Monday, September 18, 2017

Outrage on the hunt

In "The Joy of Destruction" Joseph Bottum writes about some of the reasons our politics have become so intolerant:
.... The glory of the Internet is that it allows like-minded people to find one another. And the horror of the Internet is that it allows like-minded people to find one another. Coin collectors, baseball-card enthusiasts, and used-book readers have all benefited from the opportunities offered by online connection. So have neo-Nazis, child-pornographers, and Communist agitators. Where they were once connected only by the sickly sweet smell of the ink from the mimeograph machine clumping away on the kitchen table, the forces of anger now have instantaneous links.

And that instantaneity allows a radicalizing more rapid than the world has ever seen. Back in a 1999 study called “The Law of Group Polarization,” legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein suggested that discussion among people with similar views causes a hardening of opinion. “In a striking empirical regularity,” he wrote, “deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.” It hardly matters whether the groups are pro-gun, pro-abortion, or pro-anarchy. With sufficient group discussion on one side of an issue, everyone involved takes a step toward the extreme: The mildly supportive become strongly supportive, the strongly supportive become wildly supportive, and the wildly supportive become fanatical psychopaths.

In such books as Violence and the Sacred (1972) and The Scapegoat (1982), the French-American theorist René Girard offered an explanation for this kind of thing, developing his ideas about scapegoating and what he called “mimetic rivalry.” Against Freud, Girard argued that human desires do not always come packaged in predetermined forms. We create many of them in imitation of others. We learn to want by watching what others want, and we catch desire the way we catch a disease.

More recent years have seen some attention paid to the concept of “competitive victimhood.” A fascinating 2017 trio of surveys by Laura De Guissmé and Laurent Licata, for example, pointed out that a group’s empathy for the victimhood of others is significantly decreased whenever the group expands its own sense of victimhood. But Girard was there first, warning that the idea of victimhood, stripped of its Christianity, would itself become a device of cultural violence, with people competing for the status of victim even as they trample those who oppose them or merely fail to support them sufficiently.

If that sounds like the current protesters—if that sounds like too much of our current political agitation on both left and right—it should. Trying to understand antifa, the Washington Post recently described the amorphous group as a collection of “predominantly communists, socialists and anarchists who reject turning to the police or the state” to achieve radical ends, preferring to pursue their radical ends through violent confrontation on the streets. The disorganized organization could not have existed before the Internet—or, at least, it could never have found so quickly march alongside it, before such leaderless collectives were made possible by computerized communication.

The group polarization of online discussions, the mimetic rivalry to show oneself more pure than others, the Twitterized brutality toward those who fail to show enough purity, the outrage on the hunt for something to be outraged about: The Internet sometimes seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of proving the social-contagion theories of René Girard. ....