(Epistemic – semi-endorsed, switching back to being truth-aligned has done gross things to my spark; dangerous technology – very close to actually drinking the Kool-aid and should probably be used judiciously; also probably dark arts)
A long time ago, two factions were fighting over a territory. It was an island with a valuable canal – whichever faction held the canal had rights to the toll generated by this canal. After many a year of incessant fighting, these two factions settled on agreeing to have a war every four years and ceding the canal to the winner of that war, until next time. Now, while this was often better for all involved, the victorious faction from the previous war would often have a lot of trouble raising an army to defend their claim to the tolls for the next war. Often, the winning side would have to tell their members things that were verifiably wrong, or at least technically not correct. Sometimes it would be overstating the benefits from the tolls, or perhaps threats of famine from losing the toll income – other times it would be a more direct attack on the other faction, claiming that they would not stop at winning the war, but try to expand their claims if they won this time. Occasionally a particularly notable or odious member of the other faction would come to the attention of the victorious faction and be gratuitously scapegoated for the sake of raising numbers. Most of the times, the faction members would either not realize these things were untrue, or they would, and allow these inaccuracies to pass – they knew that the canal was a big part of their quality of life. Sometimes, however, a benign but somewhat clueless individual would try to correct the story, or clarify the statements that were wrong. It turned out this was unpopular, and this individual would be lowered in status, trusted less, and often overrun by authorities in the faction. It turns out that things that are wrong are actually a staple of human interaction, organization, and status.
Several things are going on in this story. We will begin with the most boring aspect – the people who are saying/believing things that are wrong, installing it in their own memeplex. These are the other faction members playing along. Often facts have nuance, but this is less important than the sense of ingroupness and protection of resources. This has been written about many a time – a lot of people favor the status quo over the most accurate facts. Slightly more interestingly, the wrong belief does benefit the faction’s populace – they get their army, probably even joining themselves. The canal gets a proper defense – more of the populace is likely to live as well even if they are involved in the fighting, because they have both increased numbers and a stronger sense of trust for each other. The faction army doesn’t really want the clueless person at their back – if they don’t get what’s going on, how can they be trusted to be situationally aware on the field? Worse still, what if this attack on social cohesion is intentional, under the veil of just wanting the facts? It’s too dangerous to leave this sort of thing unchecked, so it has to be punished. Believing wrong things often has protective functions and can draw out additional internal and external reserves.
A less ingroup dynamic case of this is the concept of chaos magick – often it is layering a narrative of ritual over various desires and actions to add associations, triggers, and draw out extra reserves. These beliefs may also be wrong, but often pay dividends in outcomes.
The more interesting part of this story is the clueless individual. She’s not all that clueless, actually – she sees what’s going on and has decided to reject it. However, she can do better than that. She already has the requisite skills, but she needs to frame them differently. The faction likely has a lot of people just nodding along, with very little to add. They hear about Odious Oliveri of the Other Faction and basically provide a chorus of “Fuck that guy”s. Our clueless individual might say “There were mitigating circumstances though, Odious Oliveri actually isn’t that bad, Pathetic Phillio is actually way worse, why does he get a pass because he’s on our side?” Predictably, she gets shunned and punished. Instead, she might consider approaching it like this “Odious Oliveri truly is horrible, failing to cross the road at the designated crossing and inconveniencing the carriages in a most odious way – what you might not have heard is that this fiend Oliveri has also been shaving the yaks in the common –“ A pause for effect “And blaming our absentminded scholar, Phillio, for it!” What this accomplishes is twofold – it increases the memetic strength of the claims made by the faction authorities, as well as signals to them that our not-so-clueless friend is both in on the story and willing to play ball.
To bring this more abstract, if an authority is telling you a story and you feel compelled to truth, you should consider how to turn this to your advantage. If you just state facts that break up their narrative, you are either malevolently or bumblingly attacking them socially – they have to assume you have intent and punish you accordingly. The right answer is to support the authority’s narrative, but in ways that signal you understand that it is a narrative. Don’t just agree – either reinforce in a broad sense, or even identify someone who is hesitating on accepting the story and restate the point in a way that gets that person on board. The more you do this, the more you increase trust; not just into your insight, but also into your judgment. If you can identify and accept wrong things, then you can convert this into status.
The most interesting part of this dynamic is the authority themselves. The not-so-clueless version of our heroine is very much a precursor to an authority in the structure – the authorities themselves are a little more difficult to class, however. In some cases, they will in fact be very much in on what’s going on and intentionally propagating it. They are the ones that see this as a problem of “we need an army for the canal defense war – how can we get the public on board.” Perhaps in modern times, this is the person saying “We need to increase our sales – how do we get our line on board.” They are crafting the narrative intentionally – they likely are buying it a little. This authority is a bit of a blend between the average faction member and our heroine; their status depends on the belief being accepted.
The other kind of authority is one who truly believes the stories and has the rhetoric to fire up the populace in this vein. They have no special insight, but their conviction is compelling beyond words. They are not just saying “yeah, fuck that guy”, they are going to Odious Oliveri’s house and painting it in horse dung on his door. These are the kind of people you use to accelerate a narrative – but doing this is playing with fire. When someone is a true believer, you do not actually have control over their actions or how they will use your story. Frequently, they will go in unexpected directions because it is not about the pragmatic aspects of your faction’s plight, it is almost entirely about ingroup. This part of the story is one side of why this mental technology is dangerous. It can be used to promote your interests, but in the process, you might cause collateral damage if you’re a bit too clever.
Overall, none of these principles are new – there’s a mix of the Gervais Principle, Toxoplasma of Rage, and other assorted writings. What I am pointing at is how all these structures can be utilized to one’s advantage rather than fought – and how they can end up leading to one’s detriment. If you install wrong beliefs personally and don’t compartmentalize properly, you will likely end up with externalities you don’t actually desire (such as joining a faction’s army in a stupid economic war). If you argue against wrong beliefs too strenuously, you will lose status and be impotent. If you go along with the beliefs while angling for promotion, you’ll likely move up – but in turn you might create some monsters who don’t get the joke. Be careful with wrong things…but never dismiss them entirely.
Discussion Questions: Have you ever noticed in an office or a classroom how people react to things that are blatant lies? How does the reaction change when the manager is there and when they are not? Which reactions get encouraged and rewarded, and which ones get punished? How often do you do this to yourself to eke out a little bit more, or to allow for more flexible responses?