Sun Tzu and the Art of Narrative

Featured image is a statue of Sun Tzu. By 663highland – 663highland, CC BY 2.5.

One of the few nuggets I can recall from my high school reading of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is this: leave your enemy an escape route. If you surround your foe so thoroughly that they have no option but to fight (suppose surrender is not an option), then they will fight like hell. They will fight as nasty as they can, because there is nothing else left. But if they have a way out, then you can best them in the field with less bloodshed on both sides.

Virginia Postrel in her characteristic wisdom points out that Trump voters had many reasons to vote the way they did. Some of these were racist reasons, to be sure. At the very least, Trump voters displayed a stunning lack of giving a shit for the plight of women and minorities, who bore the brunt of both Trump’s narrative assault and his actual prescribed policies (e.g., building a wall and banning Muslim immigration).

Liberals want to turn Trump’s victory into an endorsement of racism and misogyny. That’s a dumb strategy if you’re against those things. The liberal belief that half the country is made up of horrible people is a big reason Trump got elected, and the more Democrats keep repeating it, the more likely their worst fears are to come true.

And so one popular narrative on the left is to portray all Trump voters as reaching deep inside themselves to find their true hearts of racist darkness. But even if this were true, this is a dangerous narrative for liberals and progressives to advance. Think of this as narrative combat. In the flesh and blood political field, of course, liberals and progressives are routed. But there is a narrative struggle as well. And in this narrative struggle, it’s still possible for liberals and progressives to “win”—that is, to weave history such that in electing Trump, Americans are understood to have succumbed fully to racism. Conservatives and other Trump voters are backed into a narrative corner. If no matter what they do, they will be seen as the worst kinds of racists, then they lose all incentive to believe otherwise of themselves. Worse, they will lose any incentive to rein in the genuine racists in their midst.

Not a broad endorsement of any vision. Link.

And there are truly nasty elements among the Trump electorate. Nothing I have said above should be interpreted as denying that. The KKK and other white nationalists are jubilant at Trump’s victory. Trump’s campaign brought the Alt-Right out of the shadows, and they will be with us for a long, long time. To be clear, the Alt-Right is explicitly against Enlightenment values and liberalism broadly construed. And these elements will likely be emboldened with the apotheosis of their latest mascot.

But we must be careful to allow Trump voters with non-malicious reasons to keep those reasons, woefully misguided though they may be. Those reasons, those self-conceptions, may yet be compatible with the open society. At least, these self-conceptions may be clay that can be worked with toward liberal ends in a way that white nationalist and Alt-Right identities cannot be. Remember that this is the same citizenry that elected Barack Obama. Twice. And some Obama voters also voted for Trump.

Here is another narrative avoid, one of opposite valence. All over my social media feeds I see recriminations of liberals and progressives and “elitists” for doing nothing but calling Trump supporters racists, sexists, and bigots, and generally employing shame tactics against rural America. Now, just as there really do exist actual racists who loudly and proudly supported Trump for frankly racist reasons, there is a kernel of truth to this narrative as well. But it’s not the whole story. Perhaps because of the careful curation of my social media, here’s what I observed far more often than overzealous accusations of racism and angry demands for white men to “check their privilege”: discussion of institutional and other forms of unconscious effective racism that were met by white men who immediately interpreted these discussions as assaults on their character. Openings of discussions of the reality of social privilege were construed as denunciations of whiteness or masculinity as such.

Social justice rhetoric can be and sometimes is weaponized, but white male fragility is also a very real phenomenon. I was discouraged to hear John McWhorter—one of the “black guys of Bloggingheads”—express disapproval of the term “structural racism” as too incendiary. But the idea is all about how unintentional and unconscious actions can lead to racially disparate consequences. Implicit bias is real. Legacy effects of now-dismantled but historically bigoted policies are real. Spontaneous orders resulting from the unplanned actions and beliefs of diverse individuals can and do lead to perverse outcomes for people belonging to certain communities. While care must always be taken in crafting rhetoric, we must not give up on educating everyone about these realities for fear of offending those who most need to learn that these aren’t just silly ideas cooked up by ivory tower professors. As ever, the burden for this communication rests heavier on white folks like me.

The lesson from all this is that there is no singular true narrative for any electoral outcome, especially from an election as unique as this one with two historically unpopular candidates. We can’t make up our facts (leave that to Trump and the postmodern Alt-Right), but we can be strategic about our narratives and the possibilities they contain.



Dave and I piloted his pudgy sloop through a too-big-to-fail bank of fog. Maritime fog, for those of you fortunate enough to have only met the terrestrial sort, is particularly disorienting. Thick enough, it blots out the sun, silences all but the creaks and moans of the rigging, and brings a chill of dread to even the saltiest sailor. Maritime fog is an even blanket, compared to its clumpy terrestrial duvet cousin. Maritime fog shrouds uniformly, and when it burns off, it teases by fleeing from the top down, keeping deadly shoals obscured even as blue skies vomit their obscene giddiness onto the waves. The claustrophobia of fog provides an excellent excuse to wander the realms of memory. Dave took me on such a tour.

“Do you like pranks, Sam?”

“Pranks?” I had my feet set wide, wary of the dew-slick hull.

“Pranks. You know, like cellophane over the toilet bowl or shaving cream and a feather. Pranks.”

“I can’t say I’m a fan, Dave.”

He leaned back and planted a wooly foot against the ship’s wheel. “Nor I. But there’s this one that I can’t help but think of this morning.”

I let the boat roll under my feet, unconsciously pivoting at the waist and ankles, keeping my head fixed the way a chicken does when you hold it aloft. “Do tell.”

“When I was in, let’s see” He tapped his gray-clad foot with a dull thud against the teak. “I suppose it was sixth or seventh grade maybe.” He had tilted his head back. I could have sworn I saw more silver in his beard than when we left Roche Harbor a few scant weeks prior. “There was this kid in our class. Jeremy Something-or-other. Rhinelord or something. Hoity-toity name, and he acted like it. You know the type. Little Lord Fauntleroy.”

I did know the type, and grunted my familiarity.

“This other kid Jake Pillock just hated him.”

“That’s an interesting surname.”

“It was a long time ago. I’m improvising here. Bear with me.”

“Please continue.” I could still feel the menacing hum of the deep reverberating through the hull in the soles of my topsider loafers.

“Jake comes up with this idea to get Jeremy to eat shit.”

“What, like fall off his bicycle or something?”

“No, like literally. Take a bite of feces, chew it up, and–ideally–swallow it.” He grinned broadly.

“Seems sensible” I drawled. “What was his plan?”

“Well, here’s the thing about getting someone to eat a turd.” He paused for a second, then corrected himself. “No, not ‘a’ turd. ‘Your’ turd. Jake wanted Jeremy to eat his turd. Handcrafted, if you will.” The grin refused to leave his face even briefly. “The thing about getting someone to eat your turd, the one you yourself produced, is not as easy as just handing it to him and asking politely.”

“I would guess not.”

“His plan was fairly elaborate. He started with the research phase. He went around to all the grocery stores, bodegas, and the one candy shop in town buying all the candy bars he could lay his hands on. He opened them all for inspection, slowly eliminating candidates based on density, filling, aroma, that sort of stuff.”

“The plan was to disguise his turd as a candy bar?”

“That was the overall plan, yes.”

“I can already detect some shortcomings with this approach.”

Dave pressed on with his story, ignoring my skepticism. “After careful review, he settled on a Guatemalan confection. It was a medium density, firm, aerated, pressed chocolate fondant dotted with raisins. I’d never heard of the brand before, and I haven’t seen one since.”

“Probably wise to go with something obscure, I suppose.” I was beginning to see the internal logic of his made-up tale.

“Exactly. Every American kid knows exactly what a Milky Way looks and feels like.”

“And smells like” I added.

“Be patient. I’m getting to that part.” His eyes glinted. “The first step was getting the shape right. You can’t just mold a slab of sewer trout with your bare hands and expect perfection.”

I closed my eyes, grateful for calm waters for a change. “I accept this claim without supporting evidence.”

“He did this three-step cold molding process. First with some agar-silicone stuff, then plaster, and finally a hard resin negative mold. Jack had himself a perfect imprint of that Guatemalan candy bar. All by himself. Hell of a project for an eleven year old.” I could hear genuine admiration in Dave’s voice.

“A great day for humanity.” I was caught halfway between grudging admiration for Dave’s gross-out storytelling ability and a twinge of revulsion for where I knew the story was headed.

“The next step was to produce the appropriate raw material for the substitute bar.”

“Sounds daunting.”

“It involved weeks of Jake fine-tuning his diet. He wanted to produce a dark cake, low on moisture, few esters, no sulfur, that sort of thing. If I recall correctly, he found luck with citrus fruit and raw grains, pottage. That sort of thing. Poi.”

“That’s a curious use of the word ‘luck’ there, Dave.”

He bounced a fist off his knee as he nodded. “The trick is, if I understand the microbiology, to avoid the wrong kind of anaerobic bacteria metabolism. You need some for ordinary digestion, but there’s a whole stew of different gut bacteria in there. Feed the right ones, and you’ll get something fairly dense and not at all smelly on the other end. Trial, error, and a whole lot of patience worked wonders.”

“Again, I question your use of rhetoric, my friend.”

“Preparation was a matter of diligence. He leavened the bog loaf with twenty three raisins.”

I interrupted. “Twenty three? That’s awfully specific.”

“Apparently, it’s an important number for rituals. Hermetic Qabalah something something something. I don’t know much about it, but he made a big deal about it having to be twenty three raisins.”

“I know someone who’d find this story fascinating.”

“Yeah? I’d like to meet him.”


“Her then. Anyway, twenty three raisins some chocolate flavoring, and a trip through the press mold later, he needed to spray on a little shellac to give it a glossy finish and smuggle it into the wrapper.”

“Sounds easy enough.”

“You’d think so, but the seams on candy bar wrappers are actually heat welded. It isn’t like a paper envelope you can just steam open and then glue shut. You need a different technique.”

The gloom of the fog was unrelenting. I peered intently into the water just off the bow. “So what was the technique?”

“Pinch and pull. Pinch and pull as slowly as you can. Hope the plastic doesn’t tear. If you’ve done it right, you can slide the real bar out and the fake one in. Then you need an adhesive that will mimic the heat welding process as much as possible. I think he settled on a quick-acting two-part epoxy. It set fast, and it was just as flexible as the plastic. Still, he didn’t want to rely on that part for the deception, so he just did the best he could and hoped to make up the difference with the con.”

“How do you mean?”

“To get someone to eat your shit, you need to be an effective salesman. You need to make a solid pitch, and you need your mark to think it’s his idea. This is basic stuff, Sam.”

“I suppose so. I’m not a con man.”

“I didn’t take you for one. Still, you’ve seen movies before, right? Diggstown, Matchstick Men, The Sting. You know, the classics. You’ve seen those, right?”

“Sure.” I remember watching movies once upon a time. I remember big cinema screens and canned music. I remember.

“So you can’t just offer your enemy a candy bar out of the blue and expect him to take a big ol’ bite, even if it appears to be in the original wrapper.”

“Okay” I was wary of where the story was headed.

“He needed to really sell it. So he came up with this ornate patter to convince Jeremy that in order to make amends for past conflicts that he’d share with him this new fancy imported candy bar that he’d found.”

“Sounds like a flimsy story.”

“It was. That was the problem. He was eleven at the time. He first overprepared by basically writing a rote speech and then compounded his error by giving it a bad pretext. That’s where it started to go wrong.”


“Jake delivered his speech, offered the bar to Jeremy, and seemed surprised when Jeremy didn’t take him up on his peace offering. Jake’s delivery was unnatural, forced. Despite all his practicing, he just wasn’t a good enough actor to pull it off.”

“So what did he do?”

“He did what he had to do to get his enemy to eat his butt muffin. With a flourish, he opened the wrapper, took a big whiff up close to his nose, smiled satisfactorily, and offered it again to Jeremy, informing him of the raisin treats awaiting inside.”

“Did it work?” I immediately regretted allowing my curiosity rein.

“Nope. Not yet. He hesitated a little, then broke a piece off for himself.”

“Oh God, no.”

“And with a gently trembling hand.”

“No no no no nope. Stop Dave.”

“He put it in his mouth.”

“Jesus Lord Christ no.”

“And began to chew.”

“Why in the name of all that is holy are you doing this, Dave?”

“That did it. Jeremy took the remainder of the bar and also took a bite and began to chew.”

“I both hate and pity you right now, Dave.”

An irritated voice floated up from belowdecks. “Don’t be a stupid American. In East Europe everyone knows that if you want someone to eat your shit, you have to first be willing to take a bite yourself. Grow up.”

The fog finally lifted. We could see the outline of the Deception Pass bridge. Almost there.

Direct and Mediated Speech and Reality

Featured Image is Painting of Russian writer Evgeny Chirikov, by Ivan Semenovich Kulikov

I’ve been drawn to the hostile exchange between Jacques Derrida and John Searle for some time. It seems to be such an interesting clash of perspectives, styles, and cultures, and on a subject I wanted to learn more about.

The discussion focuses most intensely on the status of speech acts—such as promises or wedding ceremonies—in fiction and representative art, compared to promises and wedding ceremonies in normal contexts.

Austin refers to the former as “parasitic” on the latter, or derivative. Searle puts it like this:

The sense in which, for example, fiction is parasitic on nonfiction is the sense in which the definition of the rational numbers in number theory might be said to be parasitic on the definition of natural numbers, or the notion of one logical constant in a logical system might be said to be parasitic on another, because the former is defined in terms of the latter.

Responding to a different, similar passage from Searle, Derrida is empatic: “I am not in agreement with any of these assertion.”

The determination of “positive” values (“standard”, serious, normal, literal, non-parasitic, etc.) is dogmatic. It does not even derive from common sense, but merely from a restrictive interpretation of common sense which is implicit and never submitted to discussion. More disturbingly: nothing allows one to say that the relation of the positive values to those which are opposed to them (“non-standard,” nonserious, abnormal, parasitical, etc.), or that of the “nonpretended forms” to the “pretended forms,” should be described as one of logical dependence. And even if this were the case, nothing proves that it would entail this relation of irreversible anteriority or of simple consequence. If a form of speech act that was “serious,” or in general “nonpretended,” did not, in its initial possibility and its very structure, include the power of giving rise to a “pretended form,” it would simply not arise itself, it would be impossible. It would either not be what it is, or not have the value of a speech act.

Here, Derrida makes the argument that a criteria for the existence of non-pretended speech acts is their ability to be imitated in the pretended forms; thus since the latter is a necessary condition of the former, you could reverse the relative status that Austin and Searle assign to each. Not that you should, but this shows the relative status to be arbitrary. It certainly doesn’t have the necessity that the relation of rational numbers has to natural numbers.

The analogy with math was poorly conceived, but Searle’s broad point still seems reasonable. The imitation of a promise in a play is predicated on the fact that the audience will recognize it as something that occurs in real life. Derrida’s argument here seems mostly like a parlor trick, once the analogy with math is dispatched. There’s no logical reason that we couldn’t have invented something like promises in fiction first (“life imitating art”) but in general that is not how it works. And it seems reasonable, when analyzing the nature of promises, to put fiction to the side for a moment.

But there is more to Derrida’s argument than this. Never mind his 80 page response to Searle’s 11 page critique; the original piece that started the discussion, “Signature Event Context”, is making a much larger point.

Rather than subjecting you to more Derrida-ese, I will turn now to Stanley Fish’s unpacking of the piece in question.

Continue reading “Direct and Mediated Speech and Reality”

If I never again heard about the trolley problem applied to autonomous vehicles, I would be excessively happy

If I never heard the trolley problem referenced in a discussion of autonomous vehicles again, I would be excessively happy. But I’m from the Midwest, so I’m ok with being miserable. I also understand the irony in writing this piece.

I’m not going to explain the basics of the Trolley Problem. No one needs another horrid rehash of it. It has been done to death.

But that says something. Continue reading “If I never again heard about the trolley problem applied to autonomous vehicles, I would be excessively happy”

Free Market Capabilities: a Restatement

Featured image is SHield World Construction, by artist Adam Burn.

This claim about the moral importance of personal economic autonomy likely would ring true for many of the women in developing countries to whom leading capabilities theorists such as Martha Nussbaum devote much attention. Could such an interest be built up in such a way that gained it a central place on the list of the basic human capabilities? How might the inclusion of such a capabilities interest affect the wider distributive aspects of the capabilities approach? [Tomasi 44%]

In Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi introduces a hybrid political theory he calls “market democracy.” He specifically defends a Rawlsian regime, “free market fairness” (FMF), but he presents market democracy itself as a broad research program that can be explored and hopefully colonized by liberals of all kinds, from luck egalitarians to classical liberals and perhaps even libertarians. It is open to all “high liberals” who are willing to commit to “thick” economic liberty and to all classical liberals interested in transplanting their economics into a high liberal framework. Tomasi lays out market democracy as a broad approach to meeting the requirements of liberalism:

Market democracy sees society as a public thing, the basic institutions of which must be justifiable to the people living under them. Persons are conceived not as disconnected happiness seekers but as democratic citizens. They are moral beings with lives of their own to lead who are simultaneously committed to living with others on terms that even the weakest among them can accept. At base, society is a fair system of cooperation among citizens committed to respecting one another as responsible self-authors. [Tomasi 25%]

I have previously advocated greater dialogue between libertarians and followers of the capabilities approach (CA). Here I adapt this idea in the spirit of Tomasi’s market democracy research program.

Continue reading “Free Market Capabilities: a Restatement”

Assimilation vs Integration

Each generation has its own idyll year. For my great-grandparents, 1927 was a good one: Lucky Lindy crossed the Atlantic, and his baby hadn’t yet been abducted in the dark of the night by nefarious German immigrant Richard Hauptmann (who insisted on his innocence until his execution by electric chair in 1936). My grandparents reveled in the post-war boom of the Truman years, probably getting the most out of 1947’s interbellum with idk, sock hops and soda fountains or whatever. For my parents’ generation, the Summer of Love in ’67 was the apotheosis by which the nadir of the entire decade of the 1970s was contrasted. For me though, the best year of my youth was 1985.  Continue reading “Assimilation vs Integration”

This One Theory Will Make You Moral

Featured Image is Jonah and the Whale, by Carlos Antonio Tavella

What makes such questions as justice and ethics properly philosophical is precisely that there is such widespread disagreement about what kind of reasons are valid, and what the shape of a valid argument looks like. The methods of answering look very different for theists and atheists, reductive materialists and Christians, Romantics, Marxists, Feminists and Nihilists. The differences between them are not empirical disagreements, nor are there a set of axioms to which we can garner universal consent, nor even a process for generating axioms. The reason why philosophy is necessary, the reason why it arose in the first place, is precisely because of this disagreement.

-Andrew Fitzandrew, Does Ethical Theory Still Exist?

A friend recently said “moral philosophy doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore and neither do I.” Andrew’s post, quoted above, has a similar feel to it.

It is entirely legitimate, and possibly correct, to argue that philosophical methods cannot produce truthful knowledge about the world or ourselves, and is at best rationalizations of deeper processes.

It’s hard to escape this conclusion, if morality is expected to be a topic akin to astronomy and produce insights of a similar nature. Andrew does not expect that, but he sees this deviation as the source of a problem. I do not expect it either.

What might it mean for moral philosophy to “know what it’s doing,” when we acknowledge we cannot expect the precision of a scientific answer?

Continue reading “This One Theory Will Make You Moral”

come at me, bro

Of Supererogatory Rhetoric

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about the duty owed rhetoric. All right, here is how I feel about the duty owed rhetoric: Continue reading “Of Supererogatory Rhetoric”

Comment Section Kayfabe

Featured Image

Forums and comments sections are, to all appearances, scripted performances. There’s nothing new under the sun, but the web has let us see just how scripted unedited arguments between regular people can seem. You see this also with first year philosophy students; their objections to the classics are often quite predictable. Why is it that people with varying levels of familiarity with a subject will provide seemingly scripted responses? How does apparent spontaneity take on the air of professional wrestling?

The answer, I think, is that each discussion is a game, which the players were prepared for in advance. For the most part they are not even aware of this, especially if they are young and relatively unstudied on the topic under discussion. But they are prepared nevertheless, by the communities they are a part of, which induct them into certain traditions.

Following the script is a healthy and necessary part of wrestling with existing ideas yourself and making them your own. But it can also become a dead end. You can fall into the same patterns endlessly without any potential for growth.

In The Anatomy of Peace, it is argued that ongoing conflict can be sustained only by a kind of collusion among the participants. “Everyone begins acting in ways that invite more of the very problem from the other side that each is complaining about!”

In Leadership and Self-Deception, another book by the same authors, it is argued that we often feel a need to be justified in our side of the conflict, and thus ignore opportunities to find peace. One character shares an anecdote:

“On a particular Friday night, Bryan asked if he could use the car. I didn’t want him to use it, so I gave him an unreasonably early curfew time as a condition — a time I didn’t think he could accept. ‘Okay, you can use it,’ I said smugly, ‘but only if you’re back by 10: 30.’ ‘Okay, Mom,’ he said, as he whisked the keys off the key rack. ‘Sure.’ The door banged behind him.”

“I plopped myself down on the couch, feeling very burdened and vowing that I’d never let him use the car again. The whole evening went that way. The more I thought about it, the madder I got at my irresponsible kid.”

When her son returned right on time, she “felt a keen pang of disappointment.”

“After he came in the door — having made it in time, mind you — rather than thanking him, or congratulating him, or acknowledging him, I welcomed him with a curt, ‘You sure cut it close, didn’t you?’ ”

Though he had done his part in this instance, she rewarded him with immediate hostility which invited a response in kind.

In this instance it looks like it’s primarily about personal relationships between specific individuals, but it is at least as much about roles. This aspect is prominently featured in Edwin Friedman’s discussion of what he calls “emotional triangles” in his book A Failure of Nerve.

Friedman says that “there may be no such thing as a two-person relationship,” as we bring in context from our other relationships, often without noticing. For Friedman, all relationships involve at minimum three people; hence “triangles”.

The way I would put it is that a two way relationship involves playing many different games, all of which are made possible by institutional, cultural, and personal context. In these games, as Friedman observes, “it is position rather than nature that is the key to understanding our functioning in any family or work system.” This is the emphasis on role; in his examples, roles within a family or business. But for our purposes, it can be extended to roles in an argument—I’m the Black Lives Matter person and you’re the Blue Lives Matter person; I’m the conservative and you’re the socialist.

Once we take our roles, the various games we play in them “interlock in a reciprocally self-reinforcing manner,” as Friedman puts it. So much so that the dynamics are perpetuated even as there is a complete turnover in the individual players.

Seeing these engagements as games should help clarify why that might be. Novices in chess who play one another often play very predictably. A veteran could guess what they’re going to do a few moves ahead. The structure of the game invites certain approaches; you can only learn the pitfalls of those approaches with time and experience.

In the realm of arguments, studying the classics can help us see how it has played out in the past, and prepare us somewhat. This can only get you so far, however—like boxing, while the training is important, nothing can replace experience in the ring. And like boxing, mere experience can also lead to bad habits and plateaus in growth.

There’s no escaping stepping into the arena, one way or another. But be wary about falling into the same patterns over and over. If you find yourself rooting against a peaceful resolution, it is probably time to change the game.