While editing the ‘excerpts’ from Cory Doctorow’s long interview in the current issue of Locus Magazine, excerpts that I posted online on Sunday (here), I captured several other passages from that interview that particularly appeal to the themes of this blog.
Rebecca Solnit is this amazing historian, who wrote this book called A Paradise Built in Hell, which documents the distance between how we remember disasters and what happened in them. For historians, their gold standard is contemporaneous first-person accounts, what people present at the event said when it was happening. When you examine the contemporaneous first-person events from Katrina, the 1906 earthquake, the Haiti earthquake, and all these other disasters that are remembered as times where humanity displayed its least noble, most capricious, most violent and unhinged side, what you find is that people who were there really witnessed humanity at its finest. There was this enormous outpouring of kindness and selflessness, people rising to the occasion, against the backdrop of the certainty by the elites that the poors were coming to eat them.
This concerns the optimistic theme of his new novel Walkaway, about how people would react to a disaster. It challenges my PvC #9, that a worldwide catastrophe would reduce humanity to superstitious, primitive tribes — a conclusion based on numerous classics works of SF. Cory thinks that results is a cliche; I think it’s still likely in some circumstances. We’re at odds about matter of degree, I think.
What’s interesting for me about this, in the context of fiction, is that I understand why fiction writers follow disaster with catastrophe. In terms of plotting, there’s this amazing thing you get for free if the earthquake is followed by looting. But that creates what behavioral economists call the ‘availability heuristic.’ When you try to assess the probability of an event, the vividness with which you can picture it influences the probability you ascribe to it. We are habitually large overestimators of the likelihood of a child being abducted by a stranger, and massive catastrophic underestimators of the likelihood of a child dying in a car crash. Listeria kills more people than terrorism in America, but we do not have a trillion dollar war on poor refrigeration. That’s because it’s easy to picture a terrorist death, in part because we’ve seen it in the movies, and it’s hard to picture death from food poisoning, because it’s unglamorous, and it goes unreported and unremarked upon.
This is partly an incrimination of storytelling; how human nature wants there to be story in every understanding of the world, even though many things in the world are completely random. And partly about how journalism works, focusing on the exceptional negative, by definition, and how many people, no matter how much the world gets better by objective standards (as discussed in recent essays by Nicholas Kristof), think the world is still on the verge of anarchy because of the news story anecdotes they see nightly on TV… and drummed up by the conservatives, who play to such fears to win elections.
When they say, ‘no one is ever the villain of their own story,’ that raises the question: how did they become the villains then? The answer is in large part about self-deception. That’s the other thing about Walkaway: the walkways are an offshoot of the current rationalist movement, people who are trying to operationalize behavioral economics, to identify and counter their own cognitive biases, and to understand that self-serving bullshit is the origin of all wickedness. They want to find a way call each other on that behavior, and call themselves on it without becoming dysfunctional, awful people who have no fun and spend all their time shouting ‘Strawman!’ and ‘Availability heuristic’ at each other. They want to retain the playfulness that makes the place they’ve gone to better than the place they came from.
There is no ‘good’ and ‘evil’. No one thinks they are doing evil; they think they are doing what must be done, usually for some greater (religious, ideological) cause. Cory has a nice insight here: it’s also about self-deception, i.e. another variety of human mental bias.
About Trump voters:
The reality is that within us we have a nature that is shortsighted, self-serving, wicked, and mean-spirited, and we have a nature that’s noble, kind, and clear-eyed. Those natures fight themselves within us. One of the things that holds our wicked nature in check is the idea that there are social consequences for letting it out. Maybe intellectually you know there are some things you shouldn’t say or do to people, but when you are really angry, it may not be the intellectual part of you that stops you from doing that. It may be that same emotional factor, and the belief that if I give public vent to this dark nature of mine, I will face a social consequence that is real and pervasive. So when Trump gets elected, and we see a rise in hate crimes, it’s not because all of the sudden there are lots more haters. It’s because the social cost of doing otherwise unthinkable things was dramatically lowered. Suddenly that was an acceptable thing.
This echoes E.O. Wilson’s distinction between individual and group selection (e.g. quoted here); “Individual selection favors what we call sin and group selection favors virtue.”
And it’s the Overton Window. Whether or not Obama was smart enough to anticipate it, once he introduced expanded health coverage, it became the new normal for tens of thousands of people, and it’s difficult and perhaps impossible for the other party to now roll it back. At best they can tweak it. As we are seeing happening now. But it can never go back to pre-Obamacare.