Could it be better to be conquered by an aggressive state than to live under an oppressive, but peaceful government?
The Nilfgaardian Empire is an aggressive state. No one doubts this. The government is explicitly imperial and conquers weaker states merely by virtue of having a stronger economy and army, rather than upon any claim of legitimacy. Unless one happens to be a Nilgaardian and is directly benefiting from its aggression, everyone is in agreement Nilfgaard’s expansion is unjust. The empire’s expedition into Temeria and eventually Redania in The Witcher 3 is just the latest example of this.
However, based on the evidence we see in the game, there is a good case to be made that living under the Nilfgaard Emperor is better than living under any of the other government in the known world. Nilfgaard has a strong culture of law and order, which has apparently ensured the foundation of a thriving economy based on an efficient judicial system and the respect of property rights. Non-humans and magic dabblers aren’t exactly accepted with open arms in Nilfgaard, but they are tolerated by imperial degree. Even witches are allowed to live and practice their craft in Nilfgaard as long as they accept oversight from the government.
The states which Nilfgaard attempts to conquer seem backward in comparison. Their economies are rooted in traditional medieval structures, as opposed to Nilfgaard’s manufacturing focus. Novigrad is still a bustling trade hub, but its economic influence has weakened since its dive into radical religion. Temeria and Novigrad are both under the influence of the Church of the Eternal Flame, which preaches persecution against anyone connected to magic, and non-humans. This eventually leads to oppressed citizens literally being burned at the stake in Novigrad. Likewise, witches are all officially outlaws and are ruthlessly hunted by church and government agents, to be executed or tortured indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Skelligan Jarls have been devoted throughout all known history to a lifestyle based on raiding, raping, and plundering, overlaid with an absurd honor code which demands ritualistic self-sacrifice.
It was blatantly apparent to me fairly early on in the game that the Nilfgaardian Empire was the more just regime internally, but… was the destruction wrought by their conquests worth the gains accrued by its citizens relative to peace under a worse government?
In other words, imagine you were a peasant living in a typical Witcher 3 village (agrarian-based, population of 50) in the north. You have two options:
- Nilfgaard never invades. Everything is stagnant. Your village’s economy never prospers and you continue struggling in agrarian poverty. If you are non-human or connected to magic, you risk being turned into the government by your neighbor or hunted by the church every day.
- Nilfgaard invades. Your government raises taxes and calls all able-bodied men into the military. 25% of your village’s population dies due to some combination of deaths in the military, plundering by the invaders, and starvation. Maybe your crops are burned and your home is destroyed so you become a refugee. But, once the war is over you come under the superior governance of Nilfgaard and enjoy the potential of a prosperous economy and social tolerance.
What’s the better choice? I’m not sure.
Is the social-cohesion promoted by traditionalism worth permanently arbitrary and unjust laws?
Skellige has a lot of really stupid laws. If a person ever runs from a fight, he can be declared a sort of “untouchable” to be forever shunned by society. The only way he can redeem himself is by engaging in an extraordinarily difficult battle, where he will either win and rejoin society with his honor regained, or he will die and regain his honor in the afterlife. In an off-shoot of this process, one warrior Geralt meets had cut out his tongue after insulting the king while drunk.
Then there are occupants of the Crookback Bog. These impoverished denizens of a creepy swamp live under the rule of three ancient crones (sort of primal witches) who have devised an absurd covenant between themselves and the ignorant villagers. The villagers must deliver all of their orphans to the crones for unknown purposes (the crones end up eating them), they perform ritualistic sacrifices of food and wealth, and they have to literally cut off their ears in exchange for protection from malevolent forces. In exchange, the crones bless three individuals per year with happiness (all of whom then leave the swamp and never return) and provide the citizens with a handful of acorns of dubious magical value. This is not a great deal for the inhabitants of Crookback Bog.
Yet just about every Skelligan and resident of Crookback Bog that Geralt meets swears by his traditions. Indeed, “you don’t understand our ways” or some derivative of the phrase, might be the most common sentence that Geralt hears in the entire game.
In his review of The Witcher 3 George Weidman describes the game’s villains as weirdly realistic in their motivations, and I think this is another situation where that descriptor applies. I went to high school in a deep-blue Democrat area of New York state where I knew people who thought the personal ownership of a gun was pure barbarism and that separating one’s trash into four different recycling sub-categories was legitimately delaying the inevitable end of humanity via environmental collapse. I also know radical libertarians who think working for the military or local police is literally on par with being an assassin, and that shaving cream has no effectiveness but was invented as a scam by crafty marketers. I would also give some conservative Republican examples, but to be honest I don’t really know any.
The point is, every one of these cultural sub-groups is 100% sure that their idiosyncratic cultural assumptions are correct, and every other sub-groups oppositional beliefs are a mixture of stupid, evil, and barbaric to varying degrees. I’m not saying that every belief is wrong or that objectivity is a myth, I’m just saying that cultural groups tend to uncritically hold beliefs with no rigorous attempts to back them up.
And that’s basically what The Witcher 3 is full of. As I explained in another Witcher 3 article, Geralt’s job consists of wondering around the world helping people with their monster problems, and in doing so he always inadvertently ends up clashing with local customs, often to his chagrin. When those local customs aggregate and matriculate into the greater political sphere, it leads to exactly the sort of wars and political conflicts that permeate the backdrop of Geralt’s main quest.
With this set-up in mind, the key question then becomes: how can we make cultures more rational? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.
For one thing, people don’t take too kindly to some smart ass outsider telling them that their deeply held beliefs are utter nonsense originating from primitive ancestors and perpetuated by unthinking dolts. But even if those beliefs could be changed, what will take their place? What if the new belief system is worse? Or what if the new belief system is better, but the costs of the transition outweigh the long-term benefits, just like the conquest of an unjust country by a just country described in the previous question?
For instance, the Skellige islanders have a culture of raiding and plundering underlined by their idiotic honor system. All of that cultural baggage makes the Skellige islands a pretty horrible place (despite how friendly some of its citizens may be), but we can’t forget that the Skellige islanders adopted this lifestyle for a reason. Their lands are cold and relatively barren. They aren’t suited for flourishing agriculture, and they don’t have the population levels for a manufacturing economy. If the Skelligans don’t raid for wealth, then they will be impoverished. And if their economy is going to be based on raiding, then they need a cultural system which incentivizes behaviors which make raiding more effective via cultural norms, such as attaching moral significance to bravery and shame to cowardice.
This isn’t to say that the Skelligans have no choice but to be violent, rapacious barbarians, but it is to say that transforming a population’s culture for the better requires the alteration of systematic cultural, economic, and military factors which have been in place for centuries, if not longer. The Witcher 3 crystalizes this point through countless interactions between Geralt and dozens of different cultural sub-groups. Geralt is aware of the irrationality of these belief systems, but he is equally aware of how superfluous it would be to attempt to change their ways. A better, more rational and just world is possible, but there is no easy way to achieve it.