Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 8, 2012

The Hidden Assumptions of Robert A. Heinlein

Filed under: sf — Tags: — Sam @ 8:15 pm

I am reliably assured that this post is not a parody. However, it wasn’t the text I wanted to comment on, but the Heinlein quotation in the top right-hand corner, presumably chosen as some sort of philosophical statement to live by.

Let us leave aside the wisdom of choosing an SF writer’s words as philosophy, and move on to the quotation itself.

Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.

Nice, ain’t it? Just the right blend of encouragement and cynicism, letting the adopter feel proud of their own savvy & daring, while looking down on those who don’t have the bravery or vision to realise how the world works and put up with it.

Let’s take a closer look.

Certainly – it’s important, when writing Didactic Aphorisms, to position yourself as an authority. And amongst people who respect certainty, filler words like this lend much more authority to whatever follows them.

the game – heaven forbid we be seen to treat things as important. If we do that, we lose our perspective. It’s just a game. Or, looked at another way: games are just as important as anything else is, because in the final analysis it’s all much the same.

is rigged – nice use of the passive voice there. Nobody owns the rigged-ness; it just happens. It’s just the way things are. Identifying particular people, or classes of people, as deliberate bad actors just isn’t done. For one thing, that implies that it isn’t universal, and that everyone wouldn’t do it if they owned the game – that perhaps someone might blame that person for rigging it. That there might be some overarching concept of fairness. In addition, this unsupported assertion allows the speaker to feel smugly cynical, always a very popular pose amongst adolescents desperate to avoid being seen as naïve.

Don’t let that stop you – implying that you were going to do it, you wanted to do it, but your decision might save for this advice have been influenced by small considerations like the situation being rigged against you. This isn’t anything near a million miles from a condescendingly emotive taunt like “Don’t be a coward”, and it’s not-so-subtly positioning the speaker as someone much older, wiser, and more daring than you.

; – notice the intimidating semicolon. Everyone knows that sentences with semicolons in them are much more learned and authoritative than those with dashes or ballistic commas.

if you don’t bet you can’t – phrasing this in the negative (rather than “if you bet, you could”) acts as a challenge. For the kind of people motivated by challenges, by the perceived need to prove themselves to a challenger, it’s more encouraging than actual encouragement or the provision of options. Also, notice that the focus is on the act of betting itself, rather than on the decision of whether to bet on a particular issue, or what to bet. Courage, rather than consideration of the situation, is important, it seems.

win – because you winning is all that matters.

1 Comment »

  1. I don’t know what the context of the words is. But many of life’s serious challenges can be analyzed as a game, with “game theory”; several people have won the not-exactly-Nobel Prize for Economics by doing that. If an actual game is rigged then you can blame the people in charge of it, such as a crooked casino, or, if you’re betting on a sporting contest, the match may have been “fixed” to favour another interested party. The more general point is that when winning is important for reasons besides pride, people cheat. If we’re talking about life itself, there aren’t even any rules; you may have some rules for yourself, but other people won’t stick to them. But to win anything, you have to play.

    In [Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire], the Triwizarding Tournament becomes a lot less intimidating when it’s explained – by a character who isn’t always right, admittedly – that everyone cheats at it, and everyone knows that.

    Comment by Robert Carnegie — December 2, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

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