How 'Good Vs Evil' Narratives Are Breaking Your Brain
Not every story has a villain
Let’s say somebody invents a pill that cures criminals, with 100% effectiveness. The murderous rapist takes one dose and all desire to hurt others vanishes forever. Here’s the question: If they agree to take it immediately upon arrest, do they get to go free? Or do you think they should still be punished for what they’ve done? Think about it, we’ll come back to it.
Like many of you, I've turned "Being mad at people who reject science" into a part-time job, one that doesn't pay anything and is in fact subtracting years off my life. But, in the process of being angry about anti-vaxxers, I've noticed a deeply unscientific belief that pervades even my airtight left-wing bubble. It boils down to,
"Every big problem can be traced to some evil group of villains, and progress is entirely about defeating them."
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works and how humans behave. I think this is a huge problem for the future and, as always, I've tried to anticipate your questions:
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1. "Did you seriously write a whole column on how evil doesn't exist? So Hitler wasn't evil? Or rapists? Or scammers who bankrupt the elderly?"
At the very least, declaring "evil" to be the root of a problem is unscientific.
Imagine Yale released a detailed study on rising crime and their conclusion was just, "Since 2019, Americans have simply become more evil. There are just way more assholes now." Experts don't talk like that; they deal in quantifiable factors like poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, etc. Studies into the obesity epidemic don't rant about the sins of sloth and gluttony, if you ask your vet why your dog won't stop chewing on the furniture, she doesn't reply, "Because he's a bad dog. Just a real piece of shit."
Experts don't think that way (at least, not when functioning in their roles as experts) because it's not productive in finding a solution. "The subject is evil and/or disgusting" is a thought-stopper, a reason to not do any more work on the problem. It never offers a course of action beyond, "Heap scorn on them so that we can revel in our superiority." Don’t get me wrong, scorn is great for keeping some people in line, but it's demonstrably ineffective if the subject doesn't care about your opinion of them.
2. "Why are you telling your progressive readers this? It's the religious right who boils everything down to angels and devils."
Sure, but everyone already knows that and I think the way this manifests itself on the left is a little more subtle and insidious. As examples, I’m going to use two of our current battlegrounds - COVID and climate change - but it applies to nearly all of them:
The most stunning revelation of the pandemic, after the fact that Americans are apparently just terrified of running out of toilet paper, was that our disease experts were well-versed in how viruses work but seemed to have devoted zero time to understanding how humans work. Using science, they correctly concluded that the spread of SARS-CoV-2 could be halted if all Americans stopped close contact and wore a mask outside the home. But they somehow failed to realize that many if not most Americans were absolutely not going to do those things.
I mean, if your job is to study how diseases spread in humans, the behavior of the pathogen is only half of the equation, right? The behavior of the people matters just as much, and there was a mountain of readily-available evidence that they were not going to obey an open-ended order to stop socializing. They were never going to cut off in-person encounters with loved ones, young people were not going to simply abandon the activities that allow them to meet new friends and sex partners.
Equally observable and quantifiable was the fact that most Americans don't like masks. They impede interpersonal communication in frustrating ways (obscuring facial expressions, hiding lips and muffling voices) and have negative cultural connotations. We see masks as dehumanizing, which is why cannon fodder bad guys always wear them...
...and superheroes remove them at their most heroic moment:
We even use the removal of a mask to symbolize a character has been redeemed, or had their full humanity restored:
Will we wear a mask on the job, because the alternative is getting fired? Sure. Will we wear a mask in a specific situation (say, when entering a burning building or participating in an Eyes Wide Shut-style fuck gala)? Of course. Will we voluntarily wear a mask all day, every day, indefinitely, based on extremely vague messaging about how much it actually helps? Fuck no. I could have told the CDC this and I'm so far from being a scientist that I wrote a book called Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick.
Also, the fact that the nation is highly polarized and that a certain percentage of the population would resist any mandate, no matter how unobtrusive, was also easily predictable based on available data. For all sorts of cultural and political reasons, this group sees compliance with government as emasculating and humiliating. Disease experts could have done that research by opening any random page of a US history book, or just walking outside for five minutes.
And yet, among my peers, around 100% of the reaction boils down to declaring the non-compliers to be evil, end of discussion. "They're selfish assholes." It's the exact kind of value judgment we'd find laughable if coming from a scientific journal. It's no different from Christian schools teaching abstinence-only Sex Ed because they refuse to accept the undeniable fact that young people are going to do sex stuff regardless of any moral condemnation from the adults they’re already rebelling against.
This is a problem. Once you’ve settled on "moral failing" as the root cause of an issue, no other thoughts are possible because the mere act of considering any other intervention would just be enabling the moral failing.
3. "So they were just supposed to give in to these selfish, anti-science assholes?"
I'm saying that the rage you feel in your gut when you think of the selfish assholes is purely emotional and irrational. From the start, a true objective mind should have been able to say, "It is physically impossible to force this population to comply, so we must make a plan that does not depend on it."
What about a supply of free COVID saliva tests, so that vaccine resisters can at least be confident they're not dooming grandma with their next visit? Or guidelines about how to have safe social encounters in the COVID era, instead of issuing the kind of abstinence-only commandments that we would openly mock in literally any other circumstance? Why not adapt to how people actually behave and meet them half way? If we know they’re going to gather indoors, make sure there’s ventilation.
I don’t see how the same doesn’t apply to climate change. A statement like, "We can't fix climate change until we overcome human greed!" is as unscientific as, "We can't fix climate change until someone can convince CO2 to knock it off." CO2 reacts to infrared energy in a certain way that can be observed in the lab, and humans manage their lives in a certain way that is just as observable: They will give themselves and their families the best lifestyle they can afford.
They will not, for the most part, voluntarily make their families live impoverished lifestyles purely in the name of saving the planet long-term. And to be clear, that is what we're talking about when we speak of rejecting consumerism and living “simpler” lives. We're asking them to sit and sweat instead of turning on the AC, to ride a bike to work in the pouring rain instead of driving in their dry, comfortable car, to take fewer flying vacations and deprive their families of those experiences, to voluntarily choose more expensive green options when shopping, leaving them and their children with less disposable income.
Sure, some people will do that, because their political tribe awards social status for driving a Tesla and posting protest photos on Instagram. But it is a known fact that half of America will reject those choices to signal their status in the opposing tribe. And we just have to work around it.
The easy answer is, "Then we'll just have the government force them!" But you know these people vote, right? That solution will only last until the next election, at which point every politician who tried to force citizens to live less comfortable lives will be ejected from office. You can't just Thanos-snap the resisters out of existence and you can't just beat them with election day turnout because, believe it or not, they care just as much as you do.
If your response is, "We can't negotiate with evil, that's giving in!" then you’re demonstrating my point: That a belief in evil makes it impossible to ever resolve any disagreement, ever, because doing so would taint your own moral purity. But what peace treaty wasn't a compromise between two sides that saw each other as evil? What great human achievement wasn't the result of cooperation among people with different moral values? Let me give you a hint: You can't so much as buy a cup of coffee without involving someone who profoundly disagrees with your morals. Society is literally nothing but cooperation among people who, in ancient times, would have brutally murdered each other.
4. "So, again, you're saying we're doomed because so many of us are selfish, greedy shitheads."
I’m saying that human behavior is what it is. You can get mad at a coyote that kills your cat but that's not rational; it's doing what it does. And humans do what they do: They prioritize the short-term comfort and safety of themselves and their families above all else. You can still get angry if you want, I certainly do, but at best, moral outrage is just a motivator to take action, it isn't a useful guide for what action to take.
And no, I personally don't think we're doomed. I think we can come through the climate crisis once we realize the challenge isn't, "Browbeat the bad people into sacrificing to save the environment" but rather, "Invent new tech that isn't just low carbon, but is also way better than what we were using before." I'm not talking about just replacing the coal power plants, I'm talking about replacing them a hundred times over, so much cheap clean energy that every third-world apartment will have a jacuzzi that they keep running 24/7 just for the hell of it. I'm talking about jacked-up electric pickup trucks that can haul a load of bricks up goddamned Everest, electric race cars that will make gasoline users ashamed to show their faces at the track.
I'm talking about so much clean juice that it'll be cheap to desalinate ocean water and irrigate deserts, to grow so many trees that you'll see the greening from fucking space. I'm talking about a future that speaks of climate change the way we talk about the hole in the ozone layer now (as in, some of my younger readers literally don't remember that crisis, and definitely don't remember having to sacrifice anything to beat it).
“It’s naïve to think that kind of leap is even possible!” Are you sure? Get in your time machine, grab a starving pioneer family from 1821 and show them our modern grocery stores and restaurants. They’d faint at the sight of the abundance. Go back and show Charles Babbage your smartphone and tell him we now manufacture them by the billion. Now ask yourself: Did we have to overcome some evil group of villains to make these advances happen? Or did we just discover way better methods of making stuff?
5. "Do you seriously not believe in punishing bad behavior, in order to discourage future behavior?"
If you have solid evidence that punishment is effective at changing the behavior, punish away. My issue is with the belief that every problem can be solved this way, by finding and punishing the right people. I think that’s Hollywood superhero bullshit.
Housing prices are rising? It definitely can't be due to supply and demand, too many people moving to the cities and fighting over too few homes. There has to be someone to blame, some evil person or party we can find and punish. My feeds are full of memes about murdering landlords; now go find me a rational, scientific analysis that proves that is a successful long-term strategy for lowering housing prices.
This, I think, goes back to our thought experiment about the murderer cure at the top of the article, and the disgust some of you felt at the idea of the reformed monster getting off without some kind of retribution. I think we’re stuck on the same belief in guilt and atonement that pervades organized religion, this idea that solving the problem isn’t enough, that some humans simply deserve to feel pain, that the cosmic bill must come due. We insist the selfish anti-maskers and greedy oil investors must be brought low, must prostrate themselves and admit we were right. You know, like how we have an entire subreddit making fun of COVID deniers who died of COVID. The anti-vaxxer assholes who somehow never catch the disease will seem to have cheated, somehow.
It’s almost unthinkable that thirty years from now, today's ignorant SUV drivers could smoothly transition to a much bigger, better SUV fueled by zero-carbon electricity from a next-gen nuclear power plant built under President Joe Rogan. They can't get off that easy! That Exxon could just transition to green energy - using technology subsidized by the government, no less - and be equally profitable in 2050 seems even more outrageous. "They have to pay for what they've done!" Says who? "Those oil executives should be in jail!" I thought we wanted to abolish prison?
6. “What about a problem like the rise of right-wing authoritarianism? Isn’t that literally a battle against evil?”
Sure, and I’m not asking you to stop thinking of it that way. My question would be this: If you found out a loved one was falling down a rabbit hole of racist propaganda and Great Replacement conspiracy videos, how would you dissuade them? What’s the best strategy? You can try telling them that these thoughts are evil, that the videos are made by racist assholes scared of losing their stranglehold on society, but their new alt-right friends are saying the same about you. So now what?
That’s all I’m saying; you have to ask what, from a rational, quantifiable point of view, are some effective methods for saving an individual (or an entire society) from a dark path. Are you able to think through your visceral disgust long enough to even explore the question in detail? Does thinking about it too hard make you feel dirty? Why, if the goal is to find the best strategy for stopping it? You can feel disgust at the perpetrators (we all do!) but that feeling, and the expression of it, is not itself a solution. The best you can hope for is that it motivates you to find one.
But, like I said, I’m not an expert, I’m just a guy who spent too long laughing at this tree that looks like it’s shitting itself:
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