Thursday, January 30, 2014

On the Sad Human Tendency to Judge People Based Solely on their Worst Moments

Here’s an exercise:

I want you to recollect the most thoughtless or insensitive words you’ve ever said; or the stupidest or most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done; or the angriest outburst you’ve ever had.

Really, do it.  It shouldn’t take long.  Those moments are typically easy to recall, because we tend to be ashamed of them and they’re therefore imprinted indelibly in our memories.

Now imagine that someone managed to record that atypical instant of your very worst behavior, and has posted it on the Internet.  And now, everyone who has never met you and knows nothing of you — which is to say, outside a tiny circle of friends and family, the entire world — knows you only through that recording, and is gaining a first impression of you via the worst moment you’ve ever had.  The whole world is judging you based solely on that one instant of atypical bad behavior, bad behavior of which you’re already ashamed and wish you could do something, anything, to retract.

Are people forming accurate impressions of you?  Do you feel you’re being treated fairly? Reasonably?

I can’t imagine there’s anyone who would answer any of the preceding questions, “Yes.” So then why do so many people instantly and reflexively judge the totality of a stranger based on a single reported instance of the stranger’s behavior?

I can think of various reasons that might apply case-by-case, but my guess is that the overall explanation for individual such acts of condemnation is self-pleasure through sanctimony.  Sanctimony, contempt, dudgeon, umbrage, outrage… all are among the most self-pleasuring emotions available to humans.  This alone should render them the least trustworthy.  But for many people, the insidious high delivered by, say, a solid hit of dudgeon is too alluring an opportunity to pass up.

Now let’s talk about condemnation mobs.  Have you ever ginned up or joined a dudgeon mob on Twitter or elsewhere on the Internet?  Have a look at the video below, depicting the Two Minutes Hate from the movie version of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Do you see any similarities between this and some of the wildfire denunciations you sometimes see flaring up (and that perhaps you’ve been part of) on the Internet?  Is it possible George Orwell was depicting not just some fictional behavior peculiar to a certain dystopic novel, but was instead expressing a profound insight into an ugly and universal human tendency?

What’s behind the mob behavior?  My guess is, it has to do with an innate human hatred of the feeling of powerlessness and concomitant attraction to things that make us feel powerful (think vengeance and torture and other such behaviors that logic can’t do much to explain).  It’s the pleasure brought on by a surge of empowerment.  You see someone you typically perceive as higher status or otherwise more powerful than yourself; that person is suddenly vulnerable; you have the force of overwhelming numbers and passion on your side; the typically more powerful person is suddenly less powerful, and the person with the power is you!  It’s a rush.  And who doesn’t love a good rush?

Part of what’s involved in the instant condemnation reflex (group or singleton) is something known as the Fundamental Misattribution Error.  Here’s how it works:

I’m driving along the highway, minding my own business, and I change lanes.  But oh shit, somehow I didn’t see how quickly the car I just moved in front of was approaching, and he had to apply the brakes as a result of my move.  It was just a careless, innocent, and essentially harmless mistake on my part; I certainly didn’t intend to cut the guy off, and I would have waited if I’d seen him.  How do I know all this?  Because I have direct access to my own thoughts and I know my behavior in the context of my whole life, which includes such information as I’m a nice and courteous person and generally a careful driver, and if I do something rude, it’s always an accident and I would apologize for it if I could.

The other guy, though, has access to none of this context.  The only thing he knows about me is that I just did something rude to him.  And he’s a good person.  Courteous, careful, etc.  If someone does something rude to a courteous, careful, worthy-of-respect good person, the rude person must ipso facto be an asshole.

So… he rolls down the window, races ahead, and cuts in front of me, flipping me the bird on the way.  Which he knows I deserve, because he’s already figured out I’m an asshole.

You can see the rest:  now I’m thinking, What?  I made a dumb, harmless mistake; I’m a good person; and he’s flipping me off?  He must be an asshole!  And I act accordingly.

Etc.  Each person perceiving himself with the greatest possible knowledge and context, and reducing the other person to the only thing he knows about the other person, which is that the other person just did something bad to a good person.  I understand my own behavior in the context of character; the other guy’s behavior is his character.

I’ve written about this before (Dudgeon is Easy; Understanding, Hard; also And Why Beholdest Thou The Mote In Thy Brother's Eye...?).  What put me in mind of it recently was the crazy mob reaction to an after-game video interview with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (I actually don’t know anything about sports, but I do follow The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson), plus some people going after a friend of mine on a list serv for a long-ago stupid thing my friend had said.  What made me want to write about the topic again, though, wasn’t the interview as such, or what the list serv people were saying; it was that, in my anger at how unfairly the list serv people were treating my friend, I wound up resorting to sarcasm.  And then realized:  I was falling into the very trap I was trying to get them to understand -- treating them as though they were unworthy of respect just because of one unfortunate series of comments they were making.

I’m not much on religion, but there are two bible passages I think are profound, timelessly relevant — and almost universally ignored except via lip service. These are, of course:

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone


The mote and the beam

They're really worth thinking about.  Everybody knows them, but how often are they applied?

Everybody knows the instinct to judge the entirety of a person based on one stupid mistake while ignoring everything else he or she has ever said or done is ungenerous; the conclusion, almost inevitably caricatured or otherwise inaccurate; the practice, innately hypocritical because anyone on the receiving end of such treatment would find it wildly unfair.  I’m hoping this post will serve as a handy link we can forward to others when they slip up — or that people will remind me of when I do.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Dogs and Cats, Living Together... Mass Hysteria!

So... the Republican National Committee has passed a resolution to end indiscriminate domestic surveillance:

The measure, the “Resolution to Renounce the National Security Agency’s Surveillance Program,” passed by an “overwhelming majority” by voice vote.

That's the RNC, not the DNC.  Obama is defending the program, so Obama supporters defend it, too.  It's the mirror image of why the RNC is now against it.

It put me in mind of this.

Monday, January 20, 2014

This Week in Establishment-Publishing Bullshit

Today I'm guest-blogging at The Bookseller, where I write an  open letter to literary agent Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media, exposing establishment-publishing straw men, correcting disinformation, and hopefully taking down a zombie meme or two, as well...

And here's an amazing response from Joe Konrath (with a small contribution from me) demolishing the odd notions promulgated by Kensington Publishing CEO Steve Zacharius, including that self-published books should include a kind of warning label.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Self-Stupifying Narcissism of the Anti-Pot Brigade

I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling that at the end of any great policy or cultural shift, the old guard tends to twitch in a final spasm of feeble protest.  And so, as Washington and Colorado move to implement their voters’ decision to decriminalize marijuana, it’s probably natural that the reactionary vestiges of the flat-earth Reefer Madness movement would scowl and wag a futile finger one last time, if only to indicate, “Don’t say we didn’t tell you so!”

I won’t repeat the many excellent rebuttals that have already been addressed to prohibition dead-enders.  I recommend the Chris Hayes video embedded below, and Matt Taibbi and Charles Pierce also wrote terrific pieces.  I’m sure there are plenty of others.  The logical and empirical flaws in the pot prohibitionists’ last stand are so glaring that were other than prominent media personalities involved, I doubt anyone would even bother responding.

So here, I want to note just one interesting element the various old-guard cries of “Nooooo!” seem to have in common.  Which is:  narcissism.

Read the columns, if you can stand feeling embarrassed for the people who authored them, and you’ll see the foundation for all their anti-pot animus is... they themselves don’t like pot.  Brooks got high and feels like it was what made him mess up a presentation in English class, something he claims now sometimes keeps him up at night.  Ruth Marcus liked pot well enough when she was wearing "bell-bottoms and polyester," but no longer approves.  Joe Scarborough claims to have never smoked pot himself, but it made some of his friends "dumb" (whatever that means -- dumb for an hour? for the rest of their lives? and how do you get from "I saw this happen to a few people so I know it happens to all or most people," anyway?) and that's all the evidence he needs.

The tendency to confuse subjective preferences with objective principles is unfortunate and widespread:  as John Cusack said to Jack Black in High Fidelity, "How can it be bullshit to express a preference?"

The inability to distinguish between subjective taste and objective principle is the very confusion that takes people from "I don't like gay sex" to "gays shouldn't be allowed to marry each other."  Obviously, the tendency is powerful -- so powerful it causes a collapse in logic and reason in otherwise presumably capable people, people who can feel so strongly about their own preferences that they manage to leap from "I don't like X" to "which means X is objectively bad for society" to "and therefore the best and only way to address X is to make it a criminal act."  None of these three things in any way follows logically from the others, but sometimes, when you really don't like something, those three unrelated concepts can start to seem as ineluctably connected as a chain of ipso factos.

Beyond the obviously solipsistic tendency of prohibitionists to conflate their own tastes with what's best for society (see this hilarious and dead-on take, where Dan Gillmor substitutes "alcohol" for "pot" and "drinking" for "smoking" in Brooks' piece), there's also the problem of conflation of ends and means.  The only sane objective for any drug policy would be to cost-effectively minimize and manage the incidence of drug abuse.  And we have mountains of data demonstrating that prohibition does little or nothing to reduce drug abuse, while achieving that little or nothing at about the highest cost reasonably imaginable (just Google "costs of drug prohibition").  An attachment to prohibition as the best or only way to minimize drug abuse is so at variance with logic, everyday experience, and history that I don't know how to explain it other than as the result of emotion occluding reason. 

Interesting.  It seems that among the many things that can cause people to be "dumb," fear and loathing of pot can be much more potent than pot itself.

One other thought.  Scarborough's column struck me as more or less as thoughtless as the others, but I sensed something in it beyond the usual prohibitionist "I don't like it/therefore it's objectively bad/therefore it should be illegal" fallacy.  About ninety percent of the piece is a gratuitous and off-the-mark sarcastic response to Taibbi (making fun of Taibbi, for example, for publishing his anti-prohibition piece to a presumably sympathetic audience in Rolling Stone, while overlooking the fairly obvious fact that Rolling Stone happens to be the magazine Taibbi writes for, whatever the topic), and that excessively ego-driven response, too, seems to have occluded Scarborough's ability to reason.  I've written about this before, and the more I see it, the more I think excessive sarcasm, and certainly insults and contempt, are tendencies to resist.  It's not just that the right tone makes persuasion of other people more likely; it's that the wrong tone engages your ego and turns off your mind.  Certainly it seems to have had this effect on Scarborough.

Hmm, another non-pot thing that can make people dumb -- with apparently longer-lasting and far more deleterious effects.  By the standards of the people who indulge in it, I guess that means we should make it illegal.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The More Things Change...

If you haven’t seen it already, don’t miss this New York Times article revealing the identities of a group of activists who in 1971 broke into a Media, Pennsylvania FBI office and stole thousands of documents — including ones revealing the existence of the FBI’s “COINTELPRO” domestic surveillance program and other government crimes.  The accompanying video is also a must-watch.

Other commentators have already done a nice job of demonstrating how it’s impossible to distinguish the actions of the Media group, on the one hand, from the actions of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, on the other.  Here, I just want to add how continually amazed I am at how many commentators seem unable see contemporary events through the prism of history.

Part of the reason the Media break-in story is so important is that it renders so increasingly obvious, even darkly hilarious, the mental gyrations and rationalizations of pundits like Josh Marshall, Fred Kaplan, Jeffrey Toobin, Ruth Marcus, and others.  How can these people not read their own columns without a sense of how embarrassed they’ll feel in years to come, when the massive corruption and criminality revealed by whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden have eclipsed today’s small-minded focus on the sacredness of "secrecy oaths” and obliviousness to the Constitution?

I don’t have an answer to that question.  But history lessons like this one can only help.