Extralegality: A Wishful Thinker's Attraction to Gangsters

I’m an epistemology professor. My work involves studying how we decide what’s true.  For play I have lots of pastimes, but one I must admit, is watching crime drama.  I wouldn’t declare it as an official hobby on Facebook, but if I look at where my free time goes I have to admit I’ve seen all of the Sopranos, Deadwood, most of the Wire, plus every higher-than-B-grade crime, con, heist, mafia, western, gangland movie ever made.  Apparently I like this stuff.  And why?

My brother the English professor tells me one good reason.  The first crime fiction came out at about the same time as the microscope was invented.  Both of the underworlds–the natural microscopic one, and the seedy unlawful one are of similar fascination to law-abiding citizens living a clean, surface existence.  We hear about crime but rarely see it.  We know about germs but rarely see them either. We’re simply fascinated by what lurks beneath the surface.

That makes sense, but really, we never do anything for just one reason. So I’d like to add another reason any of us might love crime drama, though it’s the kind of thing only an epistemologists might notice. We identify with lawbreakers because we’re law-breakers too.  We watch them get away with it for a while, sometimes long enough to build huge successful empires.  We hope we can get away with defying the law for a long time too, but we live under its shadow and worry that it will take us down. We cheer watching the gangsters get away with it.  We’re appalled by their duplicity. We cheer when they get caught. We’re sobered to see that crime doesn’t pay.

To be clear, I’m a law-abiding citizen.  Or rather, I’d like to think I am.  I’m not talking here about living outside the legal code the way gangsters do.  Really, there are two kinds of laws-the laws of society and of nature. Gangsters defy and outwit the legal system.  All of us do the same with the laws of nature.

All of us are gangsters of epistemology. To explain I need to refer to three kinds of stories we seek and tell. In a recent article I called them Liked, likely and lucrative stories.  The liked story is the most satisfying, comforting, self-affirming, encouraging, anxiety-reducing story to tell, regardless of whether it complies with the laws of the society, nature or reality. When I say “I’m a law-abiding citizen” that’s a story I like to tell, regardless of whether it’s completely true.

The likely story is the most accurate story we can tell. It’s what science pursues, though never achieves. As part of its reality check, science limits itself to proclaiming the most accurate story so far. It never claims to tell the most accurate story possible. It pursues the likely story open-endedly by paying its practitioners to keep alive a skeptical “Yeah, right, a likely story,” sarcasm about all stories.

And why do we tell liked and likely stories? In pursuit of the lucrative story–whichever story will pay off best in the long run.

Well, everybody knows that the likely story is the most lucrative, right?  I mean crimes against the laws of nature never pay, do they?  That’s why we’re all so good at facing reality, finding out what’s really going on, being on the side of truth, right?

That’s a very likeable story, but not very likely.  No, we all deceive ourselves because crime does pay, at least for a while.  A little self-deception goes a long way.  Believing that your chances of success are better than they really are is called hope.

For example, take my death. Please.

I don’t want to die, so I try to forget that I will. I’m doing great for 52 so even though I know better, I operate on the optimal illusion that I’ll just go on getting better and smarter and more handsome.  Other people die but I don’t. Dying is for losers.  I’m a winner.  Or if I do have to die then I intuit that there’s an afterlife where we can all joyously twist away like we did last summer.

I defy the laws of nature for the same reasons that Tony Soprano defies the laws of New Jersey. I get more joy and less pain, at least in the short run. I get more power and confidence and less heartache.  It’s an old tradition, this defying the law.  It’s how we’ve always done things around here. Science keeps refining the statutes and laws of nature, often with discouraging consequences. New Jersey keeps refining its laws too. I just don’t want to have to change to keep up.  I live by same laws my grandfather lived by.  If it was good enough for him it’s good enough for me. I hope the law will grandfather me in. If and when the law catches up with me, then I’ll deal with it. Maybe death will take a bribe.

Jung said we identify with everyone in our dreams and our fiction. We don’t just identify with the good guys against the bad guys.  We are the good and the bad guys both. We are the cops and we are the robbers.  We are the cons, the conned and the detectives who sort them out.  Crime drama has gotten a lot more sophisticated. There’s greater tolerance for anti-heroes like Tony, Swearengen, and Avon these days.  Maybe it’s just because we take in so much of it, you have to keep adding plot twists to keep it interesting. Or maybe it’s because we’re better at admitting there’s a natural tension between abiding by, and defying the law

Or maybe it’s because the tension is growing.  Scary times-global warming, the economy… I hear the sirens.  The law is closing in on me.  And yet I’ve still got my fun, my little empire, my traditions. I’m going to see how long I can hold out.

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