The Game of Castles

The rules, the roles, the costs, and how to change the game.

This newsletter is usually about specific news stories. But sometimes it’s good to step back and review the meta-concepts that drive our relationships with the news itself (or rather with each other, where the news happens to be a communal meeting-place).

What follows is thus my best attempt at sketching out the various roles we play in what I call The Game of Castles — the game we all play (consciously or not) whenever we react to a piece of news or make judgments about how others are reacting to it.

While it’s hardly a grand unifying theory, my hope is that the telling will make a few things click as to why we tend to see certain dynamics unfold time and time again, and why the outcomes so many of us claim to want always feel some distance away.

The Question of Home

Imagine a two-dimensional map with:

  • Castle Consensia (the stronghold of polite consensus) at one end

  • Castle Contraria (the stronghold of free questioning) at the other

  • A large field between them, marked with a center-line

  • A large shadow of safety falling from each castle, both (somehow) towards the middle of the field, each ending about halfway to the center-line

My sense is that, oversimplified as this picture is, it sets up an interesting and deeply telling question: where on this map would we prefer to make our home?

While locating where we actually are on the map can vary with the day and circumstance, we have to start with desire. Because if we don’t start there, we’ll never get very far with people. Because all of us have complicated explanations as to the gap between where we’d prefer to be and where someone might find us on a given day.

So let’s look at what causes that movement, and at how and why the distribution of people along the map can change so much from one season to another.

Peacetime and Wartime

A society is at peace when those in Castle Consensia are:

  1. Willing and able to protect the truths they know

  2. Willing and able to make sure those truths are true 

  3. Willing and able to meet challenges with patience

But should they ever fail at any of those mandates, war will follow — slowly, then all at once. Contraria will suggest, ever more loudly, that Consensia’s royals are somewhere between negligent and hostile to the truth, and many will find cause to agree.

But why might Consensia fail?

There’s a way in which the answer is just default human behavior:

  • The world is hard and chaotic and overwhelming, and we all have our limits and our needs, so most of us naturally optimize our free time for things that are either restorative or that don’t cost us too much of our remaining energy

  • Living close to Consensia is a huge energy saver, as we can defer costs to others

Now, this is a rational enough choice in peacetime. When things are running smoothly, we’re all better off spending ourselves where we can offer unique value, only periodically dip into the great stream of happenings, otherwise trusting that the castle’s watchers are doing well in their needful work.

The inevitable trouble here though is the warping influence of the castle itself. Castles by their nature are insular. Spending too much time inside can poison our perspective, dull our discernment, and blind us to intent. Over-stays can also change our self-perception, where we begin identifying with the place, not for its function, but for the power it lends us. With this power we can right wrongs, defend the weak, and force a certain order on the world. With this power we can do work that matters. With this power we can matter. It’s intoxicating, addictive, and easily overdosed on.

This in mind, while it’s healthy to support the castle in times of siege, it’s not healthy to live there, nor to want to. While the work is indispensably important, it’s the sort of job best done on rotation. Some days we can leave. Some days we should leave.

Most of us grok this on some level. The most populous place in peacetime is a bit outside, under the castle’s shadow. From there we can enjoy the protection that the castle offers, and are close enough to defend it from unprovoked attack, all while maintaining enough distance to not be warped by it, where we can still see its faults.

Some, of course, don’t even want to be as close as that. Toward the middle we have those still on the side of Consensia, though well outside its shadow, who represent positions like “while we’re clearly on your side, we’ve chosen even more distance than you, as we think castle criticism needs to be stronger and clearer right now”.

And in quite the same way we have those just over the line into Contraria, who will voice more pessimistic forms of this argument, often laced with less charitable views of the reigning monarchs, often informed by some amount of personal hurt.

But it’s under the shadow of Castle Contraria that things get murkier, and more interesting. People there are often difficult, and it’s not especially desirable real estate, especially for long stays. So why is anyone there? Some prefer it because of deeply skeptical natures. Others because they dislike the burdens of politeness, which they consider some mix of obstructive and oppressive. Mostly though its a place that swells with wartime refugees who’ve been struck by the fingerloose archers of Consensia. Were those arrows merited? Is the self-exile justified? These are hard questions.

As for Castle Contraria itself, it’s a necessary place I suppose. While we’d prefer it empty-ish, I don’t think we’d want a world without it. That said, its inhabitants extend beyond the skeptical and the wartime wounded. There’s something of a permanent ruling class there, who are addicted to (and have been disfigured by) the same forms of power as those across the way. And this class has long reckoned that the best way to solidify their grasp on this power is to preach an enthusiastic and insincere message of compassion and purpose and solidarity to all those who’ve drawn close for shelter.

And, well, things are booming in Contraria right now.

Life in the Warzone

Let’s return to the great question: where we’d prefer to live.

In wartime people drift towards the safety of castles. It’s instinctual. Maybe our passport says Consensia, and maybe we didn’t mean to get this far across the border. But we’re here now, and anyway we didn’t like how we were treated back home, and anyway who wants to be left exposed in the middle during a time like this? It’s a common story right now, one you can hear everywhere, if you listen. But it’s still a different thing from a desire to make one’s home there. And this distinction is crucial.

You can tell who doesn’t truly belong there, if you want to. You can tell who’ll never lose their discomfort with the small lords of Contraria. You can hear it their language, in their tone. They speak with frustration. Not indifference, not malice, not some deep aversion to the values that Consensia means to uphold. Just frustration, and pain. They speak as expats, as exiles, as people not at home. But never as enemies in a real sense.

But we don’t always listen carefully. It’s a lot of work. Maybe we wish the archers would before they shot all those people? Yes, that would be good. But how to convince them? Maybe someone else should? It’s a lot of work, success is uncertain, and it’s a good way to get shot ourselves. Who has the time and the risk tolerance?

And so the archers do their work, with less and less opposition.

The defining quality of wartime is thus that this becomes normal, to the point of becoming a ubiquitous and endless backdrop to our daily life. The arrows never stop flying, and we’re left to make hard choices about how exposed we want to be.

Battle Dynamics 

Humans are status-seeking monkeys. And for those of us enlisted in the war, our bananas are badges and follower counts and the right person hitting the right button in response to something we’ve fired off. It’s like on-demand cocaine that we get to pay for in obscure IOUs whose terms we’re rarely all that interested in in the moment.

Thankfully we’re at least monkeys with the power of sober review, which we make use of sometimes. Our status drive is powerful, not irresistible. It can be harnessed towards objective good. Even so, archery is a status amplifier, and thus an endless drug supply. The hit from firing an arrow from the ramparts of rightness is to feel loved, almost.

(While there’s certainly status to be found in no man’s land, it’s of a different kind, and there’s less of it, and sometimes you get shot in the eye. So interest is always modest.)

If we accept that these dynamics are true, we can see it playing out a predictable way:

  1. Someone in Consensia spots what they perceive to be a problem.

  2. They voice their concern, and perhaps they get an arrow for it. (After all, the only rule against firing at someone outside is that you need to have perceived a threat. And while approaching the castle with affirmation and deference certainly limits one’s risks there, it hardly eliminates them. Basically shooters gonna shoot.)

  3. As no one within Consensia sees it as their personal job to review the complaint box, the best that inadvertent victims get is usually private sympathy.

  4. (Ok, maybe if a plaintiff comes on just the right day and phrases it just the right way and it isn’t too threatening or guilt-inducing to anyone, maybe they can get a hearing. Maybe. But those within Consensia who might force such a hearing may choose against pushing too hard for one. It’s a survival thing. Nothing personal.)

  5. What’s a rejected plaintiff to do? They can’t get a hearing. They’re tired of the arrows. They’re hurting. So maybe they turn and seek out the comforts of the other side (be that the general sympathy of those near the middle, or the outright embrace of those within Castle Contraria). How strongly can we blame them?

Defections are the language of the spurned.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

I don’t believe in passes, per se. But I believe in context, and empathy, and grace. If we’re going to judge someone for where they ended up, and what they did while there, we ought to make that judgment with knowledge of their story, and with a willingness to consider our own part in their trajectory.

Most of all though, we ought to want to know what place they’d like to call home, and what’s standing in their way. Especially if that thing is us.

Of course, the eternal problem here is our own wallets (money, energy, time, etc).

This is why systems are important.

Imagine how the game shifts with just two adjustments:

  1. Making it someone’s job to review Consensia’s complaint box. Why don’t we have a team with sufficient resources to clean up and amplify legitimate concerns, who can also lay out rejections with the sort of thoroughness and compassion and clarity that can permanently limit the reproductive rate of a particular bad argument? We’re an obscenely wealthy society, and delegating this well would represent a stellar total return. They wouldn’t need to touch every case, much less every permutation of every case. They wouldn’t be responsible to adjudicate the intractable. All we need is for them to provide a public feedback loop that lets the most wronged get a fair and patient hearing. (Even where this fails to update consensus, it at least allows all to judge with more empathy and clarity after.)

  2. While we can’t stop every misguided arrow loosened by a trigger-happy status-seeker, we can reduce the rewards for recklessness. We can refuse to clap. We can unfollow those who persist. We can build buttons that capture new things. We can find ways of signalling to the almighty algorithms that we monkeys need their help. At the very least we can put speedbumps in the way of our worst instincts. We can force more space between stimulus and response.

The consensus is often right. But sometimes it’s wrong, and every error comes at a dear cost to progress. And so we ought to embrace our challengers for the good trouble they bring. And so we ought to create systems to make their work easy.

And when we look across the dividing line, we do well to be slow in our judgments, thus allowing room for the great questions: Where is home from you? What’s keeping you from being there right now? How can I help?

The answers will often humanize the objects of our casual scorn. And they’ll clue us in to context we weren’t listening for before, which will draw some needful empathy.

And if we do this enough we’ll become those who bring peace, which virtually every religion we’ve ever come up with agrees is the highest thing we can aspire to.

As a PS, I thought I’d include the text to a short poem I find quite fitting, written by a young British soldier, Charles Hamilton Sorley, some time after being recalled from his studies in Germany to fight against his recent classmates in WWI.

He didn’t make it to the other side of the storm. Maybe we can.

To Germany

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind.
And in each other's dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm,
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.