In high school, I was on the debate team. I was third speaker, the last one, whose job is to listen to the opposing side’s arguments, then stand up and make them sound stupid. It’s intense, because you go in without much of a prepared speech, and while others are talking, you’re furiously scribbling down ideas for counters.
This was where I discovered you can learn to get better at persuading people. That was a new idea to me, because previously I thought people made up their minds based on facts. Sure, you can lie, but that’s just making up facts; facts are still involved. The new idea was that facts were a jumping-off point: People could also be persuaded by how confidently I spoke, or whether I connected my argument to some other thing they already liked or disliked.
Since then, there has been a wild explosion of disinformation. A lot of persuasion techniques I’d only ever seen used in small, niche ways, mostly because they were so shameless, came right out into the open. I don’t want to get into who was doing what, but there has been so much persuasion going on, it’s hard to tell what’s real. Which is the exciting thing about persuasion: When it really gets going, it can dig into your soul and uproot everything.
Not your soul, of course. You are a wise dispassionate observer of reality with a keen bullshit detector. I mean all those other people, who also think they are wise dispassionate observers of reality, but are totally wrong. Those people are a real concern.
So anyway I wrote a comedy about disinformation getting out of control. It’s an audiobook and you can listen to it right now:
He’s a part-time gardener and car thief. She’s a murderous nun on a holy mission of vengeance. Together, they might be able to save the world.
The unearthing of a mysterious box (with HE LIES etched across the lid) precipitates the arrival of a compelling stranger prophesying that the world will end in two weeks. Simultaneously, the government locks down for war. The enemy is… unclear. They may even be us. One thing’s for sure: Diego can’t trust anyone anymore. He can only trust himself.
This is an Audible Original, so you can listen for free as a subscriber, or sign up for a free trial and still listen to it for free! Or you can just buy it. That’s also an option.
Vaxman is a billionaire philanthropist whose parents died from Covid-related complications after a family gathering. Vaxman’s half-sister, Antivila, attended the gathering while ill and didn’t tell anyone.
Frustrated at the government’s inability to end the pandemic, Vaxman decided to take matters into his own hands. Converting his underground garage into a laboratory, he developed an armored suit and a range of weaponry, including “the Vaccinator,” a semi-automatic rifle capable of delivering bursts of 0.3mL of Pfizer-BioNTech with high accuracy over two hundred yards. He also built grenades capable of dispersing Pfizer via aerosolized mist, suitable for deploying indoors and at concerts and rallies.
Roaming city streets in his customized Vaxmobile, Vaxman was intercepted by the Freedom Fighters, a shadowy paramilitary force with unknown but extensive financing. Badly beaten and facing jail time for his unregistered weaponry, Vaxman was set free by his family’s brilliant attorney, Jane Collective, who successfully argued that Vaxman was legally entitled to shoot Pfizer people who endangered his personal safety by approaching him while unvaccinated, particularly in stand-your-ground states.
The case rocketed Vaxman to national prominence, forcing him into hiding to escape retribution. In the mountains, he developed a plan to feed vaccines into the water supplies of a major city. Piloting a heavy bomber over the catchment area of a key water reservation, he was intercepted by the Freedom Fighters, now revealed to be financed and led by Antivila. In the ensuing duel, Vaxman was shot down before he could open the bomb bay doors, but this was merely a diversion, as Jane Collective had secretly negotiated to add Pfizer to the city’s fluoridation program.
To some, Vaxman is a hero. To others, a villain. He saves lives, but is hated by many of those he saves. He is regularly invited onto mainstream television, but has never accepted. He is in love with Jane Collective, but it’s too risky for them to be together. He sometimes visits schools, and is startled by sneezes.
I like to open up old first drafts and see how bad they were. I had to do this recently because I picked up Lexicon for some reason, the published version, and before I knew it, I was all like, “Gosh, this is quite the dizzyingly intricate array of character and plot. Why isn’t my current work-in-progress like that?” Then there was some soul-searching and comfort eating.
Luckily I found a 2008 draft of Lexicon on my computer that was 31,000 words—that’s about one-quarter of the finished length—and really terrible. It has the same underlying concept and almost all the same characters, including most of the same relationships, but everything about it is wrong. Characters stop to explain things, and the explanations go on forever. There are interesting set-ups and then the scene ends and I never come back to it. Background characters nobody cares about have emotional journeys.
Exactly two scenes from this draft made it to the published book; together they comprise about a thousand words. The other 96% of this pretty advanced work-in-progress I completely jettisoned, including plenty of scenes I’d worked and reworked.
It’s comforting to remind myself that good stories don’t come out that way the first time. I have always needed to write a ton of bad stuff to find the good stuff. Sometimes I need to write a ton of bad stuff just to figure out that it’s bad stuff. Good novels don’t depend (totally) on good ideas; they depend on lots and lots of work. And I’m happy to do that work. Work, I can control.
The way I start a new novel is by writing lots of disconnected scenes. I’m always tempted to begin putting things together as soon as possible, to think about how they connect, and why, and in which order. Because novels are meant to, you know, make sense. They need beginnings and middles and ends. But it’s easy to write a lot of mediocre words just because they fit. If I’m writing something purely because I think it’s good, maybe it never fits, but at least it’s good. And it might just turn out that it’s not this scene that doesn’t fit: It’s the other 96%.
You (Max) said it’s wrong to do nothing about feminist issues
I (a good guy) do nothing about feminist issues
You think I’m a bad person so SCREW YOU IN THE FACE
This feels like a real misunderstanding. Sure, I think you’re wrong, but that doesn’t make you a bad person. We all believe wrong things. I have a bunch of wrong beliefs right now, I bet. Not this one. This one, I feel confident about. But I’m sure I have others, which I’m yet to identify. Because we’re not born with the answers; we have to figure this stuff out.
Curiously, almost all the hot mail focused on how I should stop apologizing and feeling guilty for being male. I say “curious” because at no point in my blog did I apologize or mention guilt. People just assumed that’s what happens if you’re wrong: You feel shameful and want to apologize.
This is a pretty dramatic view of wrongness. We’re not wrong every few years. We’re constantly wrong. We generalize; we don’t pay attention; we are a wacky collection of hilarious biases. Being wrong doesn’t make you a bad person: It makes you a person. It’s what we do on the regular so we’re not stuck with the same ideas we had when we were fourteen.
I think a lot of dudes, including me, haven’t done anything particularly terrible, but haven’t been particularly helpful, either. That’s not a crime. But it’s not great, either. When we see entrenched unfairness—even the quiet, casual kind, which is surprisingly hard to spot, when it doesn’t directly affect you—the right thing to do is call it out. And to try harder to see it.
That’s it! Because, and I may be off-base here, I don’t think a whole lot of women care about men apologizing or demonstrating guilt. I think mostly they’d just like us to be more helpful. Nobody’s end goal is to make dudes feel bad. This isn’t even about dudes: It’s about making the future fairer. If all that means to you is shame and guilt, well, okay, you can feel that way, but it’s probably not helping anyone, and no-one asked you do it.
Boy we’ve become smart about feminism. Way back when I was young, if you were a dude who wasn’t a feminist, you told girls to make you a sandwich and sexually denigrated them in the workplace. But actively vocalized misogyny has become pretty uncool since then, so we had to come up with something new. And we did! It’s: Nothing.
Nothing is great. Nothing works almost as well as active misogyny, with the added benefit of not requiring you to do anything. Also people can’t complain about you doing nothing, because you’ve literally done nothing.
The way nothing works is you just go about your business and ignore anything not directly relevant to your own life. This is the default for most people, so it’s pretty simple. But you can really make it work when you’re operating in an environment set up in your favor. In that situation, doing nothing grants you benefits without requiring you to come out and explicitly endorse the system you’re benefiting from, which would be, you know, awkward and uncool.
There are lots of ways to profitably do nothing as a dude. One of my favorites is not to profile violent people for being male. If there’s a riot, a shooting, any kind of major crime, we’ll dive right into a conversation about whether it’s fair to observe that the perpetrators are a particular ethnicity or English soccer fans or whatever. We will be all over that discussion. We’ll hit it from every angle: transparently racist, excessively apologist, whatever. But we won’t say a word about how ninety-plus percent of the perpetrators are dudes.
I really want a riot with 95% women looting stuff and punching people, just to see how how fast the media fills up with hot takes. Not a women’s issues protest: a riot in which all the assaults and property damage just happen to be committed by women for no obvious reason. I don’t know what we’d conclude about that, but I guarantee we’d discuss it. We would discuss that to death.
Another great one this year is vaccines. I’m not sure if you heard, but a few of them (like AstraZeneca) have an almost-but-not-quite-zero chance of causing blood clots. This caused angst about whether they were truly safe, particularly in places where there wasn’t much COVID. But we forgot about contraception, and out came media pieces like: “Oh, we’re talking about unlikely but dangerous side-effects of medication? Can we discuss the pill?” Because the contraceptive pill causes blood clots (albeit far less dangerous ones) at a hundred times the rate of AstraZeneca, and has a list of other side-effects that are also very unlikely but serious.
Obviously we’re beyond the time when we could tell women to stop worrying their little heads about the pill while we deal with this unacceptably dangerous AstraZeneca situation, so instead we did nothing. We just didn’t say anything. We didn’t click the pill articles; we didn’t retweet; we didn’t post. They weren’t that relevant to us. Within a week, they all died from lack of attention, and six months later we’re still talking about AstraZeneca.
We closed the golf courses in my city for a while during lockdown. Holy hell, was that a discussion point. We filled the airwaves with talk about whether it was fair or a terrible injustice. I’m pretty sure other sports and recreational activities were in similar situations, but I barely heard about them.
I remember a time when I thought I shouldn’t have to cross a road to avoid alarming a woman walking alone at night. Because if we want equality, shouldn’t I equally be able to walk wherever I want? I marvel at that perspective now, because it requires almost total blindness to the inequities women face. I had a spotlight that only illuminated the part of each issue that directly affected me. An environment causing women to fear for their safety: nothing to do with me. My potential inconvenience: civil rights issue. I outgrew that, mostly, I hope, but still, it has been a journey of discovery, with each discovery looking very obvious in retrospect, so that I wonder how I failed to notice it earlier. I’m sure that isn’t over, and, of course, it’s part of a wider road that covers more than just feminism. But in the meantime, I aim to do less nothing.
You know—I was going to finish this piece there, but it struck me that I genuinely expect you to be satisfied that I’ll try to do better than nothing. That’s amazing, isn’t it? I can benefit from gender bias my whole life, and keep all those benefits, plus any I may accrue in the future, but so long as I try to avoid being a silent co-conspirator in any future oppression, that’s pretty good. That is one low bar.
If you do one thing each day that has a 99% survival rate, you’ll likely be dead in under ten weeks. If boarding a plane had a 99% survival rate, a typical flight would end by carting off at least one passenger in a body bag, perhaps two or three. Ninety-nine sounds close enough to 100, but anything with a 99% survival rate is incomprehensibly dangerous.
Go sky-diving, and you’re over two thousand times safer than if you were doing something with a 99% survival rate. Driving, the most dangerous everyday activity, requires you to clock up almost a million miles of travel before you’re only 99% likely to survive. Even base jumping, perhaps the single most dangerous thing you can do without actively wanting to die, is twenty-five times safer than anything that carries a 99% survival rate.
Ninety-nine bananas is essentially one hundred bananas. Ninety-nine days is practically a hundred days. But 99% is often not even remotely close to 100%. It feels like similar numbers should lead to similar outcomes, but the difference in life expectancy between 99% and 100% survivable daily routines isn’t one percent: It’s ten weeks versus immortality.
It’s simple enough to calculate the probability of more than one thing happening:
You just multiply the individual probabilities together. The likelihood of surviving
for three days, for example, while doing one thing per day with a 99% survival rate,
0.99 x 0.99 x 0.99 = 0.9703, or 97.03%.
But we find this deeply counter-intuitive. We prefer to think in categories, where
everything can be labeled: good or bad, safe or dangerous, likely or
unlikely. If we have an appointment and need to catch both a train and a bus, each of which
have a 70% chance of running on time, we tend to consider both events as likely, and
therefore conclude that we’ll make it. The actual likelihood
that both services run on time is
0.70 x 0.70 = 0.49, or only 49%: We’ll
probably be late.
We also prioritize feelings over numbers. Here’s a game: Pick a number between 1 and 100, and I’ll try to guess it. If I’m wrong, I’ll give you a million dollars. If I’m right, I’ll shoot you dead. Would you like to play?*
Most people won’t play this game, because the thought of being shot dead is too scary. It’s shocking and visceral, so when you weigh up the decision, both potential outcomes balloon in your mind until they feel roughly equal, as if the odds were 50/50, rather than one being 99 times more likely than the other.
But put the same game in a mundane context — if instead of being shot, you get COVID, and instead of a million dollars, you just go to work as usual — and we tend to return to categorical thinking, where the dangerous-but-unlikely outcome is filed away as too improbable to be worth thinking about. As if close to 100% is close enough.
Between 99% and 100% lies infinity. It spans the distance between something that happens half a dozen times a year and something that hasn’t happened once in the history of the universe. With each step we take beyond 99%, we cover less distance than before: 1-in-200 gets us to 99.50%, then 1-in-300 to 99.67%, then 1-in-400 only to 99.75%. We’ve quadrupled our steps, but only covered three-quarters of the remaining distance. We can keep forging ahead forever, to 1-in-a-thousand and 1-in-a-million and beyond, and still there will be an endless ocean between us and 100%.
You have to watch out for 99%. You have to respect the territory it conceals.