Saturday, August 25, 2012

Side by Side by Side by Side...

I was reading a political blog, and the author of the post made a reference to Dragonlance, a series of Dungeons and Dragons-related fantasy novels that later became an official D&D campaign setting. This reminded me of a time, back when I was in college, when we had attempted to apply one facet of the game to the real world.

The concept of alignment in Dungeons and Dragons can be a tricky one for new players to grasp, and this was especially true in earlier versions of the game. While many people think of it simply as their character's moral outlook, it can be significantly more complicated than that, having overtones of basic personality, social outlook and even a degree of partisanship - the original alignments could all be thought of as secret societies, complete with a special language that all members learned. It operates of two axes, each with three values - Good versus Evil and Law versus Chaos, with each axis having a center value of Neutral. This made for nine discreet combinations. While the idea that you could divide every intelligent creature in a fantasy world into nine moral outlooks struck many people as unrealistic, it is still a somewhat useful system. When applied to real-world organizations and people, Socrates' axiom that people don't set out to do things they understand to be evil means that everyone tends to cluster in the Good and Neutral alignments, if you take them as they view themselves. Taken as others view them, however, and you have the whole board to play with.

In the context of the 2012 presidential race, President Obama, believing as he does in a muscular, activist government, can be placed at the intersection of Law and Good. In effect, the President believes that the way that you do the most good for the most people and the least harm to the least is through strong centralized governance. So we can list him as Lawful Good. On the other side of this, Governor Romney is playing the less government = more freedom = better outcomes for all involved. So we can likely get away with placing Governor Romney in the Chaotic Good camp for now. Of course, some people would list Governor Romney (and a lot of other politicians, for that matter) as Chaotic simply because of how often he seems to change his positions on things. (Which reveals one of the issues with the system, namely that different people would often have wildly differing definitions of what the alignment labels mean.) Broadly speaking, both the Democratic and Republican parties could be described as Neutral Good - at least in their own eyes. Both tend to feel that in certain areas, a robust government enforcing consistent rules is best - even if they disagree on what areas and what rules. On the flip side of the coin they each have identified places where they would really cut back on the rules and regulations. Naturally, these tend to be the ones the other side considers important. It's important to keep in mind that the political parties are Neutral to the degree that they have big tents, and thus must accommodate multiple competing viewpoints. Individual groups within (and outside of) the parties can diverge from this quite a bit. For example, both the TEA Party and the Occupy Movement could be broadly construed as Chaotic Good - even if they would likely describe the other as Chaotic Evil. While one is focused on dismantling the power of Big Government, and the other on doing away with the influence of Big Business, they're both looking for a change in the status quo that results in a more distributed power structure that gives more freedom to individual citizens.

Groups that fall into the categories of Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral as somewhat rare, I think, as most groups like to think of themselves as advancing the cause of Good. But you could make the case that people who assign a moral imperative to notions of freedom, or anarchists for whom tearing down the existing order is more important than building a new one could be considered Chaotic Neutral.

In the real world, people and organizations only fall into the three Evil alignments in the eyes of their critics. Many Progressives, for example, tend to see Libertarians as Chaotic Evil. By the same token, advocates of small government tend to see their opposite numbers as Lawful Evil, promoting a set of laws designed to enrich some at the direct expense of others. But this isn't to say that people always view their political opponents as evil. It's entirely possible to recognize others good intentions, even while pointing out the errors of their ways.

Given the diversity of political thought, nine buckets into which to try to divide the opinions of millions of people are only marginally more useful than the three buckets of Liberal/Conservative/Moderate we normally use, especially when three or four of them are unlikely to be used. But it makes for an interesting thought experiement and tool for understanding how the groups both see and relate to one another.

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