There is an intrinsic human desire to see the world as in some way at least involving you and at least in some way being dramatic. This is why conspiracy theories are so popular – it’s a wonderful feeling to be the only sane man fighting evil. It’s also rarely as simple as that, even if the conspiracy you’ve spotted actually exists. There’s a Mitchell and Webb sketch where one SS officer says to another SS officer, ’are we the baddies?’ It’s suprising because no one thinks they are the baddy because no one wants to be the baddy. Even if you’re doing something bad it’s likely you’re only doing it because you don’t have any other option or to stop something worse happening. It might even be that you’re only killing X because you’re actually a self-sacrificing hero – the SS officers were fighting communists. If you’re the baddy and you know you’re the baddy and you’re ok with that, you’re weird.
It goes further than just the Twin Towers being an inside job – countries like to see themselves as the goodies too. In fact, the Western world as a whole does. NATO didn’t go into Kosovo because it liked to blow stuff up; it was there to rescue the needy. They were, in their own minds at least, bombing for peace. People may have got hurt but it was for a good cause.
The world isn’t a story but the people in the world like stories. People construct narratives to make sense of what is fundamentally an extremely random world. These narratives, naturally, often centre around the person making them. I’m going to call this the RPG fallacy but it’s pretty much the egocentric bias.
That’s a big enough deal if, for example, you’re dealing with individuals seeing patterns in songs or paintings and feeling victimised (the Illuminati are out to get you) but if you’re dealing with life and death decisions about going to war as a country in terms of how awesome and heroic you are that’s especially worrying.
The RPG fallacy
One of the modern day methods of telling a story is the Role Playing Game. In the traditional role playing game interpersonal relationships are not generally very fleshed out – the Non Player Characters (collectively known as NPCs) only react to the Player (PC) who controls what happens in the world. It is only reasonably recently that games even bothered to change the game world beyond the player’s own actions or inactions. You might find that the dragon would destroy some towns but some other hero wouldn’t come along and slay it if you didn’t do it. NPCs are limited to a set range of standard responses and reactions to the player NPCs are just there to make the PC look good. Even the Big Bad is an NPC, the purpose of which is to be the means by which the hero proves that he is heroic.
In a way, so are refugees. The purpose of a refugee is not to grow up, get a job and have a family but to be hungry, needy and suffering on TV so that it can be rescued by the good guys so that the good guys can show how good they are. You don’t sponsor a child for 50p a month because they’re at uni and drugs aren’t cheap; you do it because their country has a famine and they need to eat to survive. People should definitely continue to help people in that situation — they genuinely need our help — but you much more rarely see appeals to help someone in a Third World country fund their PhD. People like that exist but that doesn’t fit the narrative.
Consider where people focus on stuff rogue states get up – for example ’US bombs rogue state’ rather than ’Rogue state is bombed by US’. The difference there is more than just passive voice. The rogue state is big and scary (even this post-Cold War baby thinks the USSR was completely terrifying) but it’s not really the star of that show – it’s there to give the other country something heroic to do.
One of the biggest problems of war is that it requires you to dehumanise the other side. One of the principle signs that a friendship has broken down is when your friend kills you: real friends wouldn’t kill friends (unless they really deserved it). There is no question of gassing cities if you think the people in that city are everyday folks just like you. On the other hand if they’re Enemy sympathisers, then it really stands to reason that these people need gassed. That’s what Enemy is for. Of course, none of this changes the fact that, from the other side, you’re the Enemy that’s there to be gassed and they’re the good guys being put upon by the forces of evil. This, along with general apathy caused by rampant consumption, is one of the reasons put forward that the internet will be good for world peace.
We’ll just have to hope and see about that one but I’ve got my fingers crossed.
The worst thing of all, in rushing into humanitarian crises in the Heroic Narrative, is that the sight of starving orphans being saved and fed by NATO troops is heart warming enough to obscure other relationships between the people and the white knights. It’s pretty cold comfort if the reason that there is a humanitarian crisis in the country in the first place is that unregulated arms trading put guns into the hands of the bad guys. Both arming and ending wars is a morally dubious example of having your cake and eating it.