The Hero Sword Fallacy

I was having a conversation with a friend yesterday about gun culture. He told me a story about a gun company called “Savage” whose logo is, naturally, a correspondingly offensive depiction of a Native American Indian. As a fan of guns, himself, he talked about trying to decide what his best course of action was in terms of expressing how offensive he found this. He has decided not to buy their products, and is considering writing a letter to the company explaining why he thinks their name and logo are offensive and incredibly harmful. He wonders, though, whether a letter like that is likely to have any significant impact at all on a company that has demonstrated their lack of awareness and consideration for others so clearly.

This is an incredibly common feeling with respect to pretty much every kind of activism there is. “Sure, I could say something, but I’ll never convince people like that. It will never make enough of an impact to really affect change.”

I think this perspective, while entirely understandable, is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of how most social change happens. I think of it as the hero sword fallacy.

The hero sword fallacy is the idea that your actions don’t really have an impact unless they are the thing that changes someone’s mind, and, correspondingly, that having an impact is about finding the perfect action or argument that will change minds. The way that you slay a dragon is by stabbing it through the heart with the sword of Ultimate Magnificent Dragon-Heart-Piercing Justice, and the way that you slay social injustice is by coming up with the Ultimate Magnificent Argument of Perfect Logos and Pathos.

You see this with newly de-converted atheists all the time. In the excitement of having figured out that deities aren’t real, people think “Now I know the reasons why gods don’t exist, and they’ll talk to other religious people and de-convert them with my fantastic arguments and awareness!”. Reality tends to set in quickly in the form of very few (if any) people being immediately convinced by such arguments. Sometimes people drift toward the mindset of “Well, you just can’t convince People Like That.”.

The thing is, you can. When Greta Christina gives talks, she often does an exercise where she has the audience raise their hands if they used to be religious, and then keep them up if it was an argument that eventually led to them deconverting. There are always a lot of hands left up.

People are convinced by arguments. They are convinced by arguments all the time; many of those people who seem so easy to write off as The Unconvinceables have been convinced by arguments (or emotional appeals, or becoming more familiar with the facts or people they denigrate). This isn’t just the case with religion; it’s the case with antiabortionists, anti-feminists, homophobes and bigots of all types, and believers in psychics and The Secret and The Game. The thing is, we are almost never convinced to change opinions that we are emotionally, socially, or financially invested in the first time someone challenges us on them.

People do get convinced though. It just doesn’t work immediately. Social progress always happens slowly, in a thousand, thousand, thousand steps, big and small, that add up to significant change only in the long run. Landmark court decisions like Brown versus the Board of Education or Roe versus Wade don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen after decades or centuries of proceeding work. Also, as we have seen, they don’t serve as ultimate incontrovertible solutions to the problems they address; racism and abortion rights restrictions are both very alive and well today.

I encouraged this friend of mine to write the letter he is considering writing, but not because I think it will change any minds. Not because I think it’s likely to get a response, or result in any sort of policy change, but because it’s a step. Every time anyone speaks up about social injustices, great or small, it’s a step, and that’s how these things work. There is no Hero Sword Argument or Action that will magically cut through the heart of a given person’s ignorance or bigotry. Changes like that happen to individual people after tens or hundreds of conversations, and to organizations perhaps after hundreds or thousands or millions of appeals by customers or constituents, and to cultures after far more than even that.

The tiny things we do do affect change, it’s just that they only affect major change once they have happened in a volume that is incomprehensibly large when compared to an individual action. There aren’t perfect solutions to the problems we face, and it is incredibly unlikely that any individual thing any of us can do will be the tipping point that changes something, but those individual things do add up, and the tipping points do happen, and progress does get made — only gets made — by people doing what they can and knowing that even if their contributions don’t cause the immediate change they wish for, they help move us in the right direction. They help in pretty much the only way that anything ever does: as a small step toward a big change.