Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ender's Philosophy

In the book Ender's Game the hero Ender has a very particular philosophy regarding warfare.  Essentially it boils down to avoiding fighting when at all possible and when avoiding it is not possible you fight with incredible violence and only stop when your opponent is destroyed.  In the book Ender tries his best to avoid conflicts with others when he can but when he is finally forced into physical conflict with other boys he goes far and beyond the normal 'rules of warfare' that young boys typically follow.  He strikes without warning, kicks people in the groin and stomps on their faces while they are down.  He justifies it by saying that he does not want to win one battle, but rather all the battles.  When his enemies know that finally provoking him to anger is going to force them to face down a raging berserker they stay away.

I find this particularly interesting because my father believes (or did believe when I was young, anyhow) in the same philosophy.  I distinctly recall being told that there are two rules for fighting:

1.  Don't fight.

2.  If you absolutely have to disobey rule 1, then you fight to win.

Specifically he explained that if someone absolutely forces you to fight them you do whatever it takes.  Ignore convention, ignore honour, the only thing that matters is that you win.

I think that in the schoolyard these strategies are effective.  Nothing is as terrifying as someone who is utterly devoted to destroying you.  When you know that someone will stop when you are knocked down it is easy to justify fighting them - how bad can it be?  When your opponent will keep on attacking until they are dragged off your bloody, smashed body you surely do not want to provoke them in the first place, even if you are confident of winning.

I question the way in which Ender's Game portrays this philosophy as being applicable to all aspects of life though.  Fear of brutal punishment is a tactic used as a deterrent to crime and yet it isn't especially successful in that regard.  Capital punishment is a completely useless deterrent to murder because the difference between a life in prison and death is simply insignificant to people's decisions - once they decide to kill the punishment is simply not a factor.

I think the difference is that in any situation where good communication and arbitration is available using extreme violence as a strategy is ineffective - people who decide to ignore those structures and do terrible things are no longer concerned with the outcomes.  In adult life extreme reactions simply aren't useful or profitable.  In a playground or when battling an alien enemy however those messages do still serve a useful purpose - they communicate our desires and our commitment in ways that cannot be mistaken.


  1. PS Everyone should read Ender's Game. Yes, that means you.

  2. PPS. Ender's game is good, but not good enough to justify further enriching the gigantic raging asshole who is Orson Scott Card. Buy used.

    Also, I have my own opinion on why Ender's strategy is ineffective in the "real world". Very few conflicts or challenges in the real world are linear, and very few enemies are identifiable; rather, we live in a tenuous system given structure by an equilibrium of constant and balanced tension. Countless small powers in an endless dance of conscious and unconscious alliances.

    The greatest power is not the one who presents the greatest threat, but the one who can ally the largest force towards each end. This makes every initiative a new battle, forging and recognizing alliances which are most applicable in each new context. Knowing who stands to benefit from any event is all you need to make it happen, simply by manipulating the flow information.

    I'd love to see a book which made that concept accessible to young adults...

  3. There is always some form of violence which could be utilized. For instance, if you are an undergrad, and you get a poor grade on an assignment, you could go to your TA, sit down with them, and spend an agonizing (for the TA) two hours going over the assignment going over a list of points of why you think you deserve to get a mark for a particular part of the assignment, and patiently debating the point when you don't get it. The TA will certainly be reluctant to mark you as harshly on your next assignment, or you will have to go through the act again. This may not look like violence: no bodily harm was inflicted. Much like incarceration, though, you have taken a small portion of said TA's life (two hours they will never get back). This is merely murder on a smaller scale, and is effective on rational people. The TA that does not succumb to this is irrational, and won't be affected by it--in fact said TA might mark you harder next time in retaliation.

    Similar examples pop up in other settings: The developer who fights every "enhancement" suggested at a code review by yelling, the manager who puts people who cause problems in one store together and have a hate on with each other.