Murder Fix: The Most Dangerous Trope in Fiction

If only we could kill all the worst, most evil people in the world, would the world be a better place? If we ask the entertainment industry, the answer is a resounding yes. The ultimate fix for all of the world’s problems, according to many of the most popular TV shows, movies, and books from the last half-century, is simply to kill the villain. This trope is so prevalent in fiction that we accept it at face value, but it’s high time that we name it and hold it up to scrutiny. I call it the “Murder Fix.” It’s one of the most harmful false ideas we put in our entertainment.

From The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to almost every animated Disney movie, the hero’s goal is the same. In order to save their loved ones and protect the world as we know it, the villain must die. Nothing else needs to happen to fix the world—just the villain’s death (or maybe the death of the villain’s whole team).

The economic and political systems the villain had created, and the downstream effects they had on the rest of society? Immediately forgotten upon the villain’s death. The tremendous social influence the villain wielded while in power, and the social environment that propped them up? Gone instantly when the villain dies. In stories that end with a Murder Fix, it’s like God’s eraser descends on the world to wipe away any lasting effects of the villain’s reign. True, a …

We Win More Arguments When We’re Kind

Common wisdom says that the best way to change people’s minds is to make them uncomfortable or even shame them. But so much sociological research suggests exactly the opposite.

People are more inclined to genuinely listen to us if they feel like we’re genuinely listening to them. When they feel like we’re just trying to beat them at an argument, or attack their personal character, their defenses go up and their understanding goes down. But when we approach them with authentic curiosity and frame our argument in a way that appeals to their existing values, they’re more likely to listen to it.

Arguing charitably changes minds much more effectively than combative, uncharitable argument tactics. Those just make people more likely to disagree with us, to view us as not credible, or to avoid talking with us in the first place. An aggressive tone reinforces our opponents’ view that they’re right just by making them feel like they’re kinder than us.

On the other hand, if we don’t directly attack our opponent’s identity (as a Buddhist, as a Libertarian, as a pansexual person, etc.), and instead focus first on genuinely understanding them, then on thoughtfully questioning the assumptions, contradictions, and definitions behind their views, our arguments will be much more persuasive.

“Let’s explore why you think that,” changes minds. “You’re fundamentally a bad person,” does the opposite. It entrenches the beliefs more deeply in their mind. But when both people walk away from the discussion feeling like their opponent still …

All Stories Are Not the Same

You hear it in most foundational storytelling classes, dozens of bestselling writer’s instruction manuals, and in countless online videos and opinion pieces.

“All stories are basically the same one story.”

Or three stories. Or ten. Or whatever number the author of the piece makes up. Regardless, the incalculable cultural wealth of five thousand years of written human history, spanning tens of thousands of distinct societies, can supposedly be summarized by a small number of basic plot outlines. Had we not all been taught this idea in school, we would laugh at it.

I think most people who advocate this approach to storytelling mean well. When I was a beginner, the vagaries and subjectivity of the storytelling art form were pretty intimidating. An assurance that no really, it’s all very simple, we can quantify it, we can pin down all the rules, helped to ease my fears. This is the appeal of the idea that there’s only one basic story to many storytellers who write by it. And to be fair, Joseph Campbell’s original work, which popularized the idea that there’s only one story, is genuinely fascinating.

Campbell studied comparative mythology. After examining numerous past and present societies around the world, he realized that many of their cultural myths contained similar elements. He distilled these elements into a single story structure he called the “hero’s journey,” or the “monomyth.” Campbell’s intent was to describe, and to unify: “Hey, look at this interesting thing I found. It must mean all …

What if Society Lied to You About Your Body?

Imagine yourself as a young person named John, who was born and lives in Ridgway, Colorado, where you love the small-town vibe and spend much of your free time hiking and horseback riding. All your life, you’ve wanted to become a firefighter, settle down, and start a family. You haven’t found the right person for that yet, but you’re trying. You enjoy living in a tightknit community that shares your values, and are fairly extroverted and active in that community, volunteering at a food pantry, an animal shelter, and your church, and leading a local Boy Scout troop. You like curling up with a good history book before bed each night.

This is who you are, and you love who you are.

But there’s a problem. Your friends, family, and random strangers on the street all seem to think you’re a completely different person. Everyone calls you “Steve” instead of your actual name. They think you were born in New York City and are spending a year in Ridgway with your parents to escape the stress of your job as a public defender. They think you enjoy big city life. In reality, you wouldn’t be caught dead even vacationing to a big city.

You get weird looks when you go horseback riding because everyone knows (or thinks they know) you’re a video game aficionado who is rarely seen outdoors, even though you’re outdoors all the time. As a guy who wants a long-term relationship, you have trouble finding dates, because …

Bad People Are Made, Not Born

Imagine we take a baby from one part of the earth and transplant it into a new environment in a completely different culture, with drastically different material circumstances, on another part of the planet. Maybe it’s a baby born in Singapore, and we transplant it into a family in the middle of a warzone in Yemen. Imagine we know that in Singapore, it would have grown up to be a successful MD. Do you think that outcome is as likely now, with the baby’s new surroundings?

Or maybe instead we take a baby born in that Yemeni warzone and transplant it into a family in Singapore. Will its future be more or less bleak now?

This isn’t a difficult thought experiment to imagine, and it makes the influence of environment on a person’s life circumstances immediately clear. An argument that our infant transplants would live similar lives to those they’d have lived if we hadn’t relocated them would be quite an uphill battle.

The idea that a person’s environment and culture play a role in how their life turns out is called social determinism, and it’s one of the foundations of the science of sociology.

Our parents and culture pass specific values and beliefs to us. Our society may support us with schools, physical and mental health care, public transportation, and other rungs on a ladder we can climb to health and wealth. Or it may let us fend for ourselves.

The world treats us differently depending on our sex …

Let’s Abolish the Presidency

I made the same appeal on Facebook after Trump won in 2016, and most people took it as an anti-Trump political post, which wasn’t how I intended it. So maybe now that the Democrats have won the presidency, I can make my case with credible impartiality. Here’s the pitch:

Whether Republican or Democrat, the President of the United States should not exist.

I may be an oddball for suggesting abolishing the presidency, but I’m in good company. Pulitzer-winning historian Barbara W. Tuchman suggested the same in a controversial 1973 New York Times article. A sizeable contingent of our nation’s founders weren’t too hot on the idea of a president, either—at least not a president with any power. They wanted to get far away from the monarchy they’d fought a revolution to escape, and were worried the president would become a king.

Eventually, they compromised with the Federalists. The executive branch was charged with implementing laws created by congress and interpreted by the courts, but it could not create laws or interpret them itself. The president was never meant to unilaterally rule over the country.

Since the creation of the executive branch, though, the powers of the president have increased considerably, especially in recent decades. We citizens, and our growing political polarization, are partially to blame for this. When our own party’s president in office, we’re content to let them bully the other side, cast aside institutional norms, and test the limits of checks and balances because we …

Supreme Leader You: A Thought Experiment

Let’s run a thought experiment. To start with, I want you to hold two things firmly in your mind. The first is your moral identity: your politics, your religion, your general moral outlook on the world. Think of the top four or five moral issues most important to you, and imagine how much better the world would be if we took serious, large-scale action on those issues.

Secondly, think of your opposition: the people who want to stop progress from happening on the issues that matter to you. Consider what motivates them to be so hostile toward your moral views. Remember all of the unnecessary harm they cause in the world. Imagine what a better place the world would be, and all of the beneficial improvements society could achieve, without their obstruction.

During this exercise, you’re not allowed to attribute anything I say about you to your opposition, and you’re not allowed to attribute anything I say about your opposition to you. What I say you do, you do, and what I say your opposition does, they do.

So now, holding both your own moral identity and your opposition’s antagonism firmly in your mind, and remembering every major moral outcome that’s at stake, let’s begin.

I am offering you total control over all governments, businesses, and other institutions on the planet Earth. Under this offer, every single person who holds any kind of power in the world must answer to you, and it’s ultimately you who okays or vetoes every …

My Group is Always Right

Charlie: I’m going to decide what is true based on what my group thinks is true.

Alex: Please no. There are great methods of deciding what’s true that are reliable, verifiable, falsifiable, testable, and open to revision when incorrect. They’re much better than believing something is true just because your group believes it’s true.

Charlie: Sure, but those methods have flaws.

Alex: They do, but the people who use those methods are constantly working to correct the flaws. People who use group allegiance to decide what’s true don’t do that.

Charlie: The only reason my group doesn’t do that is because my group is flawless.

Alex: What makes you sure about that? Put another way: If your group’s ideas ever did have a flaw, how would you know?

Charlie: I’d know because my group knows everything there is that’s worth knowing about.

Alex: There are many other groups who feel the same way and are clearly wrong. What makes your group different?

Charlie: This conversation is making me uncomfortable. You’re just out to try and control my group, aren’t you?

Alex: I’m trying to explain why group allegiance is a bad method of determining what’s true. That’s not the same thing as me attacking your specific group.

Charlie: No, you’re arguing in favor of objective truth, which doesn’t exist because all methods of determining it have some flaws, and which simultaneously does exist because my group is right about everything.

Alex: I’m not arguing for or against objective truth. I’m …

We Will Experience A Pandemic 10 Times Worse Than COVID-19 Within the Next 10 Years

In 1996, Chinese scientists noticed a larger-than-usual number of wild geese dying from avian influenza, a well-known but mild disease that had been found in bird populations for over a century. The outbreak soon spread to chicken farms, where chickens began to die by the thousands. By the time it became apparent that this wasn’t the ordinary avian flu, the first human cases had been reported in Hong Kong.

This new strain of the H5N1 avian flu, dubbed HPAI, for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, appeared to only strike workers on chicken farms. Millions of chickens were culled in order to stop the outbreak, and millions more have been culled during periodic outbreaks in the years since. In 2003, the outbreak began to spread to birds around the world. Today, tens of millions of birds are infected worldwide, including some in the United States and Canada. Commercial turkeys in South Carolina were found to have HPAI just last month.

HPAI kills about half of all humans who get it. Fortunately, it only spreads from bird to person, not from person to person. But when researchers exhumed bodies of survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic (the one that killed around 2% of the world’s population), they found ten mutations the virus had undergone to give it sustained human-to-human transmission. The avian flu, today, has gained eight of those ten mutations. It only needs two more. With its high prevalence in wild birds and abundant opportunities to share genetic material with other …

I’m Not a Fast Writer, and That’s Okay

A lot of advice in the indie publishing community centers around writing speed. If you want to build an audience, they say, you must write X number of books per year. Readers of self-published books tend to be voracious and you need to write quickly to appease their bottomless appetite for more books, or they’ll lose interest.

I think there’s some truth to this. Even well-known, traditionally published writers need to write at least one book each year or two (unless they’re George R. R. Martin). And I’m glad that there’s such a market for indie publishing. But I’ve always found the indie world’s preoccupation with writing speed a bit discouraging, because I can’t write that fast.

Often, a distinction between artists and businesspeople is central to the discussion of writing speed. Most authors fall somewhere in the middle of the two camps, and most people at the extremes are civil. But occasionally you find some highly opinionated writers who think everyone in the other camp is an idiot.

On the one hand, you have authors who write for the sheer art of it, to express and communicate and tell the best possible stories, and who are happy to take their sweet time writing, because they’d rather write well than fast. When they aren’t being friendly, they look upon the business-oriented writers as moneygrubbing hucksters out to make a quick buck, in the game more to build their personal brand than to add anything of meaning or value to the …

Next Page