“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game

The cousins Salamanca by Martin Woutisseth
            Season 3 of Breaking Bad opens with two expressionless Mexican men in expensive suits stepping out of a Mercedes, taking a look around the peasant village they’ve just arrived in, and then dropping to the ground to crawl on their knees and elbows to a candlelit shrine where they leave an offering to Santa Muerte, along with a crude drawing of the meth cook known as Heisenberg, marking him for execution. We later learn that the two men, Leonel and Marco, who look almost identical, are in fact twins (played by Daniel and Luis Moncada), and that they are the cousins of Tuco Salamanca, a meth dealer and cartel affiliate they believe Heisenberg betrayed and killed. We also learn that they kill people themselves as a matter of course, without registering the slightest emotion and without uttering a word to each other to mark the occasion. An episode later in the season, after we’ve been made amply aware of how coldblooded these men are, begins with a flashback to a time when they were just boys fighting over an action figure as their uncle talks cartel business on the phone nearby. After Marco gets tired of playing keep-away, he tries to provoke Leonel further by pulling off the doll’s head, at which point Leonel runs to his Uncle Hector, crying, “He broke my toy!”
“He’s just having fun,” Hector says, trying to calm him. “You’ll get over it.”

“No! I hate him!” Leonel replies. “I wish he was dead!”

Hector’s expression turns grave. After a moment, he calls Marco over and tells him to reach into the tub of melting ice beside his chair to get him a beer. When the boy leans over the tub, Hector shoves his head into the water and holds it there. “This is what you wanted,” he says to Leonel. “Your brother dead, right?” As the boy frantically pulls on his uncle’s arm trying to free his brother, Hector taunts him: “How much longer do you think he has down there? One minute? Maybe more? Maybe less? You’re going to have to try harder than that if you want to save him.” Leonel starts punching his uncle’s arm but to no avail. Finally, he rears back and punches Hector in the face, prompting him to release Marco and rise from his chair to stand over the two boys, who are now kneeling beside each other. Looking down at them, he says, “Family is all.”

The scene serves several dramatic functions. By showing the ruthless and violent nature of the boys’ upbringing, it intensifies our fear on behalf of Heisenberg, who we know is actually Walter White, a former chemistry teacher and family man from a New Mexico suburb who only turned to crime to make some money for his family before his lung cancer kills him. It also goes some distance toward humanizing the brothers by giving us insight into how they became the mute, mechanical murderers they are when we’re first introduced to them. The bond between the two men and their uncle will be important in upcoming episodes as well. But the most interesting thing about the scene is that it represents in microcosm the single most important moral dilemma of the whole series.

Marco and Leonel are taught to do violence if need be to protect their family. Walter, the show’s central character, gets involved in the meth business for the sake of his own family, and as he continues getting more deeply enmeshed in the world of crime he justifies his decisions at each juncture by saying he’s providing for his wife and kids. But how much violence can really be justified, we’re forced to wonder, with the claim that you’re simply protecting or providing for your family? The entire show we know as Breaking Bad can actually be conceived of as a type of moral exercise like the one Hector puts his nephews through, designed to impart or reinforce a lesson, though the lesson of the show is much more complicated. It may even be the case that our fondness for fictional narratives more generally, like the ones we encounter in novels and movies and TV shows, originated in our need as a species to develop and hone complex social skills involving powerful emotions and difficult cognitive calculations.

Jean Briggs
            Most of us watching Breaking Bad probably feel Hector went way too far with his little lesson, and indeed I’d like to think not too many parents or aunts and uncles would be willing to risk drowning a kid to reinforce the bond between him and his brother. But presenting children with frightening and stressful moral dilemmas to guide them through major lifecycle transitions—weaning, the birth of siblings, adoptions—which tend to arouse severe ambivalence can be an effective way to encourage moral development and instill traditional values. The ethnographer Jean Briggs has found that among the Inuit peoples whose cultures she studies adults frequently engage children in what she calls “playful dramas” (173), which entail hypothetical moral dilemmas that put the children on the hot seat as they struggle to come up with a solution. She writes about these lessons, which strike many outsiders as a cruel form of teasing by the adults, in “‘Why Don’t You Kill Your Baby Brother?’ The Dynamics of Peace in Canadian Inuit Camps,” a chapter she contributed to a 1994 anthology of anthropological essays on peace and conflict. In one example Briggs recounts,
A mother put a strange baby to her breast and said to her own nursling: “Shall I nurse him instead of you?” The mother of the other baby offered her breast to the rejected child and said: “Do you want to nurse from me? Shall I be your mother?” The child shrieked a protest shriek. Both mothers laughed. (176)
This may seem like sadism on the part of the mothers, but it probably functioned to soothe the bitterness arising from the child’s jealousy of a younger nursling. It would also help to settle some of the ambivalence toward the child’s mother, which comes about inevitably as a response to disciplining and other unavoidable frustrations. 
Another example Briggs describes seems even more pointlessly sadistic at first glance. A little girl’s aunt takes her hand and puts it on a little boy’s head, saying, “Pull his hair.” The girl doesn’t respond, so her aunt yanks on the boy’s hair herself, making him think the girl had done it. They quickly become embroiled in a “battle royal,” urged on by several adults who find it uproarious. These adults do, however, end up stopping the fight before any serious harm can be done. As horrible as this trick may seem, Briggs believes it serves to instill in the children a strong distaste for fighting because the experience is so unpleasant for them. They also learn “that it is better not to be noticed than to be playfully made the center of attention and laughed at” (177). What became clear to Briggs over time was that the teasing she kept witnessing wasn’t just designed to teach specific lessons but that it was also tailored to the child’s specific stage of development. She writes,
Indeed, since the games were consciously conceived of partly as tests of a child’s ability to cope with his or her situation, the tendency was to focus on a child’s known or expected difficulties. If a child had just acquired a sibling, the game might revolve around the question: “Do you love your new baby sibling? Why don’t you kill him or her?” If it was a new piece of clothing that the child had acquired, the question might be: “Why don’t you die so I can have it?” And if the child had been recently adopted, the question might be: “Who’s your daddy?” (172)
As unpleasant as these tests can be for the children, they never entail any actual danger—Inuit adults would probably agree Hector Salamanca went a bit too far—and they always take place in circumstances and settings where the only threats and anxieties come from the hypothetical, playful dilemmas and conflicts. Briggs explains,
A central idea of Inuit socialization is to “cause thought”: isumaqsayuq. According to [Arlene] Stairs, isumaqsayuq, in North Baffin, characterizes Inuit-style education as opposed to the Western variety. Warm and tender interactions with children help create an atmosphere in which thought can be safely caused, and the questions and dramas are well designed to elicit it. More than that, and as an integral part of thought, the dramas stimulate emotion. (173)
Part of the exercise then seems to be to introduce the children to their own feelings. Prior to having their sibling’s life threatened, the children may not have any idea how they’d feel in the event of that sibling’s death. After the test, however, it becomes much more difficult for them to entertain thoughts of harming their brother or sister—the thought alone will probably be unpleasant.
            Briggs also points out that the games send the implicit message to the children that they can be trusted to arrive at the moral solution. Hector knows Leonel won’t let his brother drown—and Leonel learns that his uncle knows this about him. The Inuit adults who tease and tempt children are letting them know they have faith in the children’s ability to resist their selfish or aggressive impulses. Discussing Briggs’s work in his book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, anthropologist Christopher Boehm suggests that evolution has endowed children with the social and moral emotions we refer to collectively as consciences, but these inborn moral sentiments need to be activated and shaped through socialization. He writes,
On the one side there will always be our usefully egoistic selfish tendencies, and on the other there will be our altruistic or generous impulses, which also can advance our fitness because altruism and sympathy are valued by our peers. The conscience helps us to resolve such dilemmas in ways that are socially acceptable, and these Inuit parents seem to be deliberately “exercising” the consciences of their children to make morally socialized adults out of them. (226)
The Inuit-style moral dilemma games seem strange, even shocking, to people from industrialized societies, and so it’s clear they’re not a normal part of children’s upbringing in every culture. They don’t even seem to be all that common among hunter-gatherers outside the region of the Arctic. Boehm writes, however,
Deliberately and stressfully subjecting children to nasty hypothetical dilemmas is not universal among foraging nomads, but as we’ll see with Nisa, everyday life also creates real moral dilemmas that can involve Kalahari children similarly. (226)
Boehm goes on to recount an episode from anthropologist Marjorie Shostak’s famous biography Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman to show that parents all the way on the opposite side of the world from where Briggs did her fieldwork sometimes light on similar methods for stimulating their children’s moral development.
Nisa seems to have been a greedy and impulsive child. When her pregnant mother tried to wean her, she would have none of it. At one point, she even went so far as to sneak into the hut while her mother was asleep and try to suckle without waking her up. Throughout the pregnancy, Nisa continually expressed ambivalence toward the upcoming birth of her sibling, so much so that her parents anticipated there might be some problems. The !Kung resort to infanticide in certain dire circumstances, and Nisa’s parents probably reasoned she was at least somewhat familiar with the coping mechanism many other parents used when killing a newborn was necessary. What they’d do is treat the baby as an object, not naming it or in any other way recognizing its identity as a family member. Nisa explained to Shostak how her parents used this knowledge to impart a lesson about her baby brother.
After he was born, he lay there, crying. I greeted him, “Ho, ho, my baby brother! Ho, ho, I have a little brother! Some day we’ll play together.” But my mother said, “What do you think this thing is? Why are you talking to it like that? Now, get up and go back to the village and bring me my digging stick.” I said, “What are you going to dig?” She said, “A hole. I’m going to dig a hole so I can bury the baby. Then you, Nisa, will be able to nurse again.” I refused. “My baby brother? My little brother? Mommy, he’s my brother! Pick him up and carry him back to the village. I don’t want to nurse!” Then I said, “I’ll tell Daddy when he comes home!” She said, “You won’t tell him. Now, run back and bring me my digging stick. I’ll bury him so you can nurse again. You’re much too thin.” I didn’t want to go and started to cry. I sat there, my tears falling, crying and crying. But she told me to go, saying she wanted my bones to be strong. So, I left and went back to the village, crying as I walked. (The weaning episode occurs on pgs. 46-57)
Again, this may strike us as cruel, but by threatening her brother’s life, Nisa’s mother succeeded in triggering her natural affection for him, thus tipping the scales of her ambivalence to ensure the protective and loving feelings won out over the bitter and jealous ones. This example was extreme enough that Nisa remembered it well into adulthood, but Boehm sees it as evidence that real life reliably offers up dilemmas parents all over the world can use to instill morals in their children. He writes, 
I believe that all hunter-gatherer societies offer such learning experiences, not only in the real-life situations children are involved with, but also in those they merely observe. What the Inuit whom Briggs studied in Cumberland Sound have done is to not leave this up to chance. And the practice would appear to be widespread in the Arctic. Children are systematically exposed to life’s typical stressful moral dilemmas, and often hypothetically, as a training ground that helps to turn them into adults who have internalized the values of their groups. (234)
One of the reasons such dilemmas, whether real or hypothetical or merely observed, are effective as teaching tools is that they bypass the threat to personal autonomy that tends to accompany direct instruction. Imagine Tío Salamanca simply scolding Leonel for wishing his brother dead—it would have only aggravated his resentment and sparked defiance. Leonel would probably also harbor some bitterness toward his uncle for unjustly defending Marco. In any case, he would have been stubbornly resistant to the lesson. Winston Churchill nailed the sentiment when he said, “Personally, I am always ready to learn, although I don’t always like being taught.” The Inuit-style moral dilemmas force the children to come up with the right answer on their own, a task that requires the integration and balancing of short and long term desires, individual and group interests, and powerful albeit contradictory emotions. The skills that go into solving such dilemmas are indistinguishable from the qualities we recognize as maturity, self-knowledge, generosity, poise, and wisdom. 
For the children Briggs witnessed being subjected to these moral tests, the understanding that the dilemmas were in fact only hypothetical developed gradually as they matured. For the youngest ones, the stakes were real and the solutions were never clear at the onset. Briggs explains that
while the interaction between small children and adults was consistently good-humored, benign, and playful on the part of the adults, it taxed the children to—or beyond—the limits of their ability to understand, pushing them to expand their horizons, and testing them to see how much they had grown since the last encounter. (173)
What this suggests is that there isn’t always a simple declarative lesson—a moral to the story, as it were—imparted in these games. Instead, the solutions to the dilemmas can often be open-ended, and the skills the children practice can thus be more general and abstract than some basic law or principle. Briggs goes on,
Adult players did not make it easy for children to thread their way through the labyrinth of tricky proposals, questions, and actions, and they did not give answers to the children or directly confirm the conclusions the children came to. On the contrary, questioning a child’s first facile answers, they turned situations round and round, presenting first one aspect then another, to view. They made children realize their emotional investment in all possible outcomes, and then allowed them to find their own way out of the dilemmas that had been created—or perhaps, to find ways of living with unresolved dilemmas. Since children were unaware that the adults were “only playing,” they could believe that their own decisions would determine their fate. And since the emotions aroused in them might be highly conflicted and contradictory—love as well as jealousy, attraction as well as fear—they did not always know what they wanted to decide. (174-5)
As the children mature, they become more adept at distinguishing between real and hypothetical problems. Indeed, Briggs suggests one of the ways adults recognize children’s budding maturity is that they begin to treat the dilemmas as a game, ceasing to take them seriously, and ceasing to take themselves as seriously as they did when they were younger.
Brian Boyd
            In his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, literary scholar Brian Boyd theorizes that the fictional narratives that humans engage one another with in every culture all over the world, be they in the form of religious myths, folklore, or plays and novels, can be thought of as a type of cognitive play—similar to the hypothetical moral dilemmas of the Inuit. He sees storytelling as an adaption that encourages us to train the mental faculties we need to function in complex societies. The idea is that evolution ensures that adaptive behaviors tend to be pleasurable, and thus many animals playfully and joyously engage in activities in low-stakes, relatively safe circumstances that will prepare them to engage in similar activities that have much higher stakes and are much more dangerous. Boyd explains,
The more pleasure that creatures have in play in safe contexts, the more they will happily expend energy in mastering skills needed in urgent or volatile situations, in attack, defense, and social competition and cooperation. This explains why in the human case we particularly enjoy play that develops skills needed in flight (chase, tag, running) and fight (rough-and-tumble, throwing as a form of attack at a distance), in recovery of balance (skiing, surfing, skateboarding), and individual and team games. (92)
The skills most necessary to survive and thrive in human societies are the same ones Inuit adults help children develop with the hypothetical dilemma’s Briggs describes. We should expect fiction then to feature similar types of moral dilemmas. Some stories may be designed to convey simple messages—“Don’t hurt your brother,” “Don’t stray from the path”—but others might be much more complicated; they may not even have any viable solutions at all. “Art prepares minds for open-ended learning and creativity,” Boyd writes; “fiction specifically improves our social cognition and our thinking beyond the here and now” (209). 
One of the ways the cognitive play we call novels or TV shows differs from Inuit dilemma games is that the fictional characters take over center stage from the individual audience members. Instead of being forced to decide on a course of action ourselves, we watch characters we’ve become emotionally invested in try to come up with solutions to the dilemmas. When these characters are first introduced to us, our feelings toward them will be based on the same criteria we’d apply to real people who could potentially become a part of our social circles. Boyd explains,
Even more than other social species, we depend on information about others’ capacities, dispositions, intentions, actions, and reactions. Such “strategic information” catches our attention so forcefully that fiction can hold our interest, unlike almost anything else, for hours at a stretch. (130)
We favor characters who are good team players—who communicate honestly, who show concern for others, and who direct aggression toward enemies and cheats—for obvious reasons, but we also assess them in terms of what they might contribute to the group. Characters with exceptional strength, beauty, intelligence, or artistic ability are always especially attention-worthy. Of course, characters with qualities that make them sometimes an asset and sometimes a liability represent a moral dilemma all on their own—it’s no wonder such characters tend to be so compelling.
            The most common fictional dilemma pits a character we like against one or more characters we hate—the good team player versus the power- or money-hungry egoist. We can think of the most straightforward plot as an encroachment of chaos on the providential moral order we might otherwise take for granted. When the bad guy is finally defeated, it’s like a toy that was snatched away from us has just been returned. We embrace the moral order all the more vigorously. But of course our stories aren’t limited to this one basic formula. Around the turn of the last century, the French writer Georges Polti, following up on the work of Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi, tried to write a comprehensive list of all the basic plots in plays and novels, and flipping through his book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, you find that with few exceptions (“Daring Enterprise,” “The Enigma,” “Recovery of a Lost One”) the situations aren’t simply encounters between characters with conflicting goals, or characters who run into obstacles in chasing after their desires. The conflicts are nearly all moral, either between a virtuous character and a less virtuous one or between selfish or greedy impulses and more altruistic ones. Polti’s book could be called The Thirty-Odd Moral Dilemmas in Fiction. Hector Salamanca would be happy (not really) to see the thirteenth situation: “Enmity of Kinsmen,” the first example of which is “Hatred of Brothers” (49).
Sherlock Holmes - from "The Sign of Four"
One type of fictional dilemma that seems to be particularly salient in American society today pits our impulse to punish wrongdoers against our admiration for people with exceptional abilities. Characters like Walter White in Breaking Bad win us over with qualities like altruism, resourcefulness, and ingenuity—but then they go on to behave in strikingly, though somehow not obviously, immoral ways. Variations on Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes abound; he’s the supergenius who’s also a dick (get the double-entendre?): the BBC’s Sherlock (by far the best), the movies starring Robert Downey Jr., the upcoming series featuring an Asian female Watson (Lucy Liu)—plus all the minor variations like The Mentalist and House 
Though the idea that fiction is a type of low-stakes training simulation to prepare people cognitively and emotionally to take on difficult social problems in real life may not seem all that earthshattering, conceiving of stories as analogous to Inuit moral dilemmas designed to exercise children’s moral reasoning faculties can nonetheless help us understand why worries about the examples set by fictional characters are so often misguided. Many parents and teachers noisily complain about sex or violence or drug use in media. Academic literary critics condemn the way this or that author portrays women or minorities. Underlying these concerns is the crude assumption that stories simply encourage audiences to imitate the characters, that those audiences are passive receptacles for the messages—implicit or explicit—conveyed through the narrative. To be fair, these worries may be well placed when it comes to children so young they lack the cognitive sophistication necessary for separating their thoughts and feelings about protagonists from those they have about themselves, and are thus prone to take the hero for a simple model of emulation-worthy behavior. But, while Inuit adults communicate to children that they can be trusted to arrive at a right or moral solution, the moralizers in our culture betray their utter lack of faith in the intelligence and conscience of the people they try to protect from the corrupting influence of stories with imperfect or unsavory characters. 

           This type of self-righteous and overbearing attitude toward readers and viewers strikes me as more likely by orders of magnitude to provoke defiant resistance to moral lessons than the North Baffin’s isumaqsayuq approach. In other words, a good story is worth a thousand sermons. But if the moral dilemma at the core of the plot has an easy solution—if you can say precisely what the moral of the story is—it’s probably not a very good story.

No comments: