Bulletproofing magic works

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

Bulletproofing magic (gri-gri) works:

Gri-gri comes in many forms — ointment, powder, necklaces — but all promise immunity to weaponry. It doesn’t work on individuals, of course, although it’s supposed to. Very little can go grain-for-grain with black powder and pyrodex. It does work on communities: it makes them bullet proof.

The economists Nathan Nunn and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra wrote a paper analyzing the social effects of gri-gri: Why Being Wrong Can Be Right: Magical Warfare Technologies and the Persistence of False Beliefs (the full paper is up on Professor Sanchez de la Sierra’s site). Here’s the breakdown: Bullet-proofing magic is relatively widespread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The paper focuses on Congo-Kinsasha, specifically South Kivu. Things are not great there: “In July 2007, United Nations human rights expert Yakin Erturk called the situation in South Kivu the worst she has ever seen in four years as the global body’s special investigator for violence against women.” The quote from wikipedia gets way worse, trust me. Most of the villages lack larger forms of protection, as is probably obvious at this point. They also lacked any kind of coordinated resistance, and given the larger fire power, were hopelessly outgunned. That was for some time, and our wiki quote says 2007.

In 2012, the recipe for gri-gri was revealed to an elder in a dream. If you ingest it and follow certain ritual commandments, then bullets cannot harm you. The belief is puzzling, inasmuch as bullets did seem to keep killing people. More puzzling: not only did it survive, it was adopted by many neighboring villages, cities, and regions. “Why?”

The paper argues that gri-gri encourages resistance on a mass scale. Beforehand, given a mix of brave and cowardly, only a small percentage of a village would fight back. If you want to have any hope of surviving, then you need everyone to fight back. Gri-gri lowers the perceived costs of said resistance, i.e. no reason to fear guns when the bullets can’t hurt you. Now everyone fights, hence, gri-gri‘s positive benefits. Moreover: since more people are fighting, each gri-gri participant also raises the marginal utility of the others (it’s better to fight together). And, since there are highly specific requirements for using the powder (if you break a certain moral code it doesn’t work), gri-gri also probably cuts down on non-war related crimes. Take group-level selection: the belief in and use of gri-gri will thus allow any given village to out-compete one without gri-gri. After a time, these will either be replaced by gri-gri adherents (hence spreading it geographically), or they’ll adopt gri-gri themselves (also spreading it).

As far as “sober looks at horrifying situations” go, this is a good one. It’s clever, it’s a decent analysis of why certain beliefs persist despite being false, and I’m glad to know that economics has finally found Nietzsche.

If I have any specific criticisms, it’s that they vastly downplay negative externalities inflicted by the required rituals. They suggest, rather, that these might be positive. To use gri-gri certain commandments must be followed, and one helpful example is “don’t steal from civilians.” So far so good, and that does seem useful, but one that they don’t mention is that another form of bullet-magic requires human sacrifice and cannibalism. This might impact the cost-benefit, but I’m no economist. To be fair, they aren’t looking at Liberia, but they also want to generalize, so.

The rest is good, and I appreciate all attempts to examine “irrational” rituals. But I still think that there’s an easier and more obvious solution than theirs: gri-gri is actually magic.

See like a state for a moment.

In the absence of such a paper, most outside members would classify their beliefs as “irrational” or “stupid”. Hell, I remember people mocking this belief when I was growing up, and there are still somehow-still-considered-liberal-but-look-at-the-exotic-natives Vice documentaries about this. One can well imagine a government program to ban gri-gri, which would misunderstand its value, and therefore expose the villagers to raiding parties with no decent defense mechanism. That’s a bad idea. Try something else.

I’ll presuppose that local powers have all read the paper, recognize the importance of gri-gri, but still want to modernize. Also: human sacrifice. They decide to retain the effects, but remove the “magical” aspect as unnecessary. This presupposition is how a whole lot of people do read Seeing Like a State. You make the previously-strange beliefs legible in state language. In doing so, you assume that you have “understood them” yourself well enough to continue modernizing. The problem with High Modernism, it’s assumed, is that the capital-S State is destroying useful practices, not necessarily that it’s destroying those practices period. Retain the utility and you might as well get rid of the superstitious beliefs.

As it goes, I happen to agree with this. Interestingly, that makes me argue against every single human being who wants to do so right now. We aren’t seeing the utility, and we don’t understand the practice.

We want gri-gri, but we don’t want gri-gri. What we really want is “communal defense and associated positive externalities” minus witch-doctors. That’s not a bad plan. It rids us of the small chance of associated human sacrifice, which is always a good thing to avoid (probably). To achieve this, the state sends a researcher into the village. “We’re sorry,” he says. “We were so stupid to mock you. We totally understand why you do this thing. Let’s explain to you what’s actually going on, now that we have an economic translation.”

The researcher explains that, in fact, gri-gri doesn’t work for the individual, but it has the net-positive effect of saving the community. “Give up these childish illusions, yet maintain the overall function of the system,” he exhorts. A villager, clearly stupid, asks: “So it works?” The man smiles at these whimsical locals. “Oh, no,” he sighs. “You will surely die. But in the long run it’s a positive adaptation at the group level.”

No one would fight, of course. The effect only comes from the individual. If he doesn’t think he can survive a bullet, then it’s hard to see how you’re going to make him fight. “But people fight better in groups, don’t you see?” stammers the exasperated researcher. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s also no revelation. I trust that at least a couple of those villagers have brawled before. “Fighting six guys alone vs. fighting six guys with your friends” is a fast lesson with obvious application. Still didn’t make them go to war before the introduction of gri-gri. If that didn’t work, why do you think “time for some #gametheory” will convince anyone?

Gri-gri is magic, and the obvious yet world-shattering revelation is that data breaks the spell. Point one for Leo Strauss, but serious problem for the value of knowledge.


  1. Harper's Notes says:

    Thinking about what happens on the margins of populations in terms of individual differences in the context of the penguin problem. Who will jump first off the iceberg into the water and find out if there’s a lion seal waiting below? The mass of penguins edges ever close to the edge. Finally one falls in. The others wait and see. If it’s safe they jump in. Perhaps gri-gri is a way of finding enough people who are suggestible and superstitious to probe for weaknesses in the enemies’ defenses. This would explain why otherwise rational persons in the group would promote the idea of gri-gri. In this scenario only a smaller portion of the population, for example 20%, need to be highly suggestible for gri-gri to be effective for the rest.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    It seems like gri gri gives meaning, a story, a narrative, and creates a bond.

    Right or wrong does not matter, as we know by Marxists’ existence; they need a narrative to justify what they do and their existence.

  3. Lu An Li says:

    Those persons who the gri gri has not worked for and protected obviously must have violated some sacred taboo. NO mercy for them.

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