Confessions of a Demon

by rsbakker

The most controversial decision I made embarking on the Second Apocalypse was the decision to create a deliberately sexist world. All this time I had been looking at fantasy fiction as ‘scripture otherwise,’ as an example of the way religious tropes, once extracted from their native communities, instantly became magical tropes when fictionally relocated. Middle-earth is what Biblical Israel, Vedic India, or Homeric Greece look like when packaged for consumption as another consumer good. Since I saw nostalgia as the greatest social and aesthetic sin of the genre, I wanted my alternate ancient world to be as morally troubling as our own ancient past most assuredly is. Since I saw wish-fulfillment as the second greatest social and aesthetic sin I devised characters too damaged or too alien to not make the reader itch in some way. I wanted grit in every seam of my world. I wanted people coming out feeling their skin.

I think fantasy narratives, the narratives conquering more and more of the mainstream imagination, are the most direct and florid symptom of a very special kind of society, one that is ‘akratic,’ functionally nihilistic insofar as scientifically rationalized and empowered, yet occulted by carnival cultures of disposable meaning. I think our society is what a society that can only instrumentally rationalize norms looks like, one continually reorganizing itself around market imperatives. Upon this nihilistic architecture we slather endless homilies to our brutally chauvinistic past, and most especially, to our self-overcoming selves.

This was the dynamic I wanted to explore in photographic negative.

For those with no ear for such things, I just come off as a sexist pig. Since traditional chauvinisms are invariably naturalized, or taken as the way things are, I wanted a female protagonist who accepted the fact of her oppression. Moreover, I wanted both her ‘revelation’ and her ‘emancipation’ to be thoroughly tainted, to be mediated, not only by a man, but by a cipher for modernity.

I wanted to show how nihilism can actually explain ‘moral progress.’

Now, of course, I just sound like an insufferably arrogant sexist pig trying to rationalize his pigginess. That’s okay. I’ve read enough research on moral judgment making to realize that such declarations generally do not admit rational consideration. Those making them are actually best thought of as machines running through certain inevitable programs. Even showing them the research makes no difference—as I’ve discovered first hand. If they smell pig, then pig is on the menu…

No matter what the cook says.

Let me explain. We like to think that moral progress, the gradual expansion of the ‘franchise’ to include more and more participants belongs to a larger, rational process. We like to think, in other words, that ‘social justice’ services some kind of ‘moral truth.’ This is certainly what I like to think, and how I do think in many practical situations. But there’s an entirely different way to think of moral progress, one that explains its otherwise mysterious relationship to scientific and technical ‘progress.’ The most glaring fact of human social life is human social ignorance, how we make/accompany social decisions given only scanty evidence. My own tango with moral condemnation provides an excellent case in point. Not a single soul declaring me morally defective had the slightest clue who I was, let alone my history of relationships with women. On the basis of a series of hunches—some kind of ‘narrative odor,’ perhaps—they knew with Old Testament certainty that I was somehow morally defective in this way or that.

They were thinking heuristically, through the lens of a system that very clearly seems to be social results oriented, and not fact oriented. Whether or not I was morally defective in fact had no bearing on the issue. If it had some bearing, then the evidence would have been assessed. I would have been asked questions, and my queries would have been answered. If I had any case whatsoever, my detractors would have qualified their claims accordingly. ‘Bakker is a sexist pig!’ would have been amended to, ‘Bakker’s books lead certain readers to assume he’s a sexist pig, but they could be mistaken.’

To my horror and fascination—things had quickly become too surreal to feel otherwise—the whole kerfuffle unfolded exactly as Jonathan Haidt’s research suggested it would. Mathematical proof of my innocence would have simply revealed that mathematics had a ‘tone problem.’ (A handful of more sophisticated critics had decided my real problem was the lack of contrition, that I failed to exhibit the ‘proper tone,’ one expressing sensitivity to the plight of those wishing me dead). It became very clear very quickly that facts and interpretative charity had no place in this debate.

Although Haidt attempts to soft-sell his findings, what they really demonstrate is the immorality of moral reasoning. But what could this mean, the ‘immorality of moral reasoning’? Is it simply a matter of inconsistency, the fact that I was being accused of chauvinism, of unjustified denigration, in the most chauvinistic manner I could imagine? Does it all come down to something as banal a human hypocrisy?

Or does it mean something more troubling?

The fact is this is precisely what we should expect moral reasoning to look like were nihilism true. The original basis of the charge against me lies in my books. Since depiction is so often confused with endorsement, it should come as no surprise that certain readers would think that, far from critiquing patriarchal social systems, I’m celebrating and promoting the denigration of women. This is a simple and quite understandable mistake to make in an information vacuum. The most straightforward conclusion to draw is that I am a moral problem. This triggers the application of our moral problem solving systems. Now, if there were a fact of the matter regarding moral defects, you would expect the heuristics involved would be geared to factfinding, to determining, in my case, whether I am indeed morally defective. But as it turns out, precisely the opposite is the case. As Haidt’s research shows in rather dramatic fashion, individuals from across cultures can do little more than rationalize their conclusions. Their bias is very nearly complete. What should be raised as a worry is voiced as an accusation. Hatred becomes the driving affect. Intimidation—‘shame tactics’—becomes the only communicative tool people seem to recognize.

Not one of these people knew me, and yet I was an obvious moral monster. I would do vanity Googles and find complete strangers mourning for my wife, my daughter—on the basis of a review of the first six pages of my first novel. Now that’s heuristic.

This suggests that the function of moral reasoning is only incidentally epistemic, that it’s geared to managing perceptions, enforcing attitudes—and that this is the case no matter what the message. The moral reasoning of Islamic State radicals is the moral reasoning of Christian Fundamentalists is the moral reasoning of Feminists is the moral reasoning of Environmental Activists. Demons focus the attention, provide the organizing principle for some kind of recuperative or retributive action. The coarse grain of the ‘demon detection system’ is actually advantageous the degree to which false positives eliminate the chances of false negatives. Real demons are serious business, liable to destroy the entire community. It’s far better to burn a dozen innocents than let one demon run amok.

Haidt is keen to stress this point: irrational or not, in situ moral reasoning makes things happen. It is a crude, yet enormously effective social device, capable of resolving potentially existential problems given mere scraps of information. And as irony would have it, The Second Apocalypse was nothing if not a long meditation on the mad power of this device, how it’s capable of organizing whole societies around the need to exorcise perceived demons, how it can move individuals to sacrifice not only themselves, but innumerable innocents as well—the details be damned.

The fact the novels have managed to spark living examples of this device in action is something that I will always regard as my single greatest artistic triumph. My job, after all, is to problematize moral sensitivities, not pander to them. If certain issues, certain words, make people cringe and run for cover behind silence or reverent/patronizing tones, my job is to run the hazards and to ask why, to follow the reasons no matter what latrine they guide me to.

But it strands me, as well, leaves me wrecked on the shore of a world I do not recognize, one where the compass of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ spins and spins and spins. What does Esmenet’s emancipation mean given the instrumental nature of its origins—given the fact of Kellhus? She’s my cipher—a painfully obvious one, you would think—for the crazy contradictions we’re witnessing today, with women making ever more social and economic inroads even as their sexual brutalization becomes the dominant form of mass entertainment. Kellhus strikes the shackles from her wrists… for what? So that she might be more fully enslaved?

How could this count as moral progress? How could emancipation, the ‘triumph of moral reason,’ so easily collapse into systematic exploitation?

If morality were a delusion, if ‘values’ were primarily a way to tackle complicated problems in the absence of any detailed information, you would expect morality to be ruthless the way it is ruthless, simply because it lacks the discriminatory powers to be anything but ‘fast and frugal.’ What’s more you would expect that the cultural accumulation of information would have a profound, systematic impact on the way moral reasoning functions. Moral cognition evolved as a means of managing extraordinary complexities in informatically impoverished environments. In such environments, the simple fact of information availability serves as a reliable proxy for trustworthiness, for determining who belongs to the cooperative franchise. So it makes sense that the accelerating cultural accumulation of information would be accompanied by an expansion of the franchise, that information availability would generate an ‘intuition gradient’ favouring the extension of ingroup privileges and responsibilities to those who would have been unequivocal outgroup competitors in paleolithic times. As the technologically mediated transformation of social relationships renders traditional norms more and more maladaptive, this gradient steers the development of new, more inclusive norms.

It’s possible, in other words, to see the gruelling, uncertain march of moral progress as a mechanical artifact of our social cognitive limitations rather than as a ‘triumph of moral reason.’ On this picture, the contradiction of ‘moral progress’ becomes clear: Even as increasing information access feeds the ‘emancipation gradient,’ technologically mediated social change reveals the arbitrary nature of traditional constraints on sexual conduct, thus allowing more basic imperatives to roam where they will. These tend toward depictions of rape for the same reason they tend toward depictions of youth and beauty. Culture builds and culture tears down but it always breaks ground on an evolutionary landscape. Rape, like murder and violence more generally, is almost certainly part of the male evolutionary inheritance.

Men are scary… part Sranc.

Turn on the news. Reactionary, atavistic throwbacks. Biases pitted against biases. The death of innocents summed on strategic balance sheets. Sometimes it seems that nothing argues the chimerical nature of morality more forcefully than morality itself. I know I had that sense more than a few times watching the hatred for me and my books metastasize across the web, the profound sense of being caught in something as relentless as it was automatic, with more and more people leaping to fantastic conclusions regarding my character and my life, acting out, without the least self-consciousness, the same preposterous moral certainty my books had been warning them against all along.

It was almost too good to be true. And heartbreaking, like anything that strands you in the desert of the real.