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Jan
6th
2016

Hooffields & McColts: On words, cheating, and the use of useless characters · 9:18pm Jan 6th, 2016

Nyerguds sometimes posts long discussions between him and his friends about recent episodes. They did one on The Hooffields & McColts, in which the question came up of why Twilight was in the episode, since all she did was annoy ponies by trying to solve the feud with her fancy book-learnin'.

Twilight is useless in resolving the plot, but central to the story. This illustrates what I wrote about in "The story isn't over when you wrap up the plot": The story is about how the characters interact with the plot.

(To clarify, it's about how the characters' characters interact with the plot. Their beliefs, abilities, inclinations, everything that distinguishes them as characters.)

Twilight tries to resolve the problem in her usual way, which fails. Her uselessness is a critique of her methods, and the story is about getting to these lines:

Fluttershy: Yay! I told you we'd figure it out.
Twilight Sparkle: We did, and we didn't need my friendship portfolio to do it. We just needed each other.

Books on how to write tell you that the protagonist must try, and fail, fail, and then finally overcome her problem. In this story, Twilight fails, and fails, and then Fluttershy overcomes the problem. This supports the Dramatica theory of story, which says that the entire story should be seen as an argument, and the sum total of its characters, its setting, and its worldview represent the mind of the person working through the argument. It doesn't, then, matter much whether it's all channeled through the actions of one protagonist.

Or I could say it supports the feminine (or Asian, or Marxist, etc.) approach of solving problems collectively, rather than the macho (or American, or capitalist) approach of solving them by yourself. Take your pick.

So, Twilight's presence is both to provide the "fail, fail" part of the "fail, fail, try" cycle, and more importantly to represent the belief being critiqued. "Hooffields &McCoys" is an extended indictment of words and logic. Whenever it makes reference to books, words, speech, or logic, it's to caricature and ridicule them and emphasize their uselessness.

Fluttershy: You seem pretty prepared to me. Are those for us?
Twilight Sparkle: Yup! I've prepared our things. Snacks, books, blankets, books.
Fluttershy: You said "books" twice.
Twilight Sparkle: There are a lot of books.

Twilight Sparkle: Have you tried meeting at a neutral location, talking about your problems, and really listening to each other?
Big Daddy McColt: What?! No! They'd sooner launch their dinners at us than listen to us.
Twilight Sparkle: Well, they'll listen to me. I'm an impartial third party.
Twilight Sparkle: [voice amplified] Attention, Hooffields and McColts! I'm not on anypony's side, but I can see you're both wasting time and resources on being mean to each other. Ponies are supposed to help each other and be kind. So let's stop this senseless fighting!
[speaking normally] There. That should do it. Ready to go home, Fluttershy?

Fluttershy: What do you hope to get out of fighting?
Ma Hooffield: The satisfaction of winnin'!
Twilight Sparkle: Of winning what?
Big Daddy McColt: The fight, of course! To prove our family is the best!
Fluttershy: The best at what?
Ma Hooffield: Winnin'! Haven't you been listenin'?!

Fluttershy: Ooh! Maybe somepony just needs to say they're sorry.

The events show that it isn't saying you're sorry, but being sorry, that matters.

Twilight Sparkle: Which part of my argument changed your mind? The part where I said the benefits of friendship outweigh the cost of war, or the part where I said forgiveness is an investment in happiness?
Ma Hooffield: Yeah, yeah. All of it.
Twilight Sparkle: Wait. Are you even listening to me?

Fluttershy: Nothing says "let's be friends" like a cake that says, "Let's be friends!" [hushed] I wrote that in icing on the top.

Fluttershy: Um, if you could just not yell so much, or maybe stop saying words altogether.

Ma Hooffield: Aw, thanks, princess. Though I would just like to point out that I was the, uh, first to admit I was wrong.
Big Daddy McColt: That may be, but I promised not to fight first. That counts for more!
Ma Hooffield: Oh, yeah?!
[critters chittering]
Ma Hooffield: Oh, all right. We don't have to speak animal to know what y'all are sayin'. Truce?

The episode slanders logic in the usual way, by making Twilight a straw Vulcan who thinks using logic means "assume everyone is logical" rather than "identify the problem and then use approaches which have solved similar problems in the past," and by assuming that books are written by people who have no experience with what they're written about.

It is, however, incoherent. Its conclusion, "We didn't need my friendship portfolio to do it. We just needed each other", falls apart on inspection. It's phrased to imply that words (the friendship portfolio) fail, while actions, sensations, or possibly vibrations within the friendship spectrum, work. Whatever these things are that work in the end, the episode claims they definitely can't be explained by a book in a way so that someone else can read the book, understand them, and apply them in a different situation.

Whereas the actual solution was, "Find out what the cause of an argument was, and see whether anyone still fighting still cares about that original cause." That wasn't so hard.

Twilight asked the Hooffields & McColts why they were fighting, but they didn't know. The answer had to be given by the animals because they don't use words the viewer can understand. The mystic knowledge needed to resolve the feud can't be communicated with words. This is a great and blatant example of cheating to support your theme. The animals are, after all, talking, or Fluttershy wouldn't have learned the facts, which she expressed in the words necessary (though not sufficient) to resolve the feud.

The feud was caused by not communicating with words. A fairer theme would have been to argue that words and logic aren't powerful motivators. People aren't motivated by ideas unless they see or imagine them worked out in particular scenarios with powerful emotional consequences. People who already have fixed ideas, and are already acting them out in an emotionally-exciting way, need some equally-powerful emotion inciting them to act in an opposing way to cancel out their driving emotions long enough for them to reconsider their ideas. That's why we have literature. So the Hs & Ms needed to see the innocent animals suffer, so that the sadness they felt over that could overpower the anger that made them fight long enough for them to think about it.

The lie is that words can communicate this, and can communicate emotions, so books are perfectly capable of giving Twilight advice on how to use this knowledge to resolve problems. People who write books usually have some experience with what they're writing about, and books written to help people resolve inter-personal problems usually have advice that has worked in real life.

(Unless, of course, they're written by experts. :trixieshiftright: )

Unfortunately, it's much easier to let "books" symbolize "an academic, rationalistic, theory-based approach such as Aristotle or medieval scholastics would use", so that you can show Twilight with stacks of books, and reading from books, and each time quickly take a jab at the viewpoint you're criticizing. It's hard to come up with a visual depiction of "Aristotelian, non-empirical, binary, atomistic, symbolic logic". So the writers make fun of books, and that sucks all communication and reason into the sphere of things being made fun of. Then they have to represent the successful approach in some way that appears to bypass communication and reason, and so they end in mysticism.

Sometime I hope to write a post on the continuing devastation of Western intellect and culture due to the inability of people in the humanities to distinguish between medieval scholasticism and science, due to the fact that both claim to be based on "reason" and "logic", and to confounding mathematics with science.

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Comments ( 33 )

That's a very good point. The animals only seem non-intellectual and non-communicative from the POV of most Ponies. Fluttershy understands them just fine.

Also, without Twilight's power and status, nopony would have listened to Fluttershy's solution. At least not the way that Fluttershy was going about it.

They did one on The Hooffields & McColts, in which the question came up of why Twilight was in the episode, since all she did was annoy ponies by trying to solve the feud with her fancy book-learnin'.

Twilight is useless in resolving the plot, but central to the story.

Yeah, I guess the episode is, after all, about her learning something from those around her.

The episode slanders logic in the usual way, by making Twilight a straw Vulcan who thinks using logic means "assume everyone is logical" rather than "identify the problem and then use approaches which have solved similar problems in the past," and by assuming that books are written by people who have no experience with what they're written about.

I think the main point was probably meant to be "even when you're prepared you can end up in unexpected situations where you just have to stop and think for a bit"... but even so, Twilight's lack of thinking in this episode is pretty over the top. And yes, it was communicated pretty poorly :unsuresweetie:

Of course, I remember there being a pokemon episode about some nerd kid that did all his pokemon battle planning on a computer, and who then got beaten by SHEER DETERMINATION and BELIEVING IN YOUR POKEMON! Pretty much the same scenario, and its aesop was about as silly as the one here :facehoof:

(At least in this one, actual reason was used to solve the problem :unsuresweetie:)

People who write books usually have some experience with what they're writing about, and books written to help people resolve inter-personal problems usually have advice that has worked in real life.

(Unless, of course, they're written by experts. :trixieshiftright: )

Heh. 'Experts' :facehoof:

I read completely differently into this. I didn't see it as anti-academic and moreso as poking at a well-established character flaw.

Twi's whole upbringing is based around her being an ivory tower anti-social recluse. In S1 in particular, we got a lot of episodes (Look Before You Sleep and Feeling Pinkie Keen as examples) where she's getting the hang of this whole friendship business, but... hey, this book has fully-documented instructions for sleepovers. I'm observing some weird phenomenon, so I should observe them carefully and apply the scientific method. It's not that these techniques are ever flat-out wrong, but rather that Twilight has a character flaw that causes her to "nerd out" and ignore (what to the average pony is) common sense. It's the "book smarts but no street smarts" trope.

Twilight Sparkle: Which part of my argument changed your mind? The part where I said the benefits of friendship outweigh the cost of war, or the part where I said forgiveness is an investment in happiness?

Ma Hooffield: Yeah, yeah. All of it.

Twilight Sparkle: Wait. Are you even listening to me?

The book that she's reading has good advice. If Twilight were more empathetic and adaptive in her approach, she'd probably have found a resolution much sooner. But instead, she follows the points as literally as possible the application of these steps, as though expecting Ma to reply "oh wow, I never thought of it like that" and for that to be the end of it. Have you ever felt really strongly emotional about something, and your friend tries to cheer you up with a fact, and you have that moment of "intellectually I understand you're correct, but I still feel really upset right now"? Same principle.

Fluttershy had empathy in spades, and indeed if she had followed the advice in the book it would have probably made her strategy more efficient. However, she lacks self-confidence, she's not persuasive, and the Hs and Ms feel no obligation to listen to her. Even with the animals by her side, she would not have been effective on her own.

While both Twilight and Fluttershy are flawed characters, they also have strengths that can compensate for one another, and are more effective together. In this case, it was Twilight's station and magic, combined with Fluttershy's animal affinity which were able to show-don't-tell the Hs and Ms what damage they were causing, that won out. The conclusion about "We didn't need my friendship portfolio to do it. We just needed each other", while perhaps poorly phrased (a common issue for the writers) points to the fact that the solution to this episode was a spirit of collaboration, both for the Hs and Ms, as well as for Twilight and Fluttershy.

If anything, the biggest crime for the episode is the continuation of The Writers Don't Know What To Do With Princess Twilight. While her station did get some lip service, the whole "book smarts not street smarts" trope is much more at home in S1. Twilight had her whole Buddha Enlightenment back in S3. I can understand not wanting her to be overpowered in Conflict Resolution, but as Princess of Friendship, her character arc should have grown beyond "the book must be precisely followed" at this point.

I saw this as a slight but not-unappealing episode which emphasized the necessity of supplementing theoretical studies with empirical methods.

I hope it inoculates a future generation of women against the predatory blandishments of self-help books.

So the writers make fun of books

Bothered me at first until I realized they're television writers going after their competition.

I knew there was something I didn't like about this episode, it's a reprise of BATS. Once again logic and reason is marshaled, only for Fluttershy proves that being pro-active is wrongheaded, when the correct approach is to to be creatures of pure emotion.

3668879 What are some example of these predatory blandishments--and do they work? Just curious. :trixieshiftright:

3668853
I agree, I felt it was essentially a step back in her character. It would have been far more interesting if they had shown a much subtler, subconscious way in which Twilight still held to "BOOKS!", like when you think you've conquered your prejudice only to discover to goes much deeper than you thought. Character flaws always have longer roots than expected that crop up undetected. A Twilight who thinks she's grown beyond her dependence on books only to discover otherwise would have made a much better episode, I think.

3669116

Just believe in yourself! Follow your dreams! No one can oppress you without your consent! Gluten is evil! Shoes are evil! Eat nothing but fruit! Eat nothing but meat! Eat no meat at all! You can replace 2 meals a day with a nutritious shake available in crates of 100 for only $99.99!

3669253 How about, "Only horses in top hats can satisfy you sexually and properly invest your retirement funds!" Do you think that would work?

3669314

Well, you can always give it a try. And--wait just a minute-- I'll stand...







...right...









...over...







...here! Okay, knock 'em dead, kiddo!

3669314
But that one is actually true. :duck:

I have a hypothesis about why writers of one stripe or another so frequently excoriate logic by presenting a version of logic which bears no real resemblance to the real thing. Even Aristotle would have been appalled. He'd at least gone to the trouble of getting some endoxa together to start his logicin'. Besides, poor Ari (we're pals, I haunt him and stuff, great fun) gets a bad rap because his fan club got real annoying. There's plenty to be annoyed with him about, of course, but he's not as daft as people think.

Anyway.

My hypothesis is this: rational thought is Cthulhu.

Short and to the point. A bit insane, but what do you expect. I've insomnia and sinusitis of truly epic proportions. Let me try to explain. I've taken all the painkillers[1] so it might get a mite fuzzy around the edges.

Rational thought—defined as broadly as possible—is not only exceptionally effective, it is also all-consuming. There's nothing you can fit under it. Magic? No problem. If it follows any pattern whatsoever it can be categorized, predicted, used, and made a part of the same toolbox calculus is in. Things that can't fit into words? No problem. The basic engine of empiricism and doing what works will grind it all down. The unexpected? You'll be ready for it next time. You've made a note of it. Randomness? There's mathematicians about who make randomness their chief field of study.

And that's rather a problem if you want to write a story about the conflict between someone who uses what I've sloppily defined as 'rational thought' and someone different you end up floundering as the writers have done here. What, precisely, is the method Fluttershy can use that isn't rational thought? Feelings aren't rational? Really? Since when? "Hm. My gut—or rather neural circuitry that's evolved into a freakishly efficient simulator of minds much like my own—is telling me X. Well. That's certainly useful data to consider. Especially if I've been clever about it and have kept track of when my gut steers me wrong." So the only stories you can write—if you want to represent a clash of ideas[2]—are either forced to resort to nigh-on metaphysical entities[3] or decide that 'logic' and 'reason' mean something very daft: mostly just garden variety stupidity done while yelling "REASON! LOGIC!" very loudly indeed. This, incidentally, even applies in the vastly reduced case of applying not to reason, rationality, &c but just to fancy book learnin'. Since you can but damn near everything in a book—certainly any resolution to which your story arrives—the story is reduced to cheating by positing bad books. Ones that either give the wrong advice or fail to say things like "This requires practice." or "Possible problems are:" and things like that. All good books full of that fancy learnin' I've read had those bits in.

My point is, reason is annoying because it wins. It wins everything by eating everything else you can think of. And this annoyance, this slippery hard-to-graspness, is reflected in bad writing. Most hard-to-grasp ideas seem to result in bad writing, really, as people try to grapple with them, fail, and win by reducing them to caricatures. See also nearly any attempt to write political polemic via fiction.

[1] Not in my house. Or in my city. All painkillers. All of them. Check your medicine cabinets. You will find them bereft of analgesia.
[2] You can have a character screw up while trying to be rational because they are imperfect since they are merely human/equine.
[3] This is a living idea. If you understand it, it mutates into a form you don't. Landed in the philosophy department of a University once. No survivors. Mess to clean up.
3669314
B...Bad Horse... d'you... d'you wanna...


...d'you wanna help me set up a retirement fund? :twilightblush:


3669337
You are standing over there?

WAY over there?

WAY, WAY, WAY over there?

Really?

Bold call.

I suggest Patagonia.


3669253
I feel so self-helped! I just need to find a fruit made of meat, make it into a shake and I'm all set. Now where does one find a baconberry bush?

PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

The episode slanders logic in the usual way, by making Twilight a straw Vulcan who thinks using logic means "assume everyone is logical" rather than "identify the problem and then use approaches which have solved similar problems in the past,"

Hmm. I need to rethink that story I started once upon a time.

On topic, I'd argue the main problem wasn't misapplication of logic, but Twilight being extremely condescending and disrespectful of the two families' problems.

This is great stuff but I think we're looking at it all wrong.

We're critiquing an episode as if it were a fic--that is, written by one person at a keyboard with no other task than to write the best story possible. And they can take all the time they need.

But actually an episode is written to spec and to a deadline, by a team that has to get their work signed off by Corporate, Legal, Marketing, Censor, Budget, etc. etc. etc.

I wish you'd been able to hear George R. R. Martin, way back in the late 80's before he became a pop icon, talking about his first TV gig writing for the revived Twilight Zone series. He described this absurd*, repetitive labyrinthine process that always came back to the Minotaur at its center "the Senior Vice President in Charge of Saying NO."** It got so the audience was chorusing along with him on that title every time he said it.

So I imagine writing for MLP:FiM is something like this, which makes me wonder how many of the things we criticize about an episode are due to artistic failure, and how many are artifacts of the process (i.e., boneheaded changes made by people with priorities other than good writing, or mistakes that just crept in because there were so many changes that people couldn't keep things straight--you know, like Derpy's eyes).


* How absurd? They put him to work with Harlan Ellison. Well, for two months. Then Ellison got fired. It is NOT true that they replaced him with a parrot taught to say only "Dumb idea! Dumb idea!" They just thought about it.

** Ellison was put in charge of writing the Christmas episode. His script began with the line "Eat it raw, jungle bunny!". The Censors said "You can keep 'it.'"

3669479 There are a few tricky distinctions in play. "Rational" has had many meanings over the years. "Logic" still has many meanings. "Computation" was mysterious in the 1930s when it was, so to speak, discovered; it was well-understood within 20-30 years. "Logic" is thousands of years old, and still mysterious.

There are many sorts of logic. I don't think anyone yet knows for sure what logic is. The Curry–Howard isomorphism says that proofs and computer programs are isomorphic, and so "logic" means the same as "computable by a Turing machine". "Computational trinitarianism" claims that logical proofs, programs, and "categories" (a technical term that I don't understand) are all isomorphic.

So I prefer to say "computation" instead of "logic", because we know what computation means.

"Rationalism", when spoken by people who look at the big picture of history, often refers to Aristotle and the medieval scholastics, who used reason, but not empiricism. "Rational" originally meant mathematics done only using ratios. That means you don't have to measure things relative to a universal standard, but you can only compare them to each other. There used to be great interest in showing what kinds of geometric problems could be solved using just a compass and a straight-edge. I think (but am not sure) that that category of problems are the "rational" problems. At any rate, it's a similar idea: Problems you can solve without measuring distances or angles using a "ruler" that has a different ontological status than your objects of interest. Empirical measurement was viewed as, well, irrational, which it technically was. So that kind of rationalism was opposed to empiricism and science.

For a while, "rational" probably meant the study of math using only the rationals, without acknowledging the existence of the real numbers, pi, or the root of two. (If it didn't, it should have.)

Special relativity would have been easier to grasp for rationalists. They didn't imagine the "ruler"; they would have found it more intuitive to remember that the distance to an object isn't an absolute thing, but a ratio between the speed of light and the time light takes to travel from you, to that thing, and back.

3669593

Ellison was put in charge of writing the Christmas episode.

That by itself convinces me the producers were mad.

3669593 That's a good point about the likeliest flaws of the creative process of the episode. However, it means that for future episodes, literary criticism must be accompanied by an after-action business case study to fully grasp the process in play.

3671292

I'm not saying they're not flaws--they definitely are. Where we go amiss is in interpreting what those flaws say about what the writers were thinking or attempting. Because the episode as aired may have been subject to influences that didn't originate with the writers, and which may have directed the writers to do things they had not intended or wanted.

It's exactly like science reporting: ever wonder why science journalism sounds so stupid? Editors. Editors trying to "punch it up a little" or "make for a better lede." And those editors aren't stupid--they know their business. But their business is the newspaper business, not science. And so they sometimes make science writers say the stupidest things.

Yeah, I think the actual reason for why an episode is the way it is, lies in the middle of a hysteresis curve. We'll never get there if we weren't there at the beginning. So we can play make-believe that it was written by one writer with infinite time and no outside influence. That won't stop us from finding out its real merits and demerits. But once we start speculating on the reasons for those merits and demerits, we have to remember we're playing make-believe.

3671352 That's true, I'd just honestly be interested in finding out more about the behind-the-scenes office politics at Hasbro that influence the outcome of an episode as well.

3671352

Where we go amiss is in interpreting what those flaws say about what the writers were thinking or attempting.

I don't care, though. I'm analyzing the episode, not trying to figure out whose fault it was.

3669479

Now where does one find a baconberry bush?

You find one, kid, you let me know: we'll be set for life.

3671602

Not who, but why: we say "The episode has THIS flaw [demonstrably true] and that's of course because the authors were thinking THIS [well, maybe--but maybe Marketing was thinking THAT, or TSVPICOSN was thinking THE OTHER]."

3671619 You say, but I don't care. The word "writers" appears only once in my post, and I used it not to indict the writers, but because I didn't want to go through the whole explanation of how episodes get made. I might change it to "episode", but in this particular case it's embedded deeply enough, repeatedly enough, in the lines, that I expect it really was the writers.

Seriously, there's only one sentence in the entire post that indicates concern about what the writers did or thought, versus all the rest, which speak about what the script or lines or "episode" did, without attributing intent to anyone.

3671615

Sorry, I misunderstood. My translator told me you wanted a hambush, and... well... Didn't hear that first letter.

Ah...

We'll apologize to the survivors. Very dreadfully sorry indeed.

Not so much set for life as much as set for lives.

3783186 Hey, I know you!

3783510 By the way, I've never complimented you on your hat.

3783519 D'aww... thanks. :twilightsmile: It is a nice hat, isn't it.

IIRC, after watching this episode I criticized it for seguing into a full-blown Space Whale Aesop ("blood feuds can be solved by talking to the local animals!"). My girlfriend then pointed out that MLP often uses Space Whale Aesops, and that at a certain point, they may be more making fun of the very concept of once-an-episode Aesops than actually attempting to play it straight and teach "the kiddies" something.

And the target audience may well appreciate the joke at the Aesop's expense more than they appreciate being given some trite lesson in simplistic non-functional "morality". I think I would have, when I was a kid and didn't realize these kinds of moral problems have life-defining, bloody consequences in the adult world.

Sometime I hope to write a post on the continuing devastation of Western intellect and culture due to the inability of people in the humanities to distinguish between medieval scholasticism and science, due to the fact that both claim to be based on "reason" and "logic", and to confounding mathematics with science.

Excuse me while I scan your entire blog feed after this post.

3669479
This is a really great post. How did I miss it the first time?

3668571
My feeling of this is that Twilight fails because she lacked all the information needed to explain the situation, which Fluttershy eventually got from the critters. Since neither side could even remember WHY they were fighting, there was no context to the feud. Also, Twilight needs to fail to learn a Friendship Lesson.

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