Have You Grasped the Sword?

Link to Google Doc

Every day, we are confronted with a multitude of stories, narratives, and decisions to make sense of. Especially so if you are interested in understanding the world around you.

As such, it can be very hard to know what to trust, what to make of the evidence, who speaks the truth, and more. Part of the idea of this blog is to provide tools to us when thinking about the world, while also providing new ideas and perspectives on contemporary issues to help myself and others to form beliefs that can anticipate reality. (Do not ask which beliefs to profess, but which experiences to anticipate)

One way of thinking about how to confront issues that are often divided, such as how governments should have handled the pandemic and what to do about economic inequality, is given by Julia Galef in her recent book The Scout Mindset. In it, Galef describes two types of mindsets when we want to understand the world.

The first mindset, she calls the soldier mindset. It is the urge to see the world as one wants it to be, not as it is. The name, soldier mindset, comes from the fact that much of our language on debate and beliefs is militaristic. We talk about defending our beliefs, attacking the beliefs of others, fortifying beliefs, and so on.

The other mindset is the scout mindset, which Julia Galef defines as; the motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were. In essence, this mindset is what most of us have in mind when we think of ourselves coming to our beliefs. But being in the scout mindset is hard and most of us use it very seldom. Instead, we often use motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and on.

Since it is quite hard to acknowledge when you are not in the scout mindset and when you are engaging in motivated reasoning, it has become a political tactic to make followers, peers, and group members to engage in the soldier mindset. I think much of the partisanship we can see around the world comes from the fact that it is easy to arouse the soldier in our minds. In fact, the tactic is not new. Consider this quote from Lucan’s The Civil War:

“Boldness is a mask for fear, however great; I will take the field before the foe. Let my soldiers, while they are still mine, march down to the level ground. Idleness is ever the root of indecision; snatch from them the power to form a plan; once the dreadful passion rises, once the sword is grasped and the helmet hides the blush of shame, who thinks then of comparing leaders or balancing causes? Each man backs the side on which he stands. So those who are brought forth at the shows of the deathly arena are not driven to fight by long-cherished anger: they hate whoever is pitted against them.”

This is spoken by Curio, one of Caesar’s supporters in the civil war, when he acknowledges that his soldiers are getting tired of the constant fighting and that they are starting to think that their cause might not be righteous. The quote illuminates the danger of having a common enemy to rational thought and inquiry. This danger is as real today as it was for Curio’s soldiers on the plains of modern Tunisia.

Therefore, be very careful when you hear the language of war and the categorization of other people into enemies. Try to recognize when you are encouraged to grab the sword and put on the helmet that will hide your blush of shame.

Perhaps the sword is already in your hand?

2 thoughts on “Have You Grasped the Sword?”

  1. Isak Sandlund

    Interesting post! There are certainly aspects of modern life that encourage us to see the world from the mindset of the soldier. Here is a couple of phenomena (that in my mind) are some the greatest suspects of encouraging this:

    1. Social media algorithms that with surgical precision feed us what we engage with the most (depressingly enough, this in practice appears to select for what we are most outraged by). It is difficult to see how one is to avoid this, it seems that one of our only remedies is to “log off” and simply vow to not consume news through such sites. There are, after all, plenty of credible and reputable journals that are more prevalent and easily accessible than ever. Such bandaid solutions are, however, not particularly sustainable in the long run and I believe that sometime in the future these sites will be subject to more strict legal requirements. Maybe such legislation will target the constructions of algorithms or mandate the separation of social media feeds into several different feeds, for us to more easily parse the different streams of information?

    2. A wave of populist fervour that has engulfed the world, spurred on by the feeling of many ordinary peope that society is rigged against them and that they have no way out but with the most drastic of political measures. This is not to say that a populist bent must necessarily be harmful in all cases, having the people on your side is quite a boon in a democracy. The problems with populism rather arises, much as you pointed out, because it must set itself up in opposition to something. The claim of the populist can often be boiled down to the notion that a nebulous “will of the people” (that strangely always aligns with the claims of both populists on the right and the left) is not being fulfilled by a “ruling elite”, I probably don’t need to elaborate further on how this can lead to conspiratorial thinking.

    It is worth pointing out the soldier mindset can be useful at times and it is essentially impossible to not embrace it at all. We all have ideals, motivations, and wishes for the world, maybe it’s worth acknowledging that every one of us has already picked up a sword of some kind. If so, the more pressing questions that one must answer are:

    1. “What are my reasons for picking up this sword?”
    2. “Can my reasons be rationally and morally justified?”
    3. “What fact would convince me to lay down my sword?”

    1. samuelsvensson

      This is a great comment Isak! I think you are spot on in the probable causes and I think that the causes are interconnected which makes them all the harder to solve.

      You are also right in that soldier and scout mindset must not be mutually exclusive. But acknowledging the sword seems to be very important and when one has done that one can turn to embrace it.

      ”What could convince me to lay down my sword?” This is an underutilized question for sure!

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