Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Epistemic status: confident but informal

A while back, I read someone complaining that the Lord of the Rings movie depicted Aragorn killing a messenger from Mordor. In the book, Aragorn sent the messenger away.  The moviemakers probably only intended to add action to the scene, and had no idea that they had made Aragorn into a shockingly dishonorable character.

Why don’t you shoot messengers?  What does that tradition actually mean?

Well, in a war, you want to preserve the ability to negotiate for peace.  If you kill a member of the enemy’s army, that puts you closer to winning the war, and that’s fine.  If you kill a messenger, that sends a message that the enemy can’t safely make treaties with you, and that means you destroy the means of making peace — both for this war and the wars to come.  It’s much, much more devastating than just killing one man.

This is also probably why guest law exists in so many cultures.  In a world ruled by clans, where a “stranger” is a potential enemy, it’s vitally important to have a ritual that guarantees nonviolence, such as breaking bread under the same roof. Otherwise there would be no way to broker peace between your family and the stranger over the next hill.

This is why the Latin hostis (enemy) and hospes (guest or host) are etymologically cognate. This is why the Greeks had a concept of xenia so entrenched that they told stories about a man being tied to a fiery wheel for eternity for harming a guest.  This is why the sin of Sodom was inhospitality.

It’s actually not about charity or compassion, exactly. It’s about coordinating a way to not kill each other.

Guest law and not shooting messengers are natural law: they are practical necessities due to game theory, that ancient peoples traditionally concretized into virtues like “honor” or “hospitality.”  But it’s no longer common knowledge what they’re for.

A friend of mine speculated that, in the decades that humanity has lived under the threat of nuclear war, we’ve developed the assumption that we’re living in a world of one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemmas rather than repeated games, and lost some of the social technology associated with repeated games. Game theorists do, of course, know about iterated games and there’s some fascinating research in evolutionary game theory, but the original formalization of game theory was for the application of nuclear war, and the 101-level framing that most educated laymen hear is often that one-shot is the prototypical case and repeated games are hard to reason about without computer simulations.

One of the things about living in what feels like the shadow of the end of the world — there’s been apocalypse in the zeitgeist since at least the 1980’s and maybe longer — is that it’s very counterintuitive to think about a future that might last a long time.

What if we’re not wiped out by an apocalypse?  What if humans still have an advanced civilization in 50 years — albeit one that looks very different from today’s?  What if the people who are young today will live to grow old? What would it be like to take responsibility for consequences and second-order effects at the scale of decades?  What would it be like to have models of the next twenty years or so — not for the purpose of sounding cool at parties, but for the sake of having practical plans that actually extend that far?

I haven’t thought much about how to go about doing that, but I think we may have lost certain social technologies that have to do with expecting there to be a future, and it might be important to regain them.

9 thoughts on “Don’t Shoot the Messenger

  1. Could part of the issue simply be that the rate of cultural change which we once experienced over generations now takes place more quickly?

    One thousand years ago, a twenty-year model would look much like a five-year model; the law of averages would make some radical changes, like plague or famine or barbarians, more likely, but otherwise relatively little would be different. Before nationalism, even conquest would be a relatively minor change; you would pay taxes to someone else, and some men might have been sent off to war, but these would be disruptions to your circumstances, not the underlying structure which produced them.

    Today, however, the world is interconnected and changing fast; not only that, but news about the changes in the world is a sizable component of our media. We perceive change as such a huge part of our lives: positive-but-small growth in our economy is seen as an impending failure; inflation has increased some prices by an order of magnitude over the past fifty years and we consider that normal; children today find their parents’ technology laughably primitive.

    The idea of a technological singularity has many connotations, but one meaning is the point past which the world will be so different as to be impossible to predict before it. We may or may not be approaching a singularity, but it certainly does seem as if prediction is becoming more and more difficult as change accelerates, and people are responding to this uncertainty accordingly.

    • I think that’s not everything, but obviously I can’t prove that conclusively. An example would be the success of Berkshire Hathaway in value investing, and how few imitators they have. Looking at fundamentals clearly has some predictive power. (Also, see Superforecasting for evidence that forecasting can work.) I suspect that predictions based on fundamentals are underappreciated due to a *perception* that things are unpredictable, partly affected by the form of our media (a news feed on Facebook, and before that, a 24-hour television news cycle) which shows us a lot of noise and rapid social feedback loops, when the “slow” fundamental data is still accessible but less salient.

      Children in the 1950’s learned imports and exports in school. When I was a kid reading books set a few decades ago, that was presented as a pointless, boring exercise. But maybe it’s actually not! If you knew the major imports and exports of countries around the world, you’d know something about where the objects around you come from, and you’d be more able to reconstruct them if you needed to. That’s a “slow”, market-fundamentals approach to understanding the world.

      • If the major imports and exports don’t change much, that is. What did Japan export in 1970? What did China export? Or Russia?

      • The lesson from superforecasting was that even the best of the best have a prediction horizon of about 400 days.

    • Well, that post was rather selective in its list of “important democratic norms”. No mention of the norm against making joking about using the IRS to audit one’s political enemies that Obama broke.

      Also, if “In America, presidents don’t sow doubts about the legitimacy of elections”, is a democratic norm does that people that the people who introduced anti-fraud measures going all the way back to the secret ballot were violating it since they were sowing doubts about the legitimacy of the older open ballot elections?

  2. My guess is that the key thing degrading people’s sense of “this interaction will be repeated” is not much about an apocalyptic zeitgeist. I think hardly anyone believes on a gut level global catastrophe is imminent. The main disaster we’re told about is climate change, and I don’t think anyone where I live really expects to die because of that, or expects their children to die because of it.

    I think geographic mobility is a more likely cause of expecting not to to have repeated interactions with the same people. In high school I understood that I’d leave town in a few years, in college I expected to leave town again in a few years, my grad school, my daughter’s daycare, all felt temporary and mostly not worth making lasting relationships there.

    Woodie Guthrie sang about the same thing in the 1930s when everyone was leaving Oklahoma:

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