Meta-cons: Righteous indignation as a con about conning

A couple of weeks ago Jared Diamond, of Guns, Germs and Steel fame, had an article in the New Yorker describing tribal warfare in the New Guinea Highlands. Diamond takes us through a typical feud that started over accusations by one tribe that another tribe’s pig had messed up their garden. He follows Daniel, a tribesman who takes formal responsibility for avenging the killing of a fellow tribesman. Three years, twenty-nine deaths, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs later, Daniel succeeds in discharging this responsibility.

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Toward the end of the article Diamond reflects on how we who live under the rule of state law rather than the law of the local blood feud enjoy greater civic order but have also lost something. Now that we defer to governments to settle our disputes, we don’t know what to do with our natural impulses to personally avenge wrong-doing.

The fighting Diamond describes feels both familiar and strange. The senselessness of tribal squabbles seems similar in all but scale to the senselessness of global warfare. Daniel says, “I admit that the New Guinea Highland way to solve the problem posed by a killing isn’t good. Our way disturbs our day-to-day life; we won’t be comfortable for the rest of our lives; we are always in effect living on the battlefield; and those feelings go on and on in us. The Western way, of letting the government settle disputes by means of the legal system, is a better way. But we could never have arrived at it by ourselves: we were trapped in our endless cycles of revenge killings.”

Resistance to international law could be expressed similarly, just on a larger scale. Whole nations internally pacified by the rule of law clash among themselves and will continue to do so unless and until some kind of international rule of law gains credibility.

In a way, then, what Diamond brings to light is a scale shift. Through time, fighting factions have gotten bigger. Ancient people warred tribe against tribe. By the Renaissance it was city state against city state-Milan would attack Florence, for example. Now it’s nation state against nation state. And sometimes we see cross-scale wars, WMD-brandishing tribes attacking nation states. At all scales internal cohesiveness is demanded by war. United we must stand, so set aside your personal vengeance against your fellow countryman and align to fight the outside enemy.

But there’s something also very strange about tribal warfare as Diamond depicts it, something foreign he doesn’t mention in the article. The New Guinean attitude toward the enemy seems exceptionally naÔve and innocent. Daniel takes his responsibility for revenge seriously. He musters as much courage and fierceness as he can to cause his enemy pain and humiliation. But never do you hear him claim the high moral ground. He fights not out of hatred or judgment but because that’s the drill, that’s what tribes do. His goal is to win honor after he dies, so people will remember him enthusiastically. By Daniel’s reasoning, the object of the game of life is ego, trivial ego–to be famous within the tribe. In that sense it lacks grand purpose. I found myself almost nostalgic for a time when wars were fought without grand purpose. Senseless war on a small scale is safer than our purposeful large-scale wars.

Daniel and his band of enlisted avengers taunt the enemy tribesmen to fluster them so that they will fight poorly. They’ll sing, “We killed your brother, and he was a coward.” They’ll sing war songs to bring up old memories: “I was there on that day of battle, I tried to kill you then, we should have killed you then, you were our target and we missed, but now we won’t miss.” At least as Diamond tells it you don’t hear any moral one-upsmanship. They don’t claim to be virtue incarnate vanquishing an enemy that is evil incarnate.

The weapons of warfare scale up over time, from the arrows and spears still used by the New Guineans, but so too do the psychological weapons. It’s hard to imagine a war these days in which opposing sides didn’t project all evil on each other. Maybe it’s Hitler’s legacy. That war against a truly evil empire seems to have left all future leaders free to draw loose parallels between their campaigns and the freedom fighters of WWII. But no, mass indignation predates WWII–French nationalism during the French Revolution, the Thirty years war between Catholics and Protestants, the crusades, the Islamic Jihads of the 800s. It’s been a while since wars were as quaintly indignation-free as the New Guinean tribal conflict appears to be. And maybe it’s only an appearance. Diamond’s report may be incomplete. I wouldn’t want to fall for another anthropologist’s romancing of the noble savage, but then if that’s all this was, Diamond would probably make a point of the anachronistic innocence of the New Guinean tribesman’s cause.

There are times to be righteously indignant. And precisely because righteous indignance has its place, it has its misplace as well. Righteous indignation with Hitler was justified, so of course future leaders abuse the parallel. In a dispute over the purchase of something I bought on Craigslist last month, the seller in all earnestness called me a “terrorist” for threatening to take him to small claims court. Suddenly someone who sold me shoddy goods was a freedom fighter resisting a terrorist. We settled out of court.

There are lies and meta-lies. A meta-lie is a lie about lying, such as claiming to never lie, which is itself a lie. And there are cons and meta-cons–cons about conning, for example, conning on a world stage, proclaiming as most faction leaders do that they are the virtuous ones who would never sink so low as to do the sort of evil things that the enemy does. Which is itself a con.

Now that every army from tribal militia to superpower has facile access to such meta-con arguments, very little gets settled in small claims courts. As global problems scale up with, for example, the proliferation of the other WMD–Weather of Mass Destruction–there will be more to fight over and therefore more motivation to claim the moral upper hand. If the hurricanes don’t get us the meta-cons will.

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