Fight, Flight, Submission: War and Rhetorical Asymmetry
By Bryan Caplan
My sons and I read some sad stories together. Most recently, we shared Maus, Art Spiegelman’s transcendent graphic novel about how his father survived Holocaust. In the process, I’ve noticed something: My sons’ preferred response to evil is always “fighting back” – no matter how futile this strategy appears. In every story, they’re looking for the villain’s weakness. It’s almost as if they believe in a cosmic law that “There’s always a way to physically defeat your enemy.”
I don’t think my sons are alone. In fact, their attitude strikes me as deeply ingrained in human nature. We like the idea of meeting violence with violence, and feel a strong urge to deny the possibility that submission or flight are our best options in an imperfect world. In what Robin Hanson calls “near mode,” of course, individuals almost always choose submission or flight in the face of physical violence. But in “far mode” – when we read a story, discuss history, or debate foreign policy – humans have a strong bias in favor of the strategy that sounds good: “Charge!”
Think about it this way: Humans experience what Cass Sunstein calls a “rhetorical asymmetry” between fight, flight, and submission. If you tell a group engulfed in a conflict to fight with all their might, you can usually expect a friendly response. But if you tell them to run away or surrender, they’ll probably get angry at you or call you a “traitor.” And being right is no excuse!