slay them and the very real corrosion of their moral sense in the process.

So stop. Just stop it. That means stop calling people Hitler, stop calling people homophobes, stop calling people racists, stop calling people antisemites. Just stop doing it, because it makes you a bad writer and a bad person. Stop it because you are aiding and abetting the enemy. Stop relying on big nasty words to do your work for you. Stop it because it is unnecessary almost all the time, and you’re fishing the pond dry. When the next Hitler actually comes, we’re going to need all the help we can get.