Thursday, October 20, 2016


There's been a lot of talk lately about "political violence". Lots of talk about how to handle conservative extremism; lots of talk about what to do about our potential president, "Hitler, But Also A Rapist". Lots of phrases like "political violence is never acceptable" conjoined with statements like "drone warfare is a political necessity", and on the flipside, lots of people arguing that fascism must be stopped by any means who - surprisingly - are still sitting in front of a computer instead of dying nobly for the cause.

In that climate I think it's useful for me to make it exactly clear what I mean when I say "the discourse around violence is bad", as I often seem to do (like for example here and here and here). The thing is, I'm not a pacifist. I think there are many conditions where violence can be necessary - see my review of SWAT 4 for examples. I just dislike two things: first, I dislike the glorification of violence (it should remain a regrettable tool of last resort, akin to putting down a rabid dog), and second, I dislike dehumanization, which is to say, I dislike it when human beings are depicted as flat and two-dimensional in order to make it more palatable for the protagonist/player/etc to kill them.

The thing about dehumanization is that there's a lot of objections I could make on moral grounds. I could make objections about the inherently sacred nature of human autonomy and individuality, and the basic, fundamental wrongness of stereotyping. To be frank, however, that kind of thing either resonates right away or it doesn't resonate at all. So I'm going to take a different tack. I condemn dehumanization on practical grounds, and here is why:

Dehumanization fails to prepare you for the reality of dealing with human beings.

This observation isn't new; it's one of Umberto Eco's listed weaknesses of fascism: "Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy." Dehumanization is why the United States military walks into countries like Iraq or Vietnam expecting an easy victory over cartoonish resistance, and then is surprised when it turns out their aggressively imperialistic approach produces more resistance than it destroys. Dehumanization is why a government tries to justify torture and then has the gall to ask why the enemy is fighting back harder. Dehumanization is a culture that fantasizes about fighting against foreign invaders to the last man in film after film, yet can't wrap its head around the idea of people from other cultures feeling the same way about their own country, their own people, their own faith.

Even progressive people who understand why these things are wrong will occasionally turn around and forget about it when it's in another political direction. They'll accept premises like "trying to violently force western values on Muslim states just justifies their fears about cultural imperialism, making them resist more desperately", or "Demonization of criminals often results in policies that make things worse for them, making it harder for them to re-enter society and more likely to commit more crimes". Then they'll turn around with something like "Conservatives are bad because they treat their enemies like soulless monsters and justify endless violence against them; for that reason, they themselves must be dealt with using endless violence." I can't tell you how many people like that have shared stories about what a bad person they used to be before they changed for the better, but who will turn around and say "those people are bad and they will never change" about someone else.

There's a reason for this. It's called the Fundamental Attribution Error. The FAE is a cognitive bias, a filter that the human brain uses to keep out information it doesn't like. It basically says when people see their own traits as environmental, whereas other people's traits are inherent. When you look at your own actions, you see the road that took you to it. You remember being overwhelmed by emotions, or chemical influence, or social stress, or whatever else. When you look at someone else's actions, more likely than not you're going to say "that's just how they are" without factoring in all that other stuff. This is why a person who's gone on a journey of self-discovery and changed from one political philosophy all the way to another can look at someone else and go "that person is just bad, and they will never change".

The thing about violence is that it's a tool, and like every tool it has to be applied in a certain way to be effective. Again, I am not a pacifist - I believe under certain conditions, violence, even lethal violence, is fully justified. However, there are two things to keep in mind about violence, from a purely utilitarian perspective. Firstly, violence is not inconsequential; even if your side wins, you are going to lose people that you care about. Secondly, human beings engage in violence until they hit their limit, which is different for every person. A normal human will run when things get too hairy, will give up if they can't run, and - this is the kicker - will fight to the death if they aren't allowed to surrender. From a utilitarian sense, combat is about demoralizing an enemy just as much as it's about destroying them, and the more decisively you can demoralize an enemy, the less damage is going to be done to both sides.

Consider these numbers about World War 2:

18 million Germans were part of the military.
4-5 million of them died.
11 million Germans were taken prisoner during the war.

Even adjusting for statistical complexities, the point is still clear: most German soldiers surrendered rather than fighting to the death. Most of them, when put into a situation with no escape, surrendered when they were given the chance. And when the war was over, most of them went home and became normal people again. You had a nation populated by the leftover wehrmacht that somehow failed to rise again in fascist rebellion. If they were so incorrigible, surely they would have fought even if they knew they would have been destroyed by the Allied forces? But they didn't. They accepted the change, with a few stray exceptions, and altered their cultural values. Both Germany and Japan went from militaristic, fascist and nationalist to "liberal democracies", even though a substantial portion of their population consisted of returning veterans from the previous regimes.

I'm going to link now to an insanely pragmatic article by Gary Brecher called "The Confederates Who Should've Been Hanged". Brecher's contention is that, after the Civil War, the most viciously effective demagogues should have been executed - but not the rest. The idea is that you would put down the ones who would absolutely cause trouble in peacetime, but you would leave the others alive to prevent them from becoming martyrs and inviting further rebellion. Brecher believes that the American government was too lenient on the Confederacy out of that fear of rebellion, and thus it didn't take the opportunity to cut out tumors when it could have. And because of that, two things arose: the KKK, the intimidation wing of the Confederate legacy, and"Lost Causer" mythology, the information wing. Both of these wings were headed by former Confederate officers, and both worked actively to prevent the South from changing its cultural makeup.

Violence destroyed "the Confederacy", but it could never have destroyed racism as a whole - that had to be done with cultural change. The ex-Confederates knew this. They did not take on the American government directly, or try to start a second civil war. They used propaganda-based education along with intimidation of their enemies in order to maintain their own cultural presence. In 1871, President Grant sent federal troops and agents in to dismantle the KKK. They did this because state officials couldn't be trusted to enforce the law against the Klan. However, they failed to dismantle the Lost Causer mythology - it was far more far-reaching and harder to detect than a bunch of overt actors in bedsheets. As a result, Confederate-biased ideology remained dominant in the south even after the KKK had been taken down. In 1915, a movie called The Birth of a Nation was released, and, well, I believe you know the rest.

When the Allies conquered Germany and Japan, they were very firm about ensuring that its citizens and veterans knew they were wrong. They exposed them to information about what they had done, tore down the institutions that propagandized for the old regime, staged visible war crime trials for their leadership, and generally instituted cultural change, rather than merely garrisoning an enemy nation. These changes were based not only on destroying the old institutions but allowing the citizens of the country to embrace the new ones. And while Neo-Nazis and Japanese Imperialists still exist in small numbers today, they are usually seen as outcasts - although the further we get from WW2, the less stigma there is, because the less "real" those events feel. The point is that not only did Germany and Japan have to be defeated militarily, they had to be altered culturally. We did not beat the Nazis by shooting a bunch of them and going home. We beat them by shooting enough of them that we could dismantle their cultural systems and replace it with something different, and ultimately that second part de-fanged a lot more fascists than the first part did.

This is how violence works. Violence is sometimes a saw and sometimes a scalpel, but it must always be applied correctly. Sometimes you have to amputate, but even then the focus is saving the rest of the body. Sometimes you make small cuts to prevent larger damage. Violence cannot be random or haphazard or clumsy if it wants to get anything done. Violence needs to be proportional - the most dangerous must be eliminated before they can do harm, but the majority must be given a chance to surrender and repent, because (if nothing else) forcing their backs to the wall will cause more damage.

Human beings with bad beliefs or morals are still human. They take in information, they process ideas, they change, they evolve. Many of them grew up in environments where all their "trustworthy" information came from family and friends. "Pragmatically moral" violence needs to be about putting people in a situation where they can be exposed to contrary ideas while nullifying their ability to do harm to others. Random, senseless violence makes people feel cornered; cornered animals will bite back because their alternative is death. This is not touchy-feely crap. It is not pacifist propaganda. It's not even a moral argument. It is an acknowledgment of basic human motivations and an understanding of how to make use of them. That is why dehumanization is bad.

Look at the way people talk about "fascism" or "Nazis" in modern parlance. Both terms have been watered down to the point where they just mean "any sort of authoritarian bad guy". Terms like "inhuman" have been thrown around for so long that people genuinely have no idea how close they are to being like them. That's an effect of dehumanization. People should look at fascists and go "it's scary to think how similar to us they are", but instead they look at them and go "those people are so inhuman, we could never be like them". And this is after years of studies about the banality of evil and the effects of conformity and the pressures of obedience. Even after Milgram and Arendt and Zimbardo, people still can't grasp the idea that monsters would have anything in common with regular folks

In the same vein, most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, and yet the image of a rapist as a horrible thug is so prominent that you get stuff like this, where a well-off college student responds with indignation at the very idea that someone like him could ever be a rapist. He objects to "consent education" because the idea that he could ever be as bad as one of those inhuman monsters is totally alien to him. Society's skewed presentation of rapists in the news and in the media failed to prepare him for the statistical reality, and when it's presented to him, he balks at it. People need to be able to look at the worst elements of society and think "that could be me". And the people who have changed need to remember what they used to be like and why they were that way.

Things are changing. Information is available more freely. I think people get frustrated by the slow pace of change, because they're mad that racism hasn't been wholly eliminated or whatever, but it's happening. A democratic socialist made a viable run for president in a country whose last socialist candidate took a mere 4% of the vote (and that was before the Red Scare), and it's almost entirely because of the youth. Those same youths are the ones that are taking the largest stand against Trump. And statistically, a lot of those youths were raised in conservative households, since most of their elders are voting Republican. People can change. People are able to change.

I Grew Up In A Racist Militia: 5 Things I Learned, Evan V. Symon
What hit Pieter the hardest was simply the fact that his father had looked him in the eye and lied to him, just to avoid having to admit that the story of white racism wasn't one of a steady march toward righteous victory. If you've never had to experience it, let us point out that the complete obliteration of everything you've ever believed in isn't an enjoyable experience..."I can't tell you how much fear and apprehension I had that night ... I went to the library the next day to see international papers on the incident. I knew the AWB wasn't liked, but every article said we were hated." And so Pieter had his moment of realization: "We were the bad guys."

The White Flight of Derek Black, Eli Saslow
He was taking classes in Jewish scripture and German multiculturalism during his last year at New College, but most of his research was focused on medieval Europe. He learned that Western Europe had begun not as a great society of genetically superior people but as a technologically backward place that lagged behind Islamic culture. He studied the 8th century to the 12th century, trying to trace back the modern concepts of race and whiteness, but he couldn’t find them anywhere. “We basically just invented it,” he concluded. “Get out of this,” one of his Shabbat friends emailed a few weeks after Derek’s graduation in May 2013, urging Derek to publicly disavow white nationalism. “Get out before it ruins some part of your future more than it already irreparably has.”

A 'Recovering Skinhead' On Leaving Hatred Behind, Frank Meeink
... So then we're sitting there and everyone starts talking again about it, and I say, 'How 'bout my daughter? My daughter's probably more than 75 percent Italian. Are you saying she's not white?' And he says, 'Nope, she ain't white.' And I just beat the crap out of this guy at this party. And I get everyone off of me and I say, 'I'm outta here.' And I walk back down, and I'm going to go catch the train by myself and go back home, and I had been drinking a little bit. And I remember looking up at God and saying, 'God, maybe there's something wrong. Maybe you're right. Maybe on the black, Asian and Latino issue, maybe we are all equal."

It's Such A Little Thing, Kaleb Horton
This does not make them bad people. They were taught to live and think the way they do, by their parents, by their teachers, by their churches, well-entrenched echo chambers, and they were not seriously exposed to competing viewpoints. Those were away from them mostly, in colleges, in cities. And they are people, regular people, flawed like everybody, and they wake up at night with most of the same fears we have. How to hold on, how to keep going. They are not anthropological curiosities. We cannot forget about them just because the America we live in now is no longer the place they were taught to live in.

Anyways, my book's almost done. It's at around 60k words and I'm pretty happy with it. I'm going to release it as a pay-what-you-want eBook on or maybe on Smashwords. Here is the list of topics I cover in the book:

Idealized Values | Customs & Traditions | Law & Mediation | Social Castes | Slavery | Gender Identity | Expressions of Sexuality | Types of Religion | Spirits & Souls | Autocratic Governments | Councils & Communes | Centralization & Independence | Nomadic vs Sedentary | Agriculture | Crafts & Materials | Buildings & Architecture | Trade & Communication | Hair & Body Modification | Clothing | Literature & Storytelling | Artwork | Music | Martial Attitudes | Intensity of Warfare | Nature of Soldiery | Ritualism vs Military Science | Combatant Type & Status | Signals & Supply | Cultural Affinity | Transmission & Assimilation


  1. I've always enjoyed your writing very much, and look forward to purchasing your book when it's available. Always hoping to see my reader pop up with a notification of a new post!

  2. Really looking forward to your book! Is there a mailing list or something I can sign up for?

    1. Thanks, Admung! Nice to hear from you again.

      A mailing list for what, though? Not sure what you mean.

    2. I meant for the updates/announcement of your book, that's all. If not, that's fine too; I'll just continue checking back every so often as I always have.

    3. Oh, OK. Yeah, I'll post about it here. It should probably be done within a month.

  3. That is a diverse collection of topics. Good luck with the book! I'm eagerly looking forward to it, especially for your views on religion. Religion just tends to be misunderstood way too often, and I hope you'll have some well thought insights into it.

    1. Hi Dev, thanks for your support! Right now I'm writing about religion and spirituality from a socio-cultural perspective, i.e. the different types that exist and how they affect societal values, stories, and artwork. Are there any particular aspects you're thinking about?

    2. I'm thinking along the lines of how religious beliefs are formed and what role they play in society. Many an atheist simply dismiss religion without caring to think about what role they play as, say, a moral guide to people, a source of faith and conviction, or even as a way of consoling people who've suffered.

      I do agree that religion can and has been twisted for nefarious purposes multiple times, but I feel its positive aspects deserve more attention, as well as looking at other ways to achieve the effects of those aspects without the downsides of religion.

    3. Well, I definitely cover those topics. I cover both religious beliefs themselves (i.e. monotheism, polytheism, animism, etc) and the impacts they've had on morality, art, music, and so on.

  4. Hey, first and foremost, I'd like to thank you for the article. It's pretty good for the most part. However, I felt it necessary to point out one minor nitpick:

    "The thing is, I'm not a pacifist."

    I mean, honestly, that's how you choose to identify yourself and I don't mind if you don't call yourself a pacifist, but the beliefs you espouse are quite compatible with pacifism (at least, the types of pacifism that are pragmatic, NOT absolute pacifism. Absolute pacifism is utter and complete bullshit, and many pacifists recognize it as such)

    A lot of pacifists are open to violence being a necessary yet regrettable recourse. To quote wikipedia:

    >Some pacifists follow principles of nonviolence, believing that nonviolent action is morally superior and/or most effective. Some however, support physical violence for emergency defence of self or others. Others support destruction of property in such emergencies or for conducting symbolic acts of resistance like pouring red paint to represent blood on the outside of military recruiting offices or entering air force bases and hammering on military aircraft.

    >By no means is all nonviolent resistance (sometimes also called civil resistance) based on a fundamental rejection of all violence in all circumstances. Many leaders and participants in such movements, while recognizing the importance of using non-violent methods in particular circumstances, have not been absolute pacifists. Sometimes, as with the civil rights movement's march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, they have called for armed protection. The interconnections between civil resistance and factors of force are numerous and complex.[7]

    >Although all pacifists are opposed to war between nation states, there have been occasions where pacifists have supported military conflict in the case of civil war or revolution.[9] For instance, during the American Civil War, both the American Peace Society and some former members of the Non-Resistance Society supported the Union's military campaign, arguing they were carrying out a "police action" against the Confederacy, whose act of Secession they regarded as criminal.[9][10] Following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, French pacifist René Gérin (1892–1957) urged support for the Spanish Republic.[11] Gérin argued that the Spanish Nationalists were "comparable to an individual enemy" and the Republic's war effort was equivalent to the action of a domestic police force suppressing crime.[11]

    >In the 1960s, some pacifists associated with the New Left supported wars of national liberation and supported groups such as the Viet Cong and the Algerian FLN, arguing peaceful attempts to liberate such nations were no longer viable, and war was thus the only option.[12]

    Please don't think that I dislike your post, you cover a lot of good points, but this is one point that's always been a pet peeve of mine. I don't think it's very conducive to reject pacifism in an article that is basically advocating pacifist ideas. Pacifism, like any ideology, encompasses a varied set of beliefs, some of which make more sense than others. Pacifists aren't necessarily idealistic idiots.

    Thanks for listening!

    1. Hey, thanks for the feedback!

      I didn't say pacifism (or "absolute pacifism") was naive or even bad, just that I don't practice it, and I could see how some people might believe I do.

      Also, I used the definition of pacifism that is most commonly used, rather than the more academic one that you're going with, i.e. the one found in (or implied by) most dictionary definitions of the word. Splitting hairs about *which* type of pacifist you are seems kind of pointless in comparison to, say, using a different distinguishing phrase. After all, we're in a post-WW1 world and most people would expect a moral casus belli for any sort of armed conflict, i.e. people will say 'we need to do it to defend ourselves' in the same way that your pacifists will say "peaceful methods of liberation don't work, we need to go to war". Most people agree that a war like WW1, fought purely over country lines and political competition, is bad and should not be fought. Does this make the majority of people pacifists?