Planning the Enemy’s Retreat

Re­lated: Leave a Line of Retreat

When I was smaller, I was sit­ting at home watch­ing The Mummy, with my mother, iron­i­cally enough. There’s a char­ac­ter by the name of Bernard Burns, and you only need to know two things about him. The first thing you need to know is that the titu­lar an­tag­o­nist steals his eyes and tongue be­cause, hey, eyes and tongues spoil af­ter a while you know, and it’s been three thou­sand years.

The sec­ond thing is that Bernard Burns was the spit­ting image of my father. I was ter­rified! I imag­ined my father, lost and alone, cer­tain that he would die, un­able to see, un­able even to prop­erly scream!

After this fright­en­ing or­deal, I had the con­ver­sa­tion in which it is re­vealed that fic­tion is not re­al­ity, that ac­tions in movies don’t re­ally have con­se­quences, that ap­par­ent con­se­quences are merely imag­ined and por­trayed.

Of course I knew this on some level. I think the differ­ence be­tween the way chil­dren and adults ex­pe­rience fic­tion is a mat­ter of de­gree and not kind. And when you’re an adult, sup­press­ing those au­to­matic re­sponses to fic­tion has it­self be­come so au­to­matic, that you ex­pe­rience fic­tion as a thing com­part­men­tal­ized. You always know that the de­scrip­tion of con­se­quences in the fic­tion will not by magic have fire breathed into them, that Imhotep can­not gen­tly step out of the frame and re­ally re­move your real father’s real eyes.

So, even though we of­ten use fic­tion to en­gage, to make things feel more real, in an­other way, once we grow, I think fic­tion gives us the chance to en­ter­tain formidable ideas at a com­fortable dis­tance.

A great user once said, “Vague anx­ieties are pow­er­ful anx­ieties.” Re­lated to this is the sim­ple ra­tio­nal­ity tech­nique of Leav­ing a Line of Re­treat: be­fore eval­u­at­ing the plau­si­bil­ity of a highly cher­ished or deeply fright­en­ing be­lief, one vi­su­al­izes the con­se­quences of the highly cher­ished be­lief be­ing false, or of the deeply fright­en­ing be­lief be­ing true. We hope that it will thereby be­come just a lit­tle eas­ier to eval­u­ate the plau­si­bil­ity of that be­lief, for if we are wrong, at least we know what we’re do­ing about it. Some­times, if not of­ten, what you’d re­ally do about it isn’t as bad as your in­tu­itions would have you think.

If I had to put my finger on the source of that tech­nique’s power, I would name its abil­ity to re­duce the per­ceived he­do­nic costs of truth­seek­ing. It’s hard to es­ti­mate the plau­si­bil­ity of a charged idea be­cause you ex­pect your un­de­sired out­come to feel very bad, and we nat­u­rally avoid this. The trick is in re­al­iz­ing that, in any given situ­a­tion, you have al­most cer­tainly over­es­ti­mated how bad it would re­ally feel.

But Sun Tzu didn’t just plan his own re­treats; he also planned his en­e­mies’ re­treats. What if your in­ter­locu­tor has not prac­ticed the ra­tio­nal­ity tech­nique of Leav­ing a Line of Re­treat? Well, Sun Tzu might say, “Leave one for them.”

As I noted in the be­gin­ning, adults au­to­mat­i­cally com­part­men­tal­ize fic­tion away from re­al­ity. It is sim­ply eas­ier for me to watch The Mummy than it was when I was eight. The formidable idea of my father hav­ing his eyes and tongue re­moved is eas­ier to hold at a dis­tance.

Thus, I hy­poth­e­size, truth in fic­tion is he­do­nically cheap to seek.

When you re­cite the Li­tany of Gendlin, you do so be­cause it makes seem­ingly bad things seem less bad. I pro­pose that the idea gen­er­al­izes: when you’re ex­pe­rienc­ing fic­tion, ev­ery­thing seems less bad than its con­ceiv­ably real coun­ter­part, it’s stuck in­side the book, and any ideas within will then seem less formidable. The idea is that you can use fic­tion as an im­plicit line of re­treat, that you can use it to make any­thing seem less bad by mak­ing it make-be­lieve, and thus, safe. The key, though, is that not ev­ery­thing in­side of fic­tion is stuck in­side of fic­tion for­ever. Some­times con­clu­sions that are valid in fic­tion also turn out to be valid in re­al­ity.

This is hard to use on your­self, be­cause you can’t make a real scary idea into fic­tion, or shoe­horn your scary idea into ex­ist­ing fic­tion, and then make it feel far away. You’ll know where the fic­tion came from. But I think it works well on oth­ers.

I don’t think I can re­ally get the point across in the way that I’d like with­out an ex­am­ple. This pro­posed tech­nique was an ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­ery, like pop­si­cles or the Slinky:

A his­tory stu­dent friend of mine was play­ing Fal­lout: New Ve­gas, and he wanted to talk to me about which end­ing he should choose. The con­ver­sa­tion seemed mostly op­ti­mized for en­ter­tain­ing one an­other, and, hop­ing not to dis­ap­point, I tried to in­ter­twine my fic­tional ram­blings with bona fide in­sights. The stu­dent was con­sid­er­ing giv­ing power to a demo­cratic gov­ern­ment, but he didn’t feel very good about it, mostly be­cause this fic­tional democ­racy was meant to rep­re­sent any­thing that any­one has ever said is wrong with at least one democ­racy, plau­si­ble or not.

“The ques­tion you have to ask your­self,” I pro­posed to the stu­dent, “is ‘Do I value democ­racy be­cause it is a good sys­tem, or do I value democ­racy per se?’ A lot of peo­ple will ad­mit that they value democ­racy per se. But that seems wrong to me. That means that if some­one showed you a bet­ter sys­tem that you could ver­ify was bet­ter, you would say ‘This is good gov­er­nance, but the pur­pose of gov­ern­ment is not good gov­er­nance, the pur­pose of gov­ern­ment is democ­racy.’ I do, how­ever, un­der­stand democ­racy as a ‘cur­rent best bet’ or lo­cal max­i­mum.”

I have in fact got­ten wide-eyed stares for say­ing things like that, even grant­ing the clos­ing eth­i­cal in­junc­tion on democ­racy as lo­cal max­i­mum. I find that un­usual, be­cause it seems like one of the first steps you would take to­wards think­ing about poli­tics clearly, to not equiv­o­cate democ­racy with good gov­er­nance. If you were fur­ther in the past and the fash­ion­able poli­ti­cal sys­tem were not democ­racy but monar­chy, and you, like many oth­ers, con­sider democ­racy prefer­able to monar­chy, then upon a fu­ture hu­man re­veal­ing to you the no­tion of a mod­ern democ­racy, you would find your­self say­ing, re­gret­tably, “This is good gov­er­nance, but the pur­pose of gov­ern­ment is not good gov­er­nance, the pur­pose of gov­ern­ment is monar­chy.”

But be­cause we were ar­gu­ing for fic­tional gov­ern­ments, our au­toc­ra­cies, or monar­chies, or what­ever non-demo­cratic gov­ern­ments heretofore un­seen, could not by magic have fire breathed into them. For me to en­ter­tain the idea of a non-demo­cratic gov­ern­ment in re­al­ity would have so­lic­ited in­cre­d­u­lous stares. For me to en­ter­tain the idea in fic­tion is good con­ver­sa­tion.

The stu­dent is one of two peo­ple with whom I’ve had this pre­cise con­ver­sa­tion, and I do mean in the par­tic­u­lar sense of “Which Fal­lout end­ing do I pick?” I snuck this opinion into both, and both came back weeks later to tell me that they spent a lot of time think­ing about that par­tic­u­lar part of the con­ver­sa­tion, and that the opinion I shared seemed deep.

Also, one of them told me that they had re­cently re­ceived some in­cre­d­u­lous stares.

So I think this works, at least some­times. It looks like you can sneak scary ideas into fic­tion, and make them seem just non-scary enough for some­one to ar­rive at an ac­cu­rate be­lief about that scary idea.

I do won­der though, if you could gen­er­al­ize this even more. How else could you re­duce the per­ceived he­do­nic costs of truth­seek­ing?