Real World Meta: Vitriol in Politics

So, let’s talk about public opinion and politics. (And thanks to @TheGamerDome on Twitter, without whose interest I would never have gotten around to putting this in article format.)

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while; one of the hazards I’ve found in being on Twitter is the people who every five minutes or so will launch into some vitriol-filled political statement. It rather horrifies me, the lengths to which some people will go in their criticism of political leaders. I won’t claim I’ve never poked fun at a sitting president, but I have a personal rule: never ascribing anything more dangerous than incompetence unless it really is a desperate situation, and even then trying to avoid the ad hominems. In that, at least, I seem to be pretty rare; the vitriol I’ve seen from both parties over the last ten years or so could corrode diamond.

This got me thinking about history, and human nature, and eventually got me thinking about one thing that both might be a factor and might be useful to a DM: perceived helplessness and a tendency to lash out because of such.

Consider the United States of America, circa World War II. President who’d already inherited a rather messy economy, who had been known to try to cut corners when it came to the Supreme Court, and who’d ended up with a situation in which the best thing to do was to declare war on one country more than an ocean away…. and then focus at least as much on another country with whom the first was connected. You don’t hear much about the kind of political vitriol that goes on today, though. I wouldn’t call it totally unified in purpose; opposition to the war ran through conscientious objection and draft-dodging, there was the occasional conspiracy theory about Pearl Harbor, so on and so forth—but as far as history implies, even when you account for textbook whitewashing there didn’t seem to be all that much infighting.

And then you look at today, and you wish you hadn’t. From a distant perspective, the situations for the last two administrations wouldn’t seem all that different, but the reaction of the people is anything but. Insults and implications that earlier generations would have likely considered beyond the pale fly between the parties on an everyday basis; it gets to the point where people on both sides loudly accuse the other party’s big names of plotting treason or trying to ruin life for the common people, while the rest of us just keep our heads down and hope it’ll go away. Most of the factors we could use to explain why This War/Economy Is Different don’t seem to apply too well.

Picture by lusi

But there’s one we aren’t taking into account, and that’s personal effect. In both times we have the military fighting the foe and the politicians playing whack-a-mole with the issues. But what’s different is the involvement of the everyday citizen. Back then, whether people actually could make a difference or not, they were treated as though what they did mattered. Food was rationed for the sake of the troops, and people were encouraged to plant victory gardens, buy bonds, donate scrapmetal; even children could help make things for the soldiers or collect up and donate bottlecaps. Compare to now; the solution to the economy is as far as we can tell out of our hands, and the closest most standard citizens get to sacrificing is having a relative in the fight.

In other words, the average citizen is perceived—and most likely perceives herself—as having next to no responsibility for the state of the nation. It makes it easy for her to shift the blame onto someone else—even easier when as far as she can tell she had nothing to do with the people in charge having been put in charge. And if she can be heard by like-minded people easily, so much the better; they can settle down and cheerfully justify each other in trying to bring down Those Oppressors or talk like anything about how their people would handle this better and here’s how. Would they be able to live with themselves doing the same if there was something clear and productive they could do, and most people agreed that it Would Definitely Help? Sure, some of them might, but I don’t think the behavior would be quite as prevalent.

Assuming I’m correct, what can the gamer learn from this? That the rest of the group is the same way. Players will complain to each other about the GM and about other players; even the GM might complain about one player to another. It’s human nature. But it’s the problems they don’t think they can solve—when one person either refuses to bend or just appears to refuse to bend, when there’s a solution the GM clearly wants but hasn’t given them enough information to get to, when concerns like “This wasn’t the game style I signed up for!” or “Can we spend a little less time on the rules and a little more on the characters?” seem likelier to be blown off than addressed—that bring out the most vitriol. And this is why for many gamers, fully railroading the group instead of quietly guiding them, or getting rid of the illusion that their actions have an effect, is more unpardonable than fudging a few dice rolls or playing mild favorites.

Agency is important. Let’s try not to throw it away.

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