Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Immortal Revenge?

Recently I was asked where as a writer, I get my ideas from. I get ideas from everywhere; everything I read, things I see, sounds I hear, everything has a story behind it, or has implications for something that might be stewing in my mind. Take a recent editorial from the New York Times, He Who Cast the First Stone, Probably Didn't, which talks about how aggressive actions, like throwing a punch at someone, are generally thought to be ok, if you're attacking some one who hit you without provocation.

After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words — like “retaliation” and “retribution” and “revenge” — whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first.

That’s why participants in every one of the globe’s intractable conflicts — from Ireland to the Middle East — offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.

Now, this is very true, from 9/11 to the Middle East. Are the Israelis attacking with or without justification? Do suicide bombers have justification for what they're doing? Answers to that are probably better debated elsewhere, but from this article, I began thinking about the nature of immortals. Long-lived human beings / immortals have been a staple of fairy tales and fantasies for a long time. With such comparatively larger life-experiences, they're bound to have different reactions and perceptions to things and events then the average person (i.e. the woman born in 1776 will not have the same attitude towards marriage as the woman born in the 1980s; if your grandmother doesn't have the same attitude as you, the woman born 200 years ago certainly won't).

So, will a long-lived immortal be less violent and less likely be angsting for revenge like a 19 year old boy? Theoretically someone who had been around that long would have actually seen the long-range price of violence and revenge. For example, someone born in Europe around 1776 would have seen the excesses of the French Revolution, the maneuvers of Napoleon, the trenches of WWI and the horrors of WWII. Think of some of the veterans you might know or attitudes they might have toward war. Would someone who had seen all that still react in the same way toward a perceived slight that the rest of us had?

Many immortal beings that I read about don't have any of the logical cultural implications that living so long would entail. I think the few authors who have even gotten close are Catherine Asaro and Charles DeLint. In one of her books, the Euban Queen actually draws upon her vast hundreds of years of experience and thinks very differently from other Traders. In DeLint's books, some of his immortals have been around for so long (since before Earth was made) that they can't function in this reality. Their experiences have been too much and too long.

Right now, I'm working on a heroine who was born in 1776. Reading her attitude towards marriage (she's vehemently against marriage) she sounds like a modern day femi-nazi, but she remembers a time when women were property and lost all their rights when they did get married.


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