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April 25, 2016

Reposting: The Vicious Cycle of Third-Party Punishment

Note: I wrote this Thursday or Friday, but I included with it more topical news which seemed to be what people talked about. I'm reposting this without the topical hook so the main point gets noticed.

That doesn't mean you have to talk about this -- this is officially an open thread. I just would like to give the broader point a second exposure.


I've been talking about this for about two years now, I think -- we did a podcast on the subject with John Sexton (another convert to the cause after I recommended Trial by Fury to him).

Vox now Voxspalains altruistic punishment, which they call "third party punishment."

The two terms describe the same phenomenon, which is that people take pleasure in punishing people for wronging others.

That's the third-party part, or the "altruistic" part -- apes punish other apes for wronging themselves, but apes don't care if you harm another ape.

Humans -- possibly uniquely -- do.

This is an altruistic impulse and it underlies our sense of fairness in society generally.

But there is a dark side to it. Because humans are hard-wired to really, really enjoy punishing others for their alleged sins against other people -- we derive actual pleasure from it; it's that feeling of angry righteous fury political partisans feel -- and sometimes we go deliberately looking for slights to others, which could be entirely imaginary, to righteously punish.

One point the Vox article makes which I haven't made myself is that people are willing to use more vicious punishments when defending the alleged wrongs inflicted on others than they are to avenge wrongs perpetrated on themselves.

This may be because people are naturally more tough than they credit others with being.

And so if you say "You're an asshole" to someone, he just shrugs it off -- who cares?

But if you say "You're an asshole" to one of his designated victim cohorts he is honor-bound to defend and avenge, he assumes a bunch of things about his victim cohort -- that they're weak; that they're excessively sensitive and can be wounded by trivial things; and that they are utterly incapable of standing up for themselves -- and permits himself to engage in cruelty he would never consider indulging in on his own behalf to avenge the wronged third party.

This could be why furious liberals are so furious and nasty about the Washington Redskins team name, but if you ask the actual Indians about it, they shrug and say "What's the big deal? Isn't it a compliment?" and actually name their own high school teams the "Redskins" and other Indian-themed names.

But when you're coming in to defend these Indians -- well, you assume a level of offense on their behalf that really doesn't exist, then you assume they're weak and need a White Knight (usually an actual caucasian White Knight, actually) and you get nastier defending the Poor Indians than you'd ever be defending anyone apart from your own children.

And that's why the internet is so terrible.

This isn't an impulse to be completely suppressed -- as I said, it is this sense of what is "fair" to others that informs the most rudimentary sense of morality and ethics people feel. (Feel, not think.)

Third-party or altruistic punishment is the neurobiological impulse at the root of morality itself.

But it should be restrained. And people need to think deeply: Are these poor souls are being so cruel in defending really so weak that they cannot defend themselves? Are they really this sensitive that they are wounded and scarred by the most trivial verbal gaffe?

Is the imagined cruelty one seeks to avenge actually greater than the deliberate and calculated cruelty the avenger seeks to visit upon the supposed original wrongdoer?

Is the cruelty one is about to deliberately add to the world really likely to make the world a less cruel place? Or just a crueler one?

And one needs to ask -- am I really doing this to save my poor victim cohort, or am I just doing it because cruelty feels good and this is the only socially-permissible outlet for behaving cruelly?

It's this cycle -- imagining a minor slight to be a major one, then escalating this minor alleged cruelty into a major bout of intentional, coordinated group cruelty (group shaming, viral punishment, etc.) -- that is turning the internet, and the society that it shapes, into a never-ending Vicious Circle.

It's time to start letting some things go, and start letting the alleged third-party victims maybe do some complaining and self-defending first before the world jumps in to make every minor squabble a major cultural battle.

Open Thread. Had insomnia. Crazy tired.

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posted by Ace at 08:00 PM

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