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FL13 And The RNC's New Tools | Main | US Investigators Suspect Flight 370 Flew For Four More Hours After Last Confirmed Position
March 13, 2014

Entertainment Reporter: It's Time to Forgive Mel Gibson

I agree with this.

And not just because it's Mel Gibson. I'd say this about anybody. There is a penalty to be paid for making un-PC remarks: But that penalty should fit the actual crime. Gibson's crime was to say nasty things about Jews ("they start all the wars") and rant insanely at his ex-girlfriend.

These are grounds, certainly, for criticism and wondering if Gibson has anger and alcohol issues.

But they're not grounds for a nigh-complete boycott by the only industry he's ever worked in.

People have a tendency to take their Rules and push them too far, to the point of inhumanity.

The Rule against anti-semitic remarks (or homophobic remarks, or misogynistic remarks, or racist remarks) is a good one. I support that rule. I try to abide by that rule myself (and I inflict it on others in the comments).

But what should the penalty for deviation from the rule be?

People take a sound enough rule but then make a mistake: They decide (possibly without thinking about it) that if the Rule is good, ergo, no amount of enforcement of it can be disproportionate; in fact, each additional ounce of punishment must be good.

But this isn't true. This is the thinking that leads to unfairly punitive mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession. The thinking goes, "Drugs are a social wrong; selling drugs is worse; ergo, the stiffest possible penalties must be just and good."

But that's not true. There comes a point when draconian enforcement becomes a greater evil than the original ill one has sought to penalize.

Gibson's outbursts are upsetting, particularly for any of the groups he spoke about. And Gibson's outbursts do indicate he has some anger issues to work on.

But what tangible harm did he inflict on anyone?

From the moment he berated that cop, he was marked as someone who would bear the stigma of being called an anti-semite for the rest of his life.

That is in itself a heavy penalty. Racism, anti-semitism, etc. are now adjudged by most of polite society to be greater crimes than most actual crimes.

So, he has already been penalized. He will carry the burden of being judged a monster until the day he dies.

But at what point do those who go out hunting monsters become monsters themselves?

Because, at this point: Who is it who's actually working to deliver tangible, real harm and hurt on to another person?

As far as I know, it's not Gibson; it's the thousands of high-placed rule-enforcers in Hollywood who are enforcing a boycott against him, probably without even thinking about it very much, probably without even questioning whether or not it makes sense to continue punishing him.

Tolerance is a virtue -- that is the animating notion behind the campaign to stigmatize, and penalize, intolerance.

But this devotion to tolerance can itself become intolerant. And frequently does.

Tolerance is indeed a virtue. And so is mercy and forgiveness.

Another important virtue is this: a variation of the Golden Rule, to not inflict on others rules that one would find insufferable if inflicted on oneself.

If most people in Hollywood would find it unfair if they themselves were blackballed over some objectionable outbursts -- and I imagine most would -- they should not seek to impose that penalty on others.

It's very easy to judge other people so harshly. And that's why we do it. Because it's easy. It's also -- and few admit this, but it is true all the same -- pleasurable. To judge another feels good.

Judging gives each person two wonderful feelings: The feeling that he is intrinsically superior to another human being (and this feeling is magnified when the person judged is of a high status, because it feels just great to know one is superior to a former $20-million-per-film movie star), and the feeling that he is living virtuously by enforcing a code upon another person.

These things feel good.

Which is why they must be restrained. Anytime something feels good, a person is in grave danger of over-indulging in it. Making a new sexual conquest feels good; the pleasantly warm oblivion of drunkeness feels good; calling out another human being for scorn and ostracism feels good.

All of these things have a purpose. None of these things is necessarily bad, in and of themselves. But all of them will be over-indulged if not restrained.

This is particularly a problem with judgment. Sex and alcohol are, of course, already taboos in society, regulated by various rules and restraints.

But the zeal for zero-tolerance "Tolerance" is not so restrained. In fact, in many people's minds, it's an unambiguous good to indulge the urge to judge and punish as much as possible. There is no "mandatory minimum" sentence for a show of intolerance that they would consider excessive.

After all, if doing a little ostracism/Otherizing/ritual scapegoating is good, then doing a whole lot of it must be even better.

Right?

No. Doing a bump of coke at a party once a year might feel good but do it four times a day for a year and you've got a serious problem.

There are three contributing factors this ugly situation of never-ending scalp-hunting:

1. Cruelty is more pleasurable than most human beings care to admit. In fact, they will rarely admit this to themselves. Cruel actions are justified as "doing good." A gut-level, primitive-mammalian urge for dominance games is justified by ideology or philosophy, and hence is never recognized for being sadistic.

2. Guilt by association. One can never say something like "I think drugs should be decriminalized" without people saying Wow, you must really like drugs.

The assumption is that if you speak up in favor of a merciful attitude towards a social ill, then you must either not be opposed to that social ill, or are actually in favor of that social ill (that is, you don't think it's a social ill, but a social good).

Thus anyone who thinks it may be time to decriminalize pot must like pot.

Not true.

And thus, anyone who argues that the penalty Gibson has paid for his anti-semitic outburst must be not think anti-semitism is any big deal, or must actually be in favor of anti-semitism.

Also not true. I'm philo-semitic myself, and known to be anti-anti-semitism, but there does come a point at which the punishment seems to greatly exceed the actual crime.

Nevertheless, there is a penalty that is imposed on anyone who would speak up for Gibson: The sneaking suspicion that anyone who says anything in his defense must himself be anti-semitic.

And thus, Gibson has few defenders. Just this writer, Robert Downey Jr., and Jodie Foster, pretty much.

Most people decide it's not worth it to get branded themselves as anti-semites, so they remain silent.

And:

3. Social Competitiveness. Human beings love competing. They never stop competing.

We especially compete in a social environment. Most of us aren't athletes; many of us work in competitive fields, but few of us are really the best in our particular field.

But we can always compete in the social environment -- and, if we define the rules of the game to our own advantage, we can pretty much "win" according to our own criteria in every outing.

This leads to the bad phenomenon in which people who generally agree with a basic proposition begin attempting to compete for the prize of who is most strongly in favor of that proposition.

And so the bidding goes thus:

South bids: Four diamonds. Gibson's outburst was anti-semitic and unacceptable.

West bids: Four hearts. Unacceptable, indeed! In fact, his outburst proves that he intended an anti-semitic message in Passion of the Christ, doesn't it?

North bids: Double. In fact, one can trace a relentless message of homophobia, misogyny, racism, anti-semitism and Holocaust denial in all of his films, if you look hard enough. Can't you?

East bids: Redouble. You're certainly right -- in fact, I think Mel Gibson should never work in this town again.

You can see this dynamic in play in any meeting of people who basically agree on most things. Because they agree on the basics, they begin competing on another ground -- how passionately they believe in the basic proposition, and what amount of indignation, outrage, and penalization they are willing to inflict on others in advancement of that proposition.

Whoever is willing to do the most -- whoever is the most outraged -- whoever wishes to be the cruelest in vindication of that principle -- well, he wins. He is The Most at This Thing.

Now, this competitiveness -- this competitive bidding in favor of the most extreme possible position -- could be deflated and checked, were someone to venture the idea that "You go too far; you're nuking Gibson over a fairly small matter."

But the trouble is, few will say that, because of Factor 2: Guilt by Association. Hey, if you hate Jews so much, why don't you just join the Nazi party, buddy?

In a well-functioning marketplace of ideas, more excessive statements of the idea would be knocked down, and a more moderate (and merciful, and humane) rule would prevail.

But there rules are all set to privilege the least merciful and least humane rules, and they win most of the time.

And so it goes.

If anyone's interested in this line of thinking, I'd suggest they read Douglas Preston's 40 page essay, "Trial By Fury," available as an e-book ($2 to buy it, free to borrow with Amazon Prime). It's about a basic human desire for something called "altruistic punishment," punishing people on behalf of others -- that is, not punishing them for a harm they inflicted on the self (that would be self-interested punishment) but punishing them altruistically, for harms they inflicted (or are imagined to have inflicted) on others.

Altruistic punishment is in fact a very useful phenomenon. It works to improve human cooperation and mutual trust. It's a powerful tool we have, which generally has benevolent effects.

And we are rewarded for altruistically punishing other people, because it feels good.

But, like most things, it can be taken too far. It can be taken well past the point of a socially useful function and turn into pleasurable cruelty. And that cruelty will never be checked, because those indulging in the cruelty will never recognize it as such, but will instead call it "fighting the forces of evil" or whatnot.



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posted by Ace at 01:06 PM

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