Is most narrative art just a series of status games?

In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt writes:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our own social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

And those post hoc constructions are often “crafted” subconsciously, without the speaker or listener even aware of what they’re doing. It occurs to me in light of this that most narrative art and the moral reasoning implied in it is just a set of moral status games: someone, usually the narrator, is trying to raise their own status and perhaps that of their group too. Seen in this way a lot of novels, TV shows, and movies get stripped of their explicit content and become vehicles for intuitive status games. Police shows are perhaps the worst offenders but are by no means the only ones. Most romance novels are about raising the heroine’s status through the acquisition of a high-status man.

One could apply similar logic to other genres. While realizing this may make most narrative art more boring, it may also open the possibility of writing narrative art that is explicitly not about status games, or that tries to avoid them to the extent possible. Science fiction may be the genre least prone to relentless status gaming, though “least prone” may also be faint praise.

The Dan Savage Interview Problem

Dan Savage’s Playboy interview is interesting for many reasons (among them: Playboy still exists?) and he gets many things right in it and the interview is worth reading. Nonetheless he gets one important thing mostly wrong:

Sex negativity is imposed on us by religion, parents and a culture that can’t deal with sex. [. . .] Judaism, Christianity, Islam and almost every other faith have constantly tried to insert themselves between your genitals and your salvation, because then they can regulate and control you. Then you need them to intercede with God, so they target your junk and stigmatize your sexual desire. If you have somebody by the balls or the ovaries, you’ve got them.

Let me channel Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt writes that “Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.” Religions serve or served a lot of purposes, and as Savage and Haidt both note regulation was one of them, and sexual regulation exists, as far as I know, in all cultures that have produced writing.

Regulation and control aren’t just about control for their own sake; they’re about solving coordination problems that allow people to act within a system with some expectation of how others will act. Religious regulations weren’t just about stigmatizing desire: they were about trying to create functional societies that minimize jealousy, wasteful resource fights, and so on, while maximizing the chance that the society’s members actually survive and reproduce. Religions act as operating systems for societies (which is a metaphor I’ve stolen from Neal Stephenson). The surviving religions have literally been battled-tested.

Stigmatizing sexual desire happens because desire can be overwhelming and destructive. That was particularly true in an age before birth control, antibiotics, and the many other lovely technologies we take for granted. Even then, a lot of desire found a way towards expression.

It is true that a lot of modern religious figures don’t understand that good guides to life in the year 1000 may not be particularly relevant in post-industrial societies, or that technology may be rapidly reconfiguring what rules make sense and what rules don’t. Robin Hanson has argued in a variety of places (like here and here) that pre-modern foraging societies and farming societies had very different sets of values based on their respective needs. Each group tends to think that its morality is eternal and unchanging, but its morality, rules, and codes may actually arise in response to the conditions of the society. Hanson thinks we may be moving back towards “forager” norms, since we’re now much wealthier and much more able to collectively bear the costs of, say, single motherhood, members of society that don’t produce more than they consume, and so on.

The major Western religions (Christianity and Islam in particular, and Judaism to a large extent) arose or developed in farming societies, and their times have marked them. That sort of idea didn’t of course make it into the religion—one way to enforce religious thinking is to argue that the thinking is eternal and unchanging—and it couldn’t: the Industrial Revolution was impossible to predict before it happened. Values battles of the last 50 (and really more like 100 – 150) years have occurred because social changes lags and sometimes impedes technological change.

We may also see religious systems persist today because followers of religious systems may simply leave many more descendants, who in turn follow the religion, and than those who don’t. I don’t have a citation for this off the top of my head, but it’s fairly well known in social science that religious people have more children, and start having children at younger ages, than secular people. Children tend to act like their parents to a greater extent than is commonly realized.

Given those facts, we may see religions persist because they still enable people to create more people faster than those who don’t participate in such a system. Europe may be a societal-wide example of this phenomenon: it’s probably the least-religious place on earth, and yet the continent is facing serious demographic challenges because of the age distribution of its population and the fact that native-born Europeans are not having enough children. As always there are many other factors at play and I don’t want to isolate religious belief as the sole factor, but there is likely more than correlation going on too.

Note that I’m trying to be relatively value-neutral and descriptive in this post. The amount of value-neutral commentary on these issues is in my view much too low, which may be why we see a lot of ignorance and shouting in public spaces, while people otherwise quietly go about their lives.

I’ll also note that as a religiously indifferent person myself, I find it odd to write this quasi defense of religion. Nonetheless Savage is looking at a small piece of a larger whole and mistakenly thinking that the piece is the whole.

Here is Tyler Cowen on related matters. Here is my earlier post on religion in secular life. The extent to which religious behavior is driven by feeling is underrated. Sex and religion are also fields that some people choose to make their defining characteristic. The religious tendency in this  direction is well-known, but as Katherine Frank writes in Plays Well in Groups: “This is at some level a hobby, sex for fun. As with any hobby, you will make friends, acquaintances and even enemies as you partake. Sex is easy—insert tab A into slot B—but friendship takes time to development” (64). “Hobbies” generally don’t define people, yet how many of the religiously inclined would describe religion as a hobby? Is friendship a hobby?

Links: Modern sex dynamics, making American literature, journalism, morality, ideology, and more

* The Making of American Literature: The correspondence of editor, critic, and Lost Generation chronicler Malcolm Cowley. I’m not sure that I’ve even heard of Cowley before this article.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* The Tragedy of Common-Sense Morality: Evolution didn’t equip us for modern judgments. Or, for that matter, many diffuse, modern threats. The book concerns Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, which is very good—just not quite as good as Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Both answer a lot of fundamental questions about morality, group thinking, and ideology.

* “Does journalism have a future?” When I graduated from high school, I guessed not and have lived my life accordingly. I’m glad I made the choices I did in this regard. Instead of making the mistake of trying to be a journalist, I’ve made different mistakes.

* Camille Paglia on Rob Ford, Rihanna and rape culture. Paglia is giving many interviews lately though not because she has another book out. She’s also in the WSJ on the end “suicide of a civilization.” Though I would ask: Suicide, or evolution?

* People are moving to Florida because it’s cheap.

* We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn: At colleges today, all parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. Having been on both ends of the college teaching / learning experience, I’ve rarely read a truer article. I’m just not convinced that today is much different than 50 years ago, except for having much higher financial stakes on both sides of the table.

* “More ominous than a strike,” a post responding to Dr. Helen’s Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream – and Why It Matters. The book is okay but is more a collection of blog post blockquotes than a real book. Nonetheless it’s somewhat useful for people who just started thinking about modern gender dynamics but haven’t done much reading on the subject.

How much of university life is about education? Gladwell, Bissinger, and the football-on-campus debate

In “College Football Should Be Banned: How Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger won the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate,” Katy Waldman writes that “Bissinger [who is most famous for writing Friday Night Lights . . .] reserved his ire for what he called ‘the distracted university’: the campus so awash in fun and fandom that it neglects learning. The United States faces the most competitive global economy in recent memory, he warned. An unhealthy obsession with sports handicaps our intellectual class.” This might be true, but most students don’t seem to care very much: In Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education, Murray Sperber says relatively few students attend college for primarily intellectual reasons. Most appear to view it as party time or a way to signal other characteristics.

Colleges have noticed this and responded, in the main, by inflating grades and reducing work. Campuses aren’t “awash in fun and fandom” because of some nefarious conspiracy: they’re awash in fun and fandom because most people appear to like those things more than they like discussing sonnets or the finer points of hash tables. There are obviously individual exceptions to this—like me, and most professors or would-be professors—but the overall trend is clear.

If students demand more serious classes, you’ll be able to tell by the number who stop taking weak business classes, comm, and sociology, and start taking hard core classes in the liberal arts and sciences. The overall trend, however, appears to be in the opposite direction in most disciplines and at most universities. This trend looks like it’s being driven more by students and their choices than by any other force. Until the chattering classes acknowledge that, we’re going to get hand-waving or evil-administrator explanations.

Still, I agree with Bissinger: college football should be ended or at least radically changed. But my reasons are different: it’s obvious that colleges should be paying the people who are professional athletes in all but name, and it’s unethical to pay coaches hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars while the effectively professional athletes receive only dubious “scholarships.” It’s also obvious by now that repeated sub-concussive blows to the head can cause CTE, and that football is inherently dangerous in the same way smoking is inherently dangerous. If adults want to take up inherently dangerous activities, they should be able to in most circumstances, and football is one of those circumstances. But they should at the very least be paid for the risks they choose to take.

That being said, if college sports are reduced to their proper scope, it’s not obvious what will replace them as a large-scale, collective ritual. Jonathan Haidt writes about the value of such rituals and the group experiences they inspire in The Righteous Mind, and American life has systematically removed such rituals from most people’s lives. Religion or military service once provided them, but now the former has waned for most people and the latter is a specialist occupation. Sports are one domain that expanded to fulfill the need many people have for arbitrary tribal affiliation and collective action. That might be one reason a lot of people react viscerally against the deserved criticism of college sports: such criticism feels like an attack on identity, not merely a discussion about economics and exploitation. I don’t really have a good method for negating or altering such feelings.

In the case of football, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if a scenario like the one Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier lay out in “What Would the End of Football Look Like? An economic perspective on CTE and the concussion crisis” occurs. Notice especially this line: “More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a ‘contagion effect’ with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit.” Based on the CTE data I’ve seen, there’s absolutely no way I’d let one of my (currently hypothetical) children play football, and if my friends let their kids play, I’d be tempted to forward some of the CTE and football literature. Just as very few modern parents want their children to smoke, even if they do or did, I would not be surprised if, in a short period of time, very few modern parents want their children to play football.

Links: The dubious value of humanities graduate degrees, Hemlock Grove and vampires, Hunter Moore and isanyoneup.com, poetry's playfulness, and more

* When to leave grad school off your resume. In my limited experience reading resumes, having a PhD is a minus; an M.A. is useless, and being in grad school makes me think less of its value, not more.

* “The Forgotten Student: Has Higher Education Stiffed Its Most Important Client?: How the prestige game costs students more money for a lower-quality education.” To me, this is utterly obvious.

* The novel Hemlock Grove sounds like fun: “‘Its howls all the while more plaintive and lupine as a snout emerged through its lips and worked open and shut, its old face bunched around it in an obsolete mask. It rolled onto all fours and rose shaking violently, spraying blood in a mist and divesting himself of the remnants of man coat in a hot mess.’ It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write like this, to use an almost Faulknerian descriptive palette in service of a monster story.”

* Is the Future of English Bad Science?

* “Hunter Moore Makes a Living Screwing You;” I had never heard of isanyoneup.com before and won’t link directly, but as I read the story I kept thinking, “This is why it’s hard to write relevant contemporary fiction. . .” This, and Reddit’s user-submitted adult site, which you can find easily enough if you want to.

* A short, accurate description of the long-term problems in Europe. This is also, on some level, about how people form groups and act in those groups. (“Americans in Massachusetts and Americans in Mississippi do feel themselves part of the same country, sharing language and culture. Germans and Spaniards do not feel the same.”) See further Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

* “Most men won’t be allowed to admit this, but the new HBO show [Girls] is a disastrous celebration of entitlement and helplessness.”

* Why poetry should be more playful, which seems completely obvious to me; Billy Collins is one of my favorite poets precisely because he’s so playful, so much the opposite of the poetry read in school. From the post itself: “The growing distance between serious verse and children’s verse has certainly been connected—as cause, effect, or more likely both—to the increasing irrelevance of serious poetry.”

* Why you should read Before the Lights Go Out.

Links: The dubious value of humanities graduate degrees, Hemlock Grove and vampires, Hunter Moore and isanyoneup.com, poetry’s playfulness, and more

* When to leave grad school off your resume. In my limited experience reading resumes, having a PhD is a minus; an M.A. is useless, and being in grad school makes me think less of its value, not more.

* “The Forgotten Student: Has Higher Education Stiffed Its Most Important Client?: How the prestige game costs students more money for a lower-quality education.” To me, this is utterly obvious.

* The novel Hemlock Grove sounds like fun: “‘Its howls all the while more plaintive and lupine as a snout emerged through its lips and worked open and shut, its old face bunched around it in an obsolete mask. It rolled onto all fours and rose shaking violently, spraying blood in a mist and divesting himself of the remnants of man coat in a hot mess.’ It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write like this, to use an almost Faulknerian descriptive palette in service of a monster story.”

* Is the Future of English Bad Science?

* “Hunter Moore Makes a Living Screwing You;” I had never heard of isanyoneup.com before and won’t link directly, but as I read the story I kept thinking, “This is why it’s hard to write relevant contemporary fiction. . .” This, and Reddit’s user-submitted adult site, which you can find easily enough if you want to.

* A short, accurate description of the long-term problems in Europe. This is also, on some level, about how people form groups and act in those groups. (“Americans in Massachusetts and Americans in Mississippi do feel themselves part of the same country, sharing language and culture. Germans and Spaniards do not feel the same.”) See further Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

* “Most men won’t be allowed to admit this, but the new HBO show [Girls] is a disastrous celebration of entitlement and helplessness.”

* Why poetry should be more playful, which seems completely obvious to me; Billy Collins is one of my favorite poets precisely because he’s so playful, so much the opposite of the poetry read in school. From the post itself: “The growing distance between serious verse and children’s verse has certainly been connected—as cause, effect, or more likely both—to the increasing irrelevance of serious poetry.”

* Why you should read Before the Lights Go Out.

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