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The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Post-Truth Politics and the “Great Replacement”

On 15 March, Australian Brenton Tarrant entered a New Zealand mosque and brutally massacred dozens of people. Posted online before the attack, Tarrant’s manifesto is an attempt to justify this horrific act of violence on the grounds that white populations across the West are being replaced by Muslim “invaders,” who will ultimately destroy western culture and heritage.

Numerous articles decrying this theory appeared in the weeks following the attack: it was described as racist and misogynistic, garbled garbage and cretinous. Such arguments rest on the idea that the Great Replacement is factually incorrect—a trope that deliberately distorts the fact that demographic trends suggest that white people are becoming a smaller proportion of the population, in order to claim that they are somehow going extinct or being replaced. The Great Replacement, according to this line of argumentation, is detached from reality, much as other conspiracy theories, such as Flat Earthism, are.

The correct response is thus to present new facts that challenge the idea of a Great Replacement. In an article for the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo offers a list of facts to counter the Great Replacement theory, which has managed to capture adherents online. Manjoo suggests that nobody really knows whether whites will become a minority in the United States; that white Americans are not facing a social and economic dead end; and that white Americans will continue to hold a lot of political power in the future.

Are these facts likely to convince those who would otherwise believe in the theory that it is nonsense? Perhaps—but if the rising numbers of flat-earthers and anti-vaxers are anything to go by, deriding conspiracy theories and presenting facts that contradict them are not strategies likely to effect a significant reversal in belief. Science must win hearts and minds, not simply the factual debate. As Helen Pluckrose notes in an article last year, to restore reason, we need to wrap our facts in narratives that appeal to common concerns. The science and facts of demography are no exception to this need to return to a form of story-telling.

Arguments that present better or more truthful demographic facts to combat misinformation have lost much of their force in our era of relativistic postmodernism, which can be described as post-truth: i.e. we have moved beyond the idea that there is an objective, truthful reality by which we can judge the validity of an argument. If such a reality does not exist, then every fact is potentially open to interpretation, the site of various meanings, and no one person can claim a monopoly on truth. Facts, in such a world, can be deployed to support a range of narratives, built around subjective meaning and interpretation. Hence, arguing that the Great Replacement is factually incorrect is difficult, if not impossible—since facts themselves have become just another tool in the service of particular arguments.

There may be an alternative method of combatting the Great Replacement narrative, if we can understand why people come to believe it in the first place. Online alt-right commentators, who disseminate narratives about the threat posed by immigration, do not base their arguments on thin air: they mobilise facts to legitimise what they say. In 2017, Lauren Southern, for example, posted a video entitled “The Great Replacement,” in which she states that, to avoid allegations of “Nazism,” she will back up what she says with data and statistics. She inserts references to The Migration Observatory and the Pew Research Center, along with statements by academics, such as British demographer David Coleman.

The facts cited suggest that demographic change is occurring, and that white populations in western nations are likely to decrease in the coming years. However, the subsequent Great Replacement narrative that is spun out of these facts is bullshit. I use that term in the technical sense employed in Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 article, in which he suggests that bullshitting is the phenomenon of attempting to convince others of what you say, with no regard for the truth.

It is easy to speculate about demographic trends and bullshit about their meaning—ignoring the fact that such projections fail to account for a range of factors, which could change the predictions, such as a decrease in migrant birth rates over time. These bullshit narratives are powerful because they play on the anxieties of populations facing social and economic upheaval in a post-industrial landscape, in a way that appears legitimate. As one recent article suggests, the “lab coat” and “think tank tweed” are the costumes these ideas wear to appear acceptable to a wider audience.

By appearing legitimate and playing on existing anxieties about social change, such ideas gain currency. A video such as Southern’s can spread successfully in an online ecosystem by exploiting the emotional anxieties of individuals and social media algorithms that serve up ever more radical content to users. So, how do we combat bullshit of this kind, if not by recourse to more facts, which are potentially open to further manipulation by those seeking to promote the idea of a Great Replacement?

One obvious solution is that we simply need to restore facts to their proper, objective place above meaning and interpretation: in other words, restore them to their status as truth. However, in order to restore facts to the position they once held, one has to advance epistemological arguments about the nature of knowledge and how we attain it. This leaves one open to counter-claims that this way of knowing is biased and flawed. For example, the dismissal of experts and expertise during the Brexit referendum also shows how hollow the claims were of the importance of facts and their influence on voters as the truth. In short, in order to claim that facts, such as those regarding demographic change, are objectively true, we first have to make a subjective argument.

The claim that particular facts are true because one believes them to be so is an unsound form of reasoning, as it leaves one open to endless challenges from those wielding different facts. Facts do not exist in a value neutral space, beyond contestation. They are deployed in, and become part of, diverse narratives that appeal to particular identities in society. As Ilan Baron, a political theorist at Durham University, notes, “narratives can be understood as the framework within which our interpretations exist.” They function as filters, determining what makes sense and how, and, crucially, this is accomplished through recourse to our own self-understanding. Narratives are unintelligible if we cannot locate ourselves in them, and appeals to objective facts or knowledge fall flat when they fail to relate to the understandings we have of ourselves and our positions in the world. With this in mind, perhaps we can formulate a different way of challenging the Great Replacement theory.

In Farhad Manjoo’s article, two of the arguments that he presents relate to the fact that, statistically speaking, white Americans enjoy a high degree of prosperity and political power. It does not seem likely that those who, like Tarrant, have not enjoyed this success or power, can place these facts into a meaningful and coherent narrative in which they can locate themselves. Does the fact that there are more white CEOs than CEOs of colour help isolated and broken figures like Tarrant make sense of the world?

Of far greater appeal to people like Tarrant are narratives that explain their failure to succeed. The Great Replacement, with its suggestion that the culture in which white males traditionally succeeded is being destroyed, is one such narrative. Narratives provide meaning, not facts, so they can only be combatted using different narratives.

Manjoo’s article indicates one possible way in which we might formulate such narratives. Nobody knows whether whites will become a minority in the United States, despite demographic changes, due to ambiguities surrounding how to define those from mixed minority and white backgrounds. How we interpret this information makes all the difference in the world. A recent study found that, among white Americans, when demographic trends were presented as part of an inclusive narrative, in which whites retain their majority, as a result of those from mixed backgrounds identifying as white, feelings of hopefulness about the future increased. To counter the Great Replacement narrative, we might attempt something similar: for example, by reassuring Tarrant and others that Muslim immigration is not likely to destroy western culture or traditions, as many of these immigrants will come to identify with the dominant culture of their host societies.

Currently, we are failing to tell a story—and this failure provides an opportunity for extremists to tell it for us. As the authors of the study cited above note, “virtually no literature exists on crafting the narratives by which population projections of total growth, changing racial shares, and aging should be shared with the public, who may be the subject of study but also are a key audience.”

By focusing on the bland presentation of statistics designed to refute narratives of a Great Replacement, we reveal our blindness to the importance of narratives. Our narratives shape our perceptions—if we wish to change the way in which increasing numbers of people view the statistics on population change, we have a responsibility to recognise that the Great Replacement is based on a particular interpretation of the facts. Once we do, we will be capable of dismantling the narratives that make those facts of demographic change so dangerous and replacing them with appealing and convincing narratives of our own. In our era of anxiety-ridden ‘post-truth’ politics, a return to the age-old practice of story-telling can help assuage our worst fears, and provide a brighter vision of the future.

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28 comments

  1. An interesting piece which deserves a longer, more considered reply than the one I’m going to give now:

    The Great Replacement narrative is probably best seen as a naturally-arising counter-narrative to the explicitly anti-white/anti-West narratives found in much of what passes for contemporary culture. Indeed, it is specifically positioned in such a way by people like Southern.

    And the Dalai Lama, oddly enough.

  2. I disagree. Higher birthrates are like compound interest. Whites will become a minority in Western countries, except the ones which stop mass third-world immigration. Saying this doesn’t align me with the Christchurch murderer. It doesn’t even say it’s a bad thing. Mass immigration isn’t immoral, it’s just opposed to my economic and genetic interests.

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  3. How can we tell if these claims about “The great Replacement’ are a disingenuous narrative spun for the benefit of a certain faction or a sober analysis of current trends leading to a realistic prediction about the future ?
    How can we disentangle ourselves from claims of biased and motivated reasoning on either side of the question ?
    One way is to examine a case where we are not personally involved. Examine our judgements about that case, try to find the principles that underlie it and then return to our own case and see what those principles reveal.
    The old sayings about “Whose Ox is being gored ” and “No man may be a judge in his own case” come to mind.
    How do you feel about Han Chinese migration into Tibet and Xinjiang ? Do you see a case of ethnic replacement ? Are there moral implications ?
    If you have moral principles then they should be able to survive in both the east and west.

  4. I’m way more attached to arguments than narratives but I accept that they are a part of communication. One line I use in my own society is to say that ‘Australian culture is very seductive’. We come from all over the world (and I say ‘we’ because very few of us are Aboriginal) and over a generation or two become Aussie. We go to school together, work together, play together. One way to tell this is to go to a public place and both look _and_ listen. Everyone sounds a lot less different than they look. I’ve lost track of the number of times groups of adolescents of mixed backgrounds (including some girls wearing hijabs) have been chatting, gossiping and swearing in thick Aussie accents.

    In Australia we have also tended to think in terms of ethnicity (numbering in the hundreds) rather than race (numbering less than a dozen). Ironically a more fragmented concept of humanity can result in a less fractious national culture overall. And here ‘facts’ in a strictly scientific sense are silent. It is narratives that allow us to slice reality in a way we can understand. I prefer a more complex vision (which is why I have a problem with both old racist prejudices and newfangled racialist identity politics).

  5. Maybe you should familiarize yourself with the science–and the lack of science–around vaccines and related statistics before you presume to equate the so-called “anti-vaxers” with Flat Earth advocates.

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    1. I’m with you there, Daniel. Batshit conformist liberals who don’t bother to actually investigate the subject of vaccine dangers themselves, are contemptible for their smugness and stupidity.

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  6. «On 15 March, Australian Brenton Tarrant entered a New Zealand mosque and brutally massacred dozens of people» – one idiot was the reason of screeching of MSM world wide.
    300 hundred people, most of them Christians, were killed by well-organized Islamists in Sri Lanka. MSM were practically silent. During April this year 822 were killed and 1374 were injured by Islamists – nobody cares.
    It looks that we, ordinary people, are not human beings for progressives like you, Máedóc Ellis. You named us extremists, when the real fascist is you!

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    1. I’m from Australia and our mainstream media tend to report on Australian news first, then the news of other culturally similar parts of the world, then our region. New Zealand is both similar to us and in our part of the world so, naturally, the Christchurch attack was reported widely here. It’s cultural and geographic parochialism. I’m sure the mainstream media in Sri Lanka were much better at reporting on the news in their own backyard.

      Incidentally, the author never even uses the word ‘fascist’ and never de-humanized anyone. He would hardly be discussing better ways of communicating with those of different views if he was.

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  7. I don’t think saying different ethnicities _might_ assimilate into mainstream society will be perceived as positive as you think it will. Even worse is the suggestion, that a future white minority would still keep it’s social status and priviledges. Having a minority that is visibly better off is actually one of the best predictors for ethnical conflict….

    1. Great point…when demographics shifted but proportional parlimentary representation did not, Lebanon exploded. Rwanda, with the Tutsis and Hutus. South Africa. Even Syria, with the Alawite minority holding disproportionate power. In Malaysia, the Chinese minority are far more succesful than the natives. The Democrat party in the US has just or is about to become majority minority, and look at the dissatisfaction with their old, white legacy leadership.

  8. A major factor in pushing “The Great Replacement” in The United States were liberal Democrats boasting and chest-thumping about the emerging new Democrat majority, composed of every possible minority and college-educated whites. Barack Obama explicitly wrote off working class whites in his 2012 campaign for fear of alienating this new minority-majority electorate…Thomas B. Edsall had a great NYT article circa 2011-12. I think this article is indicative of realizing that they showed their cards too early and are trying to walk back the obviousness of their grand strategy, lest the natives get restless…too late, boys!

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    1. I’m not American, nor am I a Democrat, and my point is that we need to take the concerns of “natives” regarding demographic change seriously, but this doesn’t mean surrendering to nonsense narratives about a “Great Replacement”.

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        1. This report nowhere suggests deliberately replacing populations with migrants. Its simply investigating the pressing problem of a growth in the ageing population combined with low fertility rates, and whether migration could help alleviate this problem. It actually concludes that the levels of migration that would be needed are unlikely to ever be reached (for various reasons) and what’s far more likely is that people will have to work longer and more productively, as well as lose many of the welfare benefits currently enjoyed by older people.

          Resist the inclanation to conspiratorial narratives, because reality is usually much more boring than that.

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      1. “The Great Replacement” is like “Climate Change”, vastly exaggerated for political and ideological purposes but nonetheless a reality. Do your homework Mr. Ellis before you write an article. The “Great Replacement” might be exaggerated but Europe is going through a massive demographic change and that change will only speed up in decades to come. The resulting large scale ethnic and social conflicts and “Balkanization” will change Europe beyond recognition. You are young enough to witness these massive changes.

  9. I don’t much care about narratives. I care about facts. And this article by Ellis is BS on its own terms.

    It tries to insinuate that the work of the Migration Observatory, the Pew Research Center, and David Coleman can reasonably be summarized as failing “to account for a range of factors, which could change the predictions, such as a decrease in migrant birth rates over time“. The whole point of the field of demographics is exactly to account for as many relevant factors as reasonably possible, including the decrease in migrant birth rates. This is demographers’ bread & butter. Of course, Ellis isn’t technically lying, because whenever you are forecasting anything, there will always be a range of factors that you will fail to account for.

    No forecast is perfect but the job of the forecaster is still vital, whether it be in economics, climate science, or indeed demographics.

    This article smacks of desperation, almost as if Tarrant’s terrorism in Christchurch would have been legitimate if the demographic forecasts are true, so the only choice is to fling as much mud as possible at the forecasts.

    The truth of the matter is that, for a concrete example, the “White British” ethnicity will almost certainly* be a minority in Britain well before the end of this century, but this IS NO EXCUSE FOR UNETHICAL BEHAVIOUR. Those of us who fall into that ethnic category just have to get over it. I did, and it took me all of 10 seconds – after the initial surprise when I first realized how quickly this was all happening. Firstly, “we” will indeed be a minority, but still the largest minority, – probably well into the next century.

    I may not agree with the immigration policies that have led to this situation, but as a democrat I have to accept them. I can and do advocate for more restrictive immigration policies in the future, but they won’t prevent the demographic shift from happening, nor am I convinced that wanting them to do so is ethical. (The reason I advocate for more restrictive immigration policies is not due to ethnicity. But I DO care very much about ideology.) To my mind it goes without saying that the kinds of policies advocated by some groups, like “deporting” British born citizens just due to their ethnicity or religion, are so far beyond the pale that they would not be democratically legitimate. And I hereby promise that in the very unlikely event those groups came to power, I would engage in civil disobedience as a bare minimum to try to prevent such things from happening.

    See! It’s not that hard to commit to ethical behaviour. There’s no need to pretend that these demographic changes aren’t happening or that the expert forecasts aren’t realistic.

    * The Migration Observatory’s estimate is actually 2070, I think. I have converted this to “almost certainly” by 2100. Anyone reading this who really still thinks these forecasts are somehow implausible, perhaps you should start by looking at the 2011 census data. For the under 5s generation (babies and toddlers), IIRC, the figure for “White British” in England in 2011 was 70%. So to get a vague sense of how it could work, you can start by pondering how quickly that figure has got down to 70%, how much longer until it gets down to 50%, and then how long after that until the relevant generation reaches middle age and becomes the average.

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    1. any white person who is truly concerned about the potential of becoming a minority group ought to commit to the support of minority rights, lest those become too weakened to protect them in the event that their prediction should come to pass.

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    2. @ptfrd

      Thanks. It seems that calm, fact-based analysis would rather support the Great Replacement. As for me, I needn’t project into the future to be worried, what I see in Western Europe is already quite alarming enough. We already have de facto mini Caliphates in many if not most cities. Possibly worse, we see the right-wing reaction. The Correct will solve the latter problem by tut-tuting it — these nasty people, if only they’d go away. Well, they are not going away and it would seem prudent to me, to halt all 3d world immigration until existing populations are absorbed. But then again I’m a Nazi, or so I’m told.

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    3. Hey ptfrd,

      My point in referring to the demographic forecasts was to accept that there is truth in them, but they are uncertain and unclear. This means the facts regarding demographic change can be interpreted in different ways, using different narratives. The ”Great Replacement” narrative uses this uncertainty to make apocalyptic forecasts that we don’t know will come to pass, inspiring people like the Christchurch shooter to take violent action as a result. As the example I cited at the of the article suggests, the definitions of ethnicity used in demographic research are fuzzy, and many mixed race people are likely to identify as “white”, thus meaning whites will not become a minority as the demographic facts would suggest.

      Yes, Muslims currently have higher birth rates than white populations, but this doesn’t equal the destruction of white culture and some form of insidous replacement as peddlers of the “Great Replacement” seem to suggest. That’s down to their alarmist interpretation of the facts- like I suggest in the article we could offer a different narrative based on the idea that these Muslim immigrants, like immigrants from different ethnic groups before them, are likely to assimilate into the host cultures. If that’s the case, we don’t need to freak out about being “replaced” and in extreme cases resort to violence, because our culture is not under attack.

      I hope this clarifies things a bit, because I am not trying to fling mud at the forecasts, but rather critique those who deliberately exaggerate the meaning of these forecasts to push their own agendas.

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        1. Mr Ellis, don’t you worry that attempts at “telling a story” to accompany facts will alienate white working class people even more? People really don’t like being condescended to, and I’m not sure that “when a mommy and an immigrant love each other very much” story time is going to help. The conundrum is: some people can’t deal with the facts, and you can’t let them know that, as it will only serve to infuriate them even more.

          1. I don’t suggest telling condescensing or misleading narratives or stories, but rather more truthful and accurate ones based on the fact the future is uncertain.

            Right now people are looking at these facts of demographic change and assuming they are being replaced or turned into a minority, partly because the only narratives about these facts are being provided by alt-right figures who are going to push an extreme ideological narrative that obscures the truth.

            That truth being, as I suggested in the article, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. The Great Replacement suggests white Westerners are being replaced and their culture destroyed, because Muslim populations currently have higher birthrates. Leaving aisde the fact those birthrates may decline, a more truthful narrative would focus on the fact that these immigrants can assimilate into the host culture and become as British or American as generations of immigrants before them have.

            Back in the 60s Enoch Powell tried to push a similar narrative to the “Great Replacement” with his Rivers of Blood, and yet by and large several decades on the immigrants he feared have assimilated and white western culture remains intact.

            So my point then is that seeing facts of demographic change and deriving from them apocalyptic visions of a great replacement is not the only way in which we can look at these facts. We have the ability to tell different narratives, more accurate ones, based on the fact the future is uncertain but the past suggests a general trend towards assimilation, not colonisation.

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      1. The narrative I care about is as follows.

        Almost no-one in Britain wanted the ‘White British’ ethnicity to become a minority, yet we now have a situation where there is no ethical way of stopping it, and our best estimate* of when it’s going to happen is 2070. (*Source: Oxford University’s Migration Observatory.) So we have to accept it. But is that all we have to do? No. We can also learn from it. Is there anything else that might be affected by immigration? Anything important? My answer is yes, of course: the political & social values of a nation.

        I believe that by far the most important thing determining the wellbeing of a nation is the set of ideas subscribed to by its citizenry. Other factors matter too, like natural resources, the behaviour of neighbouring nations, etc.. But look around the world at the countries you would least like to live in, and ask yourself honestly what the main problem is. I think you have to admit that people in First World democracies are incredibly lucky to find themselves born in nations where the dominant ideas place great value on democracy, truth, freedom, and fairness. We all have a duty to promote these ideas, and more importantly (given how rare it is in human history for them to be ascendant), defend them against any risks.

        Is there any risk due to the mass migration of people from nations with political & social values that differ from ours? Of course! But what might not have been clear back in, say, the 1960s, is how much of a risk. Perhaps the people that come to the West would only be those who already subscribe to the same kinds of ideas as us. Or perhaps once they did arrive, they would come round to our way of thinking? Well, we have our answers. Most immigrants come here despite our values, for a better quality of life. And many immigrants and immigrant-descendants do indeed shift their ideas somewhat, but this is far from 100%, and it can even go into reverse (with 2nd and 3rd generation citizens sometimes swinging more towards the values common in their parents’/grandparents’ birthplace than their actual parents/grandparents).

        This was all clear 30 years ago with the Muslim riots against the blasphemy of Salman Rushdie. And things have been getting worse ever since.

        Let me ask you something that should be a very strange question. How many people with British citizenship believe that apostates should be killed?

        What do you think the answer would have been 60 years ago? 100 Christian extremists? Maybe even 1000? Now go off and look up the relevant surveys of British Muslims, and come back with your estimate for 2019. My estimate is 1,000,000.

        I know it’s a cliche, but please, just let that sink in for a minute. Due entirely to mass immigration, we now face a situation where approximately one million holders of British citizenship believe that apostates should be killed. Clearly, a basic human freedom is now at risk.

        Almost no non-Muslims want an immigration policy that will lead to significant increases in the number of British citizens who reject freedom in this way. Nor do they want the erosion of the other political & social values that have done so much to promote human wellbeing in the West. But as we learn from what happened with ethnicity, it doesn’t matter that they don’t want it. It has been happening for 60 years, it is happening now, and it will continue to happen unless something significant changes. The political momentum in favour of mass immigration is very strong, and the more it happens, the stronger it gets.

        This is the only narrative that matters, as far as I’m concerned.

        As for what should be done about all this, that’s a different question. One thing’s for sure, if you are one of the people who is willing to stand against the erosion of the political & social values of the West, you must never let the pro-mass-immigration lobby paint you as an extremist. Always point out that you are seeking to change future immigration policies, that you accept the legitimacy of the legal immigration that has already happened so far, and that people who don’t accept this are your enemies not your allies.

    4. The real unethical behavior is on the part of the ruling class who unleashed this upon the nation that they were elected to protect and preserve. No one voted for this.

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  10. flat-Earthism is not analogous to the other conspiracy theories you cite, because flat-Earthers don’t actually believe their theory, they are just trolling us. they are playing a logic game of testing the limits of obtuse hyper-skepticism for their own amusement. it’s like a secular equivalent of satanists, who also don’t actually believe in or worship Satan, but rather are just trying to provoke Christians with a parody of their religion (and more power to them, I say). promoting flat-Earthers to the level of genuine true-believers in a conspiracy theory is to allow them to pull your leg.

    or maybe I’m just being a flat-Earther-denier.

    1. I’m actually a member of my univerity’s Flat Earth society for exactly this leg-pulling reason, but there are those who legitimately believe in it and it was those I was referring to!

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      1. I’ve never met any of those who actually believe it. I know because I’ve never met a flat earther that didn’t have a knowing smirk on their face when talking about it. talk to a believer in any other conspiracy theory, and they have the harried obsessiveness of somebody who’s been up all night drinking coffee and tracking down every last scrap of flimsy, spurious evidence. but not flat earthers. nope, they as a species are well-rested, calm, and content, because they know there are no stakes, and the twisting of logic is not only allowed, but expected.

        based on my experiences with those ones, it seems logical that some are good enough at that defensive game to fool even their teammates.

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