Peter Turchin recently posted an article on the Forum about the role of war in cultural evolution that stimulated a lively, yet largely discordant, conversation. I read through the comment thread and noted how the framing of the title and text contributed to the breakdown in dialogue. In this article, I would like to offer my services in linguistic analysis to share how the language itself played a key role in the evolution of that particular conversation. My hope is that it both sheds more light on the topic of the article itself and also assists in clarifying how frame semantics shapes scholarly discourse in general, often to the detriment of shared learning and forward progress.
First a note about the field of cognitive linguistics. It was founded by one of my mentors, George Lakoff, to study the various ways that language arises through the complex interplay of brain, body, and environment. (For an excellent overview of embodied cognition and language, see this talk on YouTube.) The words that we use “make sense” because of the shared social experiences, universal body structures, and common psychological underpinnings that arose throughout human evolution. Our thoughts arise in the conscious part of our minds as fully structured units of meaning. We immediately know how to navigate hospitals, restaurants, and all manner of social contexts we have become familiar with throughout our lives.
This is because our brains are wired to produce coherent information processing routines, called semantic frames, that represent the understandings of our past experience in the world. The discovery that human language is comprised of semantic frames was made simultaneously in the 1970s by researchers in psychology, computer science, sociology, and linguistics. Various names are used to describe them — social scripts, schemas, narrative tropes, archetypes, etc. — yet all point to the basic observation that human thought arises at the conscious level in fully-formed “packets” of comprehension.
Important for our conversation here is the additional observation that most of the structuring of semantic frames happens outside of conscious awareness. Estimates run as high as 98% of the information processing happens prior to and outside of conscious awareness. As one brief example, consider all that has to happen before you can look around a room and see tables, chairs, walls, and people. Photons must hit your retinas. Your visual circuitry must parse lines and boundaries, colors and shapes, and then send them off to other parts of your brain to combine with memories that are distributed far and wide in different regions of the frontal cortex, midbrain, and lateral lobes. None of this pre-processing becomes part of your conscious awareness. And still you are able to look around the room and make sense of it. This is possible thanks to the semantic frames your brain generates reliably and consistently every time you open your eyes.
I have started the conversation this way intentionally, to emphasize that what we take for argument and debate is profoundly shaped by what Lakoff and one of his collaborators, Mark Johnson, call the “cognitive unconscious” — which is the sum total of all information processing that cannot possibly become part of conscious awareness due to the way our brains work. We all bring implicit biases, moral judgments, uncritically assessed stereotypes, and more into each conversation. And when our feelings for the topic are strong — as they are prone to be for the topic of war — it is very difficult for us to reflect on what is happening in our minds as the conversation unfolds.
Now on to Peter’s article and its semantic frames.
Setting the Stage — A Title that Provokes Defensive Thinking
The article Peter posted was called War! What Is It Good For? (Quick Aside: This title was not Peter’s own words. He borrowed it from the name of a book by Ian Morris that was explored in the blog post.) This question activates the mental category for Things-That-Are-Good and conflates it with the semantic frame for war. The War Frame is structured around two opposing forces, each with an army that engages in battles over territory. Violence and death are strongly associated with the War Frame, asserting the social norms appropriate in battle settings to be both appropriate and necessary. Among these norms is the tolerance for (and often the veneration of) killing people.
Thus an entailment of war is the tacit or outright approval of violence that leads to loss of human life. This entailment, when juxtaposed with the category for Things-That-Are-Good, activates the implied logic that “killing is good.” This logic — if it arises in the reader’s mind — will prompt a defensive posture. The reader is likely to reject it as morally wrong as the emotions that arise when thinking about one person killing another provoke the judgment.
In his pioneering work on the psychology of moral judgment, Jonathan Haidt has shown that people do not reason to moral conclusions. They have unconscious emotional responses that propel them to feel that something is right or wrong and only defend their position (using rationales) when called upon to explain how they came to their position. This process of emotional prompt that activates moral judgment is readily triggered by the implicit logic of Peter’s title that evokes one to think about war as something that is or might be good.
As a result of this “framing effect,” many readers will enter the article and comment thread with a defensive and critical posture — one that arose from emotionally-prompted moral judgments that have little to do with formal reasoning or the logic of Peter’s argument.
Primed and Ready to Reject
Just as the students in the example Peter gave in his article were nearly universal in their rejection of any suggestion that war might serve a beneficial purpose (likely due to the fact that they don’t want to be seen as “war mongers” or people who support acts of war), the readers who commented in the discussion thread were selective in which content they picked up to build their case.
A metaphor from Haidt’s work may be helpful here. He describes moral judgment as being more like the defense lawyer who takes a position and builds a case for it than like a philosopher who reasons step-by-step to a logical conclusion. The emotional responses that naturally arise with the frames of war and goodness (especially as they are juxtaposed) will compel many readers to claim a stake in one position, then gather the “evidence” in support of it. It is at this point in the cognitive process that confirmation bias readily influences what is deemed worthy as evidence.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to uncritically accept information that supports the view a person already has combined with the tendency to be suspicious and extra critical of information that calls their view into question. As the reader experiences a belief that war must be bad, they are likely to overlook evidence that challenges their view. Thus a selectivity bias is introduced into the reading comprehension of all material that follows — both in the article and comment thread.
In other words, the frame effect mentioned above will prime some readers to both reject the premise on emotional (and unconscious) grounds before they’ve even heard the argument! Imagine how frequently this kind of “misinterpretation” comes up among researchers and scholars. When people have strong feelings about a topic the frames that prime their emotions will hold considerable sway.
And so we can expect that heated debates will arise that lead some participants to entrench themselves in their own position and become increasingly resistant later in the dialogue both to save face and to protect the view that moral judgment has prompted them to take. I find it fascinating when opportunities like this come up to see frame effects in action — begging the question What can we do as researchers to communicate more effectively when we know that these cognitive and psychological dynamics are in play?
Great article, Joe. Thanks. Things are even worse than what you describe. Somewhere I saw how Ian’s message was misunderstood to the point where people were arguing whether war pays for itself!
But I wish you would tell us how to deal with these ingrained biases. So how do we get an important message across that runs against the mental grain?
First of all, we don’t ever really get around these biases entirely. It is important that we learn to work with them — including doing things that help minimize their ability to digress a conversation.
Among the things that can be done are the following (plus more, this is just to get a dialogue going):
(1) Understand how emotionally potent content introduces the propensity for this kind of backlash. Take care to introduce the material in a delicate manner that limits the ability for the semantic frames to activate a psychological priming process;
(2) Much of the escalation happens when there is a lack of rapport or shared understanding among the participants in the discourse. By taking actions to increase trust, acknowledge where people are coming from, and making an effort to be preemptively clear that you are not taking certain “pathological” or “extreme” positions, you can navigate many contentious topics.
(3) Establish clear moral frames at the outset that prime readers or conversation partners toward the ideas you want to convey. For example, in this situation you could have titled the article something like “An Unexpected Benefit of War”. This would prime people to acknowledge that you also see war as bad — thus you are surprised (as they are likely to be as well) that there is a benefit that comes up in some subtle and unexpected way.
Hopefully this is enough to deepen the dialogue. It gets a lot more complicated when the topic is inherently conflictive with strongly held beliefs — such as when an authoritarian worldview is threatened by a scientific finding (think of evolution during and after Darwin’s day). We can delve into those nuances as the conversation progresses.
Hope this clarifies a bit more!
Interesting post! I wonder what it says that my immediate defensive reaction to the article was that maybe Joe was over-interpreting and in so doing dismissing legitimate counter arguments. I have since revised this opinion after rereading the article and going back to read over the comments. They make for depressing reading and I think clearly support Joe’s interpretation. If the title had been ‘War’s minor saving grace’ or something like that with the exact same content I wonder what the reaction would have been…
Great question, Chris. That’s one of the fascinating things about frame analysis. Not only can you see the conceptual structures for ideas that are conveyed by a writer, speaker, or visual designer… you can watch as those ideas “run through the interpretative filters” of those who react to the content in different ways.
In this way, it is possible to run multiple parallel experimental trials in one conversation thread. By noting how different people respond at each stage in the conversation, you can see their frames interacting with the frames that are presenting.
Kind of a window into the mind. Powerful stuff!
Great post. Lakoff’s approach is really good.
Good post. I wonder if you or Lakoff or others have explored how a given framer’s sex/gender affects their chosen/assigned frame — both generally and in any specific instance?
If we were to accept for discussion purposes that the masculine mind tends to a flight or flight stress response while the feminine tends towards ‘tend and befriend,’ we would immediately suspect one or the other to adopt one frame or another, ‘naturally.’
I think I see a lot of this ‘out in the world,’ and believe if framers explored their complementary sex/gender while framing … whatever… (and their other’s response to the assigned frame) discussions would at least be more ‘civil’ and at best more useful in, say, resolving conflict.
I explore the implications of masculine/feminine minds for life out in the world of human groups in my just-published “Curating Sex, Briefly” available at Amazon as a Kindle Select book. Haidt is one of many social scientists whose work is summarized/featured, though briefly.
Cheers from here,
Yes, we have definitely explored the dimensions of gender on social norms and behaviors in different contexts — through the lens of frame semantics. I have much I could say on the topic, but would rather hear from any women who may be lurking and watching this discussion, to share their experiences being in the female role and how it shapes the ways they are perceived.
Thanks Joe. And I hear you … Until a few months ago I believed, as you: that we should each defend/explain our own sex/gender binary and leave the others to theirs. Especially, given that the binary seems so basic (probably from biology where y chromosome = male and other (x’s) are default –> female).
Having grappled in more depth with the issue, though, I now think differently. Sex/gender at the cutting edge, these days, is a spectrum… say, from extreme masculine on one end to extreme feminine on the other. Everyone has their spot — and probably unique spot or mix — along the way. There are as many sexualities now as there are humans.
That said, our human sex system is a universal, arbitrary and deeply unfair legacy from our distant past. We can’t change it in any of its basics and at best endure its realities bravely.
Nevertheless, we should accept it as that: a human universal to be discussed, loved, hated, exploited, explained, explored by all humans for all humans. That is the ‘new’ frame. We all get to talk with each other about each other. So: tell us about the ‘much [you] could say’…
In my view, this human sexuality frame is nested within a ‘larger’ (or arguably smaller!) one: human survival. To save ourselves from ourselves we need to know ourselves.
We will get to know ourselves much better when we all talk, respectfully, gently, happily, often with each other about our profound needs/desires/ hopes … even taboos.
Of which sex via our human sex system, sadly, still seems to be one…
Cheers from here,
I’m a woman who often lurks in these forums and feels too inhibited to speak up, but as you ask I’ll wade in (still feeling nervous). When I read Peter’s article about war I instantly went into your noted reactionary frame against even the concept of war. Is this because I’m female and have more ‘tend and befriend’ tendencies? I don’t think so. Is this because of the wording of the article, partially, but not entirely – you are right, it did generate a mindset (is that the right word?). To the point of the feminine and more nurturing attitude…I recently made a comment about the war between Israel and Hamas being like baby hitting a parent and the parent hitting the baby back and my partner said in fact I’d be the first to send the tanks in. My intellectual stance is absolutely that war is a bad thing. My emotional and protective stance, may not reflect my intellectual one. Interestingly, I am also the daughter of an Orangeman and having read the war article, not long after reading Peter’s articles on the ‘Troubles’, I still had the feelings of anger generated by those earlier articles, which may have influenced my views. My intellectual view of war having any kind of positive effect post the article, has not changed and it is not because I’m female and therefore more naturally nurturing (is that really a truism?) I believe it is because the ends do not justify the means and the mass murder of children, especially, is an abhorrent act, no matter how good an outcome. I’d hope that I would be able to maintain that belief if I was unlucky enough to be involved in a war and I would hope that men felt that way too, all the men in my life do, but then I’m picky.
Thank you for your bravery and generosity — sharing your trepidations and also your perspective on this topic. I hope you feel more empowered to participate on this forum (a sentiment I am sure Peter would encourage as well). We need diverse voices here, especially those of women who engage with aspects of cultural evolution that are given less emphasis among the all-too-often male dominated world of academic research.
In response to your comments, I agree with you that the aversion to war in not a gendered position. All human beings are wired to be social. We feel our relationships with others, have neural circuitry in our brains that sensitize us for empathy with our fellow humans (bringing also the innate capacity to feel the suffering of nonhuman life and empathize with it as well), and are horrified by imagery of war. This is generally true for most people regardless of gender.
Where it gets more difficult to discern all of the parts involved is in the real gender differences that do exist between men and women. Since our social worlds are made up of many historic contingencies, varied depending on which cultural setting we are coming from, there is often a history of gender violence and oppression that must be acknowledged and moved through before it becomes possible for everyone involved to fully participate in the conversation.
One way that women in particular have been oppressed and marginalized by the scholarly world in the past is through the overuse of a semantic frame for The Theory of Essences. This is the lens through which the world gets categorized and prioritized in moral worth based on some “essence” or “essential quality” that makes each category member fit where it is perceived to belong. Any time the argument is made that women are a certain way because that is the essence of female gender, we must be alert to the possibility that a moral judgment has been made. It is not always the case that this is so, but it does happen quite frequently — framing the conversation around what are treated to be essential differences in gender.
In truth, men and women are much more alike than different. We are humans first, gendered beings second, and socially constructed around real and imagined biological differences third. And yet the social construction of gender has great influence over the ways we treat one another in the real world.
I hope this brief exchange encourages you to share more in this forum and others you lurk around. We need to hear your voice.
Joe, thank you so much for your kind and welcoming reply, it has set me at ease. I accept that men and women have different biological drivers and different life histories that push us down different choice paths, but it feels (I have no real evidence) that where fundamental issues exist, such as death and destruction of communities as in war, that we both have the same intrinsic reaction. However, that doesn’t stop us trying to intellectualise the situation – both genders are capable of stepping back and looking at the underlying causes and outcomes of any given situation, even one as barbaric as war. I’ve always, for example, had an interest in rape in war, it being highly prevalent and wondered if it’s some sort of ESS within that context, not a popular view and as a feminist I have questioned my own thoughts on the matter, but being able to step away from the subject matter and be objective is important in any scientific understanding.
I do believe that when men and women work together on any project, the outcome is better. We are the same, but different and we can bring our own unique views (from our different drivers and life histories) to bear on a topic, I hope, very much hope, in fact, that our gender differences can be overcome and we can all work together to resolve the terrible issues our planet is facing, not just the human-on-human ones but the way we treat other animals too
I’ll try and get more involved in the forum, I just have to get over my low self esteem issues (a common problem amongst woman – you all seem so bloody clever though)
I am glad to set you at ease and welcome your contributions. Thank you for bringing up the role of rape during times of conflict. This is a touchy topic, to be sure! And yet it is a vitally important one to consider through the lenses of biological and cultural evolution.
We know that the existence of rape culture during war is widespread. It would be very helpful to unpack it and try to uncover the biological, psychological, and social drivers of that behavior — to help us better understand how to minimize its harmful effects.
The frame semantic parts of that dialogue would be similarly nuanced and important to bring to the fore. Perhaps this is a topic you can bring up with Peter as a possible guest article?
You’re not kidding it’s a touchy topic. I started to look at it as a dissertation topic for a masters in evolutionary anthropology I was doing and noted that even opening the idea that rape could be something that is selected for (dare I say selected for) within the context of an extreme situation such as war, would start a bit of an attack by women who worked in the area of, or had suffered rape in non war contexts (you sort of can’t blame them either) – the last thing I want to do is somehow normalise it, but we need to look at why it happens in extreme conditions to get an angle on why it happens in non extreme conditions, only then, by understanding this type of behaviour, can we hope to find ways to prevent it. I’d love to do a guest article but i’d have to work up to it, yikes!
I am confident that there is a strategic way to frame the conversation that enables people to grapple with these strong feelings and the technical nuances as well. And yes, it is a “yikes!” topic… play gently with it for sure. 😉
Hi to all,
What an interesting discussion!
Susie: if it’s any consolation, until very recently (like the last couple of months) I have lurked in forums such as this ever since they have existed…I’m not even sure how long that is, though I can remember trying to participate in something (listserve?) way back in the late ’80’s (not successful)… so perhaps 30 years? Talk about a late bloomer! hahahaha …
Joe: we need to be very careful in endlessly repeating the popular mantra (without qualification) that the sexes are more alike than different. It is true, of course, in terms of a shopping list of features or characteristics.
But look at the exception: violence fueled by hormones ‘stimulated’ by genes living on the y chromosome that the human male has transmitted to his sons (only) since … forever. That’s a pretty big exception!
And his testosterone bath begins 7 months before he is born so all the structures that developed during those seven months (including his brain) have been profoundly affected. Human females know it not and (barring artificial application) can not, will not. (I am now of an age where I envy them.)
As to the rape question, I agree that it is an extremely important issue that needs the careful, open and honest investigation that science at its best brings. I saw something just recently that led me to think someone was on the case (and my recollection is that it was drifting towards the ‘selected for’ end of the spectrum of causes)… but I’m sorry to say I can’t dredge up the source right now. I’ll try and think more about it.
Let’s have more of these ‘civilized’ discussions on issues of substance. To save ourselves from ourselves we need to know ourselves…
Cheers from here,
Lee, I’m also old enough to remember those old forums and I think it was list serve or was it compuaserve? I sometimes wax lyrical about the early days of the internet and bore younger colleagues. Mind you, it wasn’t actually that long ago, so I’m not an old fart yet.
Talking of technical frameworks Joe, I did some initial research into rape in war, it was a while ago though and I couldn’t finish it due to work commitments (I was doing it part-time). I should say though, I’d thought it through to the point where I realised fuzzy set theory might help to work out if it was a stable strategy. Anyway, I always think I’ll get the time to go back into it at some point, but it never seems to happen, maybe I’m scared.
Lee, Could agree more with your sentiment that to save ourselves we need to know ourselves (well it’d be a start anyway)
BTW Lee, I wouldn’t envy human females, we have our own issues…
I would encourage you to keep plugging along on your project. I have been working on mine part time for 40 + years, written it up 5 or 6 times, abandoned it … etc, This spring I decided to Take Back My Life by writing 500 words a day (no more no less). In two months I had a book (actually two books with a third — the most interesting of all — in the planning stages for this fall/winter start). I don’t know where it came from or what or why but now it just spills off the keyboard … and the tongue. I can talk about it with passion and well… enough… just do it!
Yes, to be human is to have issues, but at least they’re different!
Cheers from here,
Thank you Susie and Lee – and Joe – for a very interesting discussion! I think that’s precisely what we launched the SEF to accomplish. I have learned a lot.
I think the thanks should flow in your direction Peter.
This is proving to be such a great resource! Keep up the good work…
Cheers from here,
It wouldn’t let me reply in line, so I apologise for doing this out of line. Lee, thats amazing stamina! 40 years!! You’re right, I shouldn’t give up on it, I suppose I just need to get back into it and its quite different to my day job. On the subject of cliiodynamics and this forum, Peter… discovering this discipline has been inspirational for me, in my opinion it is vital for the understanding of our species. So ditto what Lee says
Depressingly, in answer to your question, you won’t do anything. The formulation and study of ideas “department” seems incapable of actually of transferring and and applying them in the real world. And the real world is not going to come looking – it thinks it already “knows”.
There seems no mechanism for ever connecting the two, especially when their is no direct financial implication.
It is very lucky that you are profoundly incorrect in your belief that nothing can be done. There are many wonderful group facilitation techniques that are routinely deployed by practitioners working on organizational change and leadership development.
I refer you to this book review of The Change Handbook for a great reference source about the diversity of proven methodologies for doing this very thing.
Thank you for that. It looks very interesting. I don’t think I’m saying nothing can be done, it’s that they aren’t being done in many organisations. The tragic thing is that the ideas exist – as above – but gather dust on the shelves.
Best wishes, Roger
I resonate deeply with what you are saying — especially since I’ve worked in the realms of strategic engagement and organizational change with many NGO’s where exactly what you describe is still sadly the norm.
And yet I remain hopeful because I see so many people taking risks and figuring out how to play together so they can create good works together.
Baby steps, perhaps. But still inspiring to see!
Love your excellent breakdown Joe! You are lucky to have Lakoff as a mentor. Yeah the narrative frame is powerful and it is as much if not more a TOOL to be deployed in our communication as zip function to be identified in the critical discourse.
This appears to be shaping up as an age for mastering and actualizing our cognitive tools with greater urgency. There is no dearth of unexamined content to be more fully explored and usefully woven in to our zeitgeists. — Guy
Resonating deeply with your kind and thoughtful words, Guy! 😉
If you believe that war though morally bad has had a beneficial effect on humanity you are also making a moral statement that war is or has been needed – otherwise that beneficial effect would not have come into existence.
Moreover, the moral statement that you make implicitly is that the universal laws of reality that move us (or the will of God or the gods, take your choice) are completely amoral; that in nature (or spirit) the end (larger more peaceful societies) always justifies the means (war).
What if you believe the universe is a moral universe that does not run on “the ends justify the means” laws/godly commands? The idea war is “morally bad but beneficial in the long run” then becomes itself a cognitive frame that leans on a theorist’s unconscious moral assessment of the universe.
Is it possible to criticise or accept Ian’s Morris’s work outside of a cognitive frame?
Conversely you might wish to believe war is morally bad and also – crucially – bad in the very very very very very very very long run (would ultimately destroy humanity – Morris’s long run is not “very” long enough!), because the universal law of reality dictates that ends do not justify the means. The beneficial effect of war to humanity is a mere short-term illusion. A temptation humanity must reject to really move onwards and upwards.
Inside the cognitive frame “in our universe ends don’t justify the means” we need to get humanity off the war escalator that, although it appears positive now, only will lead to an eventual doom.
It may be impossible to grasp intellectually how the path humanity has been on – upward, it seems – has not been progressive. The question will ultimately be answered if humanity does not destroy itself. Turning us into robots would be a failure, so Ian Morris seems to have failure written into his book.
Answering the central question of your post (with regards to my article), there is no way to have a structured thought without making use of some semantic frame that gives it structure and meaning. That said, we can always make the frames of a discourse apparent and then discuss them at length.
One thing I would say is that the “benefit” of war, if there is one, will apply at some level and not others — also on some time scales and not others. So it may be that war is part of the social cohesion that operates at the group level (but not individual level) when there is inter-group conflict. It may be beneficial to the winning group on the timeframe of years or decades, but not on the timeframe of centuries. Parsing these nuances is part of what I love in Peter Turchin’s work because his historic analyses offer both data and hypotheses to critique and discuss.
A communication challenge before us is to get beyond the frame effects that hinder such productive dialogue by engaging other frame effects that promote thoughtful and nuanced exchange.
For questions of morality, let’s not consider individuals or groups. Let’s consider the level of humanity, the species. At what other level does the morality equation (good or bad) matter? It must apply to the whole of humanity. Not just some individuals or groups. Universal, not relativistic, morality. If at some point war drives the species into extinction then, in the final analysis, war was bad for humanity. It was never good. Whatever role war had up until that point, enhancing cohesion in groups, it was bad, because ultimately that cohesion enabled humanity to destroy itself. War has group level effects that are interesting to observe, and may enhance prediction, but to claim it is “good” is impossible to know – we can’t know for sure whether the war escalator will lead to a big bang. Ian Morris hasn’t proven war is good for anything. No book or human endeavour ever could. War has the potential to wipe out the human species.
An interesting challenge Edward.
If war enabled the species to learn to live together in larger and larger groups to the point where we now have an,arguably semi-integrated globalized civilization that works (sort of)… isn’t that ‘better’ (perhaps not good but better) than perennial war amongst tribes over women and gold and whatever else of their out-group’s that their in-group coveted?
Now, admittedly ‘we’ (humanity) had to live through those seemingly interminable empires that have been the stuff of history for … quite a while. But many see the end of the history of empire just over the horizon.
And violence is demonstrably on the decline these days (see Steven Pinker “The Better Angels of Our Nature” as just one example amongst an emerging consensus with stats galore in its support).
The fact that physical violence is on the decline and its proxy the economic system at present is reeling, makes whatever comes next look particularly interesting, if not always promising for those in charge at the moment. And what’s coming (faster than the proverbial speeding freight train) is a world run by those most competent at running large complex hierarchical organizations with compassion and without physical fighting: the feminine.
Brace yourself, for the potential for a future beyond war is brewing … those who care about it should join in and do something in its support… whatever their sex/gender identification. This is a human opportunity for all humans. Explore your own feminine and join in the search for the next!
Cheers from here,
Interesting comment, Lee.
War has had a role to play in the evolution of human society but that does not mean it is right to call it “good”. The use of the word “good” is what the discussion is centred around. My argument is it is wrong to ever call war good in any circumstances.
Let’s say that warfare is something humanity has depended on to get to this level of development: today there is a reduction in intra-society violence compared to previous ages. One still cannot say war has been “good” even if it played a role to get us to this point. Nor will war ever be “good” the sense that it is something humanity can want or need in future.
War still could in theory destroy humanity. A process that can destroy humanity is not good and won’t ever be so. Whilst accepting the war has played some role in the evolution of human society, at some point we need to make a break with war because it is bad. That is why war can never be called “good.”
We can say war has had an impact on our history but we can’t say it was a good impact because we don’t yet know – and will never know – whether there will be a final punchline – the wiping out of humanity. Let’s call war bad and hope society evolves such a way to live without it with the “Better Angles of Our Nature” predominant. That would be good.
Thanks so much, Edward … very interesting discussion.
I wonder if you would have seen a recent article in The Guardian on the five gravest threats to the future of humanity (note: humanity, not life on Earth or some such).
1. Nuclear war
2. Bioengineered pandemic
5. Unknown unknowns
Now isn’t that an interesting list: of the 4 we can know anything about every single one is a human technology (unleashed?).
As for me, I ‘lived through’ the Cuban missile crisis and was old enough to understand what was going on. Has anything of that intensity/magnitude happened since? I would say not.
We as a species are progressively stumbling towards a war-free future (barring rogues who, of course, are always lurking).
But what about the rest of the list? Hmmmmm … Who’s watching/listening/responding on those fronts? How are we planning to deal with them?
And we don’t even see climate change — arguably one of the greatest ‘existential’ threats to the species (though probably not terminal — some will survive) — on the list! And what about the terrorism that our leaders globally are spending uncountable amounts of currency on…?
At the very least we need more open and honest discussion of these issues — as well as an equally open and transparent exploration of the human sources of these human ‘threats.’ Thankfully, it seems to be happening a bit here (thanks to the organizers!)
Cheers from here,
Lee – thanks for broadening the discussion in an interesting way.
The public imagination has been fascinated about robots for at least 100 years – they’re always around the corner. In the ’50s they were about to make the wife’s life better by doing the housework. Today they are about to make our live’s worse by taking over the world.
Of course, as it turned out the housebot doesn’t exist yet but we have got illegal immigration and cheap labour, so the chores got done. As for killer robots, just consider what we do know for sure about technology today and project into the future.
Desired functions will exceed the batteries’ power to maintain them for an adequate length of time; you hardly ever get a warranty that exceeds 5 years; anything worth having because others don’t is prohibitively expensive; electricity doesn’t swim.
Interesting that the Guardian did not consider for the list one of the most common large-scale catastrophes that always seem to be around the corner in human history: state collapse. But then that is actually a realistic threat involving breakdown of cooperation with other humans. To point the finger at killer technology would simply be to pass the blame.
Joe, Great analysis, and great discussion by all concerned. The only thing I wanted to add/ask about is the issue of what constitutes a good or bad “linguistic framing” changing between groups. It seems to me that what constitutes a constructive (likely to lead to thoughtful response) linguistic framing for the American political left, will often be unconstructive for the American political right, and vice versa.
I suspect that most people acquire (with time) an intuitive sense of what constitutes a constructive linguistic framing for their essay/argument/proposed policy change/whatever. Unfortunately, as the divide widens in America between Left and Right (owing in part to the Big Sort), that very same intuition becomes less and less effective at bridging the gap. Thus, even if, for example, President Obama genuinely wants to reach across the divide, he has less and less idea of how to frame his ideas in a way that will make that possible. Not that this is a particular failing of Obama’s, I don’t think GWB was very good at it either.
Granted that there are plenty of times when the current majority (whoever it is) just wants to ram something through, I think there are plenty of other times when the ability of our society to get anything done is hampered by a genuine misunderstanding of how to frame their proposal in a way that avoids triggering emotional responses from the other side. The tendency of Americans to only spend time talking to others on the same part of the political spectrum as themselves, has (I think) exacerbated this in recent decades.
I wonder if any work has been done on how much linguistic framing’s affects differ between people on different parts of the political spectrum?
You bring up an excellent point. I would say it like this… strategic framing is a form of agenda setting for a particular group of people to achieve some shared purpose.
You are absolutely right that the linguistic frames that political progressives use successfully will evoke disgust and rage among staunchly conservative people — the class of ideology is direct and confrontational in that setting. For the sake of advancing scholarly discourse, a strategic frame will do at least the following:
(1) Establish the moral context of addressing an intellectual problem or seeking knowledge where it is needed.
(2) Acknowledge the strong feelings people have about the topic as a way of navigating them toward productive dialogue.
(3) Make clear how the concerns that arise with these feelings will be addressed by the process.
All of this is designed to increase camaraderie, build trust among the participants, and set out on a morally clear path together — something that would be very difficult to achieve in the midst of the “culture wars” of U.S. politics.
I hope this helps clarify things a bit more.
It seems that people love to overlay their moral judgement, good, bad, etc., on research endeavors in this subject. When a new species (through non-human intervention, but naturally, through colliding continents or what not) manage to invade an ecological niche and drive a species that was already there to extinction, do evolutionary biologists (or even laypeople) opine about whether that was good or bad, moral or not, or whether the study of evolutionary biology is good/bad/moral/immoral?
Yet since the subject is us humans and not, say, ants, and what we humans do to each other in war (instead of ants), people can not help but bring morals in or talk about benefits and weigh on good vs. bad.
I’m not even sure there _is_ any overarching benefit to war, but to oppose studying it and the effect it has on human societies just because you oppose war (and really, how many of us oppose war under all conditions? If the alternative to war is death and/or slavery of your family; I daresay very few people would still stay pacifist) makes that person the same as climate change deniers and evolution deniers, IMO.
Was this controversy about opposition to the study of war or over the use of the word “good” in the title, and the suggestion that war could be good for something? One single word completely skewed the reaction to the book which then may have lead some to even oppose the study of war (even though it is long established Peace Studies, Security Studies, IR etc.). Of course, the book title was wrong: war is no more good than running toward the edge of a high cliff is a good form of exercise. Ultimately you have to make the moral judgement on the final analysis. However, it will have zero effect on whether people consider the study of war a good thing or not. Although it would have sold a lot more books with the publicity the controversy is like one of those CERN generated black holes that blinks into and out of existence.
So it seems that having the words “good” and “war” triggers emotional and moralistic responses even if the content does not change.
For instance, you can title a book “Species Extermination: What Is It good For?” or “Natural Evolution Through Time”, and you’re suggesting that the response would be different even if the content of the book is exactly the same.
That seems crazy to me.
Seems like a ton of people let their emotions decide off of facile observations. Are we no more intelligent than turkeys? Really, people?
Turns out there’s a lot of recent/newish evidence that the emotions do run the show (pace the Enlightenment vision of rationality and intellect being at the top of the pyramid).
Jonathan Haidt has a wonderful metaphor of the elephant (emotions) and its rider (rationality). Everyone used to think the rider is in charge of the beast. Now, we’re beginning to discover that the rider is doing the elephant’s bidding! Haidt’s telling is a great read and very accessible. So: turkeys or elephants, we can take our pick, I guess!
Social science is doing some exciting things in revealing what humans are and how they work. And since we need to know ourselves to save ourselves from ourselves, it is important work.
Cheers from here,
how about: “Race Extermination: What Is It good For?” vs “History of Genocide.” the first title is the crazy one. there are some topics where human morals come into play. “Species Extermination” isn’t one of those topics.
Thank you all for a really fascinating discussion! Too many ideas and new thoughts to try to squeeze into replies, so I am planning to address many of the issues people raised with a blog post tonight.
Great! Thanks, Peter. Very much looking forward to your synopsis.