I learned something this evening that explains a lot of human phenomena.
People are stupid. Young people in self-reinforcing groups are especially stupid. Would you believe that teenagers are taking something called the “fire challenge”: they douse themselves with an accelerant, like rubbing alcohol or gasoline, and set themselves on fire. This is egregiously idiotic — kids have suffered serious burns and even died playing this game. At least his is people harming themselves, although if you’re someone who has taunted friends into risking severe injury, you are a very bad person.
Why would people do this sort of thing? I think it’s because we’re social animals. We’ll engage in all kinds of insanity for peer approval and the blessings of authority, and we’ll also do them to defy authority and challenge our way up the social hierarchy. It also means that when a couple of people with really bad ideas get together, they amplify each other. It’s all in the way our minds work — and I’m sorry, Vulcan narcissists, but we aren’t autonomous beings of pure thought, we’re animals who strive to be part of a community and to acquire desirable roles in those communities, and that primary impetus means reason often takes second place.
Thus, reddit and 4chan.
Have you seen the subreddit for Ferguson? It’s called r/ferguson, and although I provide the link, I don’t recommend that you visit. Here’s the banner for it, and you’ll see why.
Those are evil ideas amplified in a culturally sanctioned setting that allows more people to find them and promote them. This property of the human mind does not have to be a bad thing; it’s exactly what atheists frequently cite as a virtue of the internet, that it allowed isolated non-believers to come together and find community and reinforce their cause. And here we see that racists can enjoy the same warm sense of a linked community.
Being part of a community can win you all kinds of social capital — look at me, taking advantage of a newly emerging atheist community to gain a fair amount of notoriety. Or look at this fellow, who earned a long profile in the Washington Post for his role in building another kind of community.
According to his personal blog, Twitter and LinkedIn profile, John has spent much of the past five years ping-ponging through a smattering of short-term odd jobs on the West Coast. He played professional poker, he yo-yoed on the Vegas strip, he applied to be an Apple Genius (without success).
In 2011, after getting laid off from a YouTube tech video series for which he was working, John lost his car, his laptop, and his phone. He applied for a trade license and failed the background check over unspecified “incidents” in Colorado. Undeterred, John registered a new Web site and claimed to be working on a startup to “monetize the common web.” Whatever that means, it doesn’t seem to have worked out.
“$100 needed to keep utilities on,” he posted on Reddit just last week, requesting a loan from a stranger to pay his gas bill. “Thank you for any help you can give me.”
That’s Johnsmcjohn, the redditor who created “theFappening”. That’s right, the man who created a forum dedicated to masturbation, theft, and violations of privacy has just got his 15 minutes of fame.
And he’s not much to look at. This is not to say there’s anything contemptible about his circumstances — I’ve been in that situation of being poor and struggling, and some of you readers might be there now. Johnsmcjohn seems to be in the particularly difficult situation of being an unfocused, long-running failure at everything he does, lacking in much talent or even the discipline to acquire a skill, but still, let’s not deplore him for his condition, but for what he believes will get him out of that condition.
The whole profile is a fascinating spectacle of motivated reasoning and ego gratification for doing something simultaneously vile and trivial — he’s not a hacker or master criminal, he’s a guy who acted as a middleman, transferring stolen nude photos from that cesspool of the internet, 4chan, to a marginally more respectable sewage pond of the internet, reddit, and then obsessively promoted and maintained the flow of celebrity nudes and sick chatter. A real Brave Hero.
And I thought of Scott Atran. Atran is an anthropologist who has a bit of a reputation as a nuisance to the atheist community — he studied the psychology of terrorist cells around the world, and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t religion at fault, but the abuse of common traits in social psychology. He gave a talk at the Beyond Belief symposium in which he profiled the young men who became suicide bombers, and they sounded an awful lot like Johnsmcjohn — reasonably intelligent and educated, but frustrated and despairing of their future, and desperate for social approval, and they fell into groups of similarly disheartened men and found a community. These communities were often soccer clubs, rather than their local temple.
When you look at young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London underground in 2005, hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, and journeyed far to die killing infidels in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia; when you look at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy…. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: …fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool.
What, the terrorists aren’t driven by fanatical god-belief? But they say they are! Just like Johnsmcjohns says he’s driven by his deep respect for FREE SPEECH, and the #gamergate goons claim to be concerned about journalistic corruption while actually carrying out a gross-out competition to see who can say the vilest things about Zoe Quinn’s vagina, and Pastor Mark Driscoll professes his love for Jesus while wallowing in performance misogyny for his peers.
I once would have said that Atran was being too generous to religion, that he was belittling the significance of bad beliefs in acting as a seed crystal to shape young people’s minds towards destruction, but I’m increasingly thinking that he’s right: the problem isn’t religion, or video games, or comic books, or naked women — it’s more deeply rooted in the psychology of this gang of social apes called the human race. What we see over and over again in our history is groups of disaffected individuals stumbling together and finding commonality in vying to outdo each other in their commitment to some bizarre, random cause: racial purity, or anime, or violent video games, or Islam, or band camp, or a pornography collection.
But if it’s human psychology, what do we do about it? We’re not going to eradicate social dynamics, and if we did, it’s that social behavior that also drives the good things humanity does and can do.
I think this is where human reason plays a role. We can identify behaviors that are destructive or do harm to people, or are demonstrably false in their premises. We can have a kind of meta community that evaluates communities for their validity or destructiveness — we do this all the time already. We can look at groups like that awful r/ferguson group and clearly see that it is about claims of racial inferiority that we spent the last century showing were wrong, and that it foments hatred towards other people, and condemn it. I don’t think there is anyone who identifies with this community called Pharyngula who needed to be told that — you were probably pissed off the instant you saw that banner. Why? Because real communities have standards. We have a set of ideas strongly held here, just as r/ferguson has their set of ideas. A war of speech is a good thing — speak out boldly about your values.
But here’s another problem: institutions that claim to be value-free. There is a good case for that, in that governments, for instance, should not be taking sides — in a democracy, the government itself should not be about silencing conservatives or progressives, or the religious and atheists, but instead about providing the arena that allows those ideas to battle it out. That’s the whole point of free speech!
At the same time, though, can a space like reddit actually be value-free? It claims to be, but it obviously isn’t — there are rules about what can and can’t be posted. I’d argue also that there is an overt ideological culture at reddit: that allowing editors freedom from responsibility with anonymity has consequences that play directly into those properties of human social psychology discussed above, creating a rich environment for extreme aberrations to flourish. It’s an environment that willfully neglects to address dangerous aspects of human nature. Would we consider a playground to be a proper place for nurturing children’s minds and curiosity and social interactions if, in addition to a sandbox and swings, it were sown with knives and razor blades? Hey, FREE PLAY. It’s good for children’s creativity.
It’s also not true that allowing free expression is value-free. When reddit allows unabashed, ignorant hatred, as it does in its racist and misogynist subreddits, it is making a positive statement that such attitudes are an acceptable part of the discourse. It is encouraging the mainstreaming of racism and misogyny. It is an abnegation of responsibility that says that crimes of neglect are not reddit’s problem.
I ran into another interesting phenomenon this morning on twitter: a fellow was very angry with me for dissing reddit, and his excuse was that there are other, larger progressive communities on reddit than r/ferguson. I hate that. Those progressive communities do not exist to provide covering camouflage for the hate groups, yet reddit advocates willingly use them that way. The existence of good people is a repudiation of the more odious aspects of our nature, not a justification for supporting them.
The bottom line for me is that a community without a cause, that does not have standards and a willingness to stand up for something, is no community at all. It is a corpse waiting to be populated by opportunistic scavengers and parasites. That’s true for reddit, it’s true for 4chan, it could be true for atheism as well. Living, thriving communities have purpose and practice good social hygiene.
This does not mean the racists and misogynists do not have a right to exist or speak their opinions. But it does mean that if you provide the amplifier for them to express themselves, you are making a tacit endorsement of the legitimacy of their views, and no amount of cowering behind the slogan of “free speech” is going to change that fact. Especially not when you are profiting from encouraging that infestation of evil views.