Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why Is It So Fun to Condemn People on Facebook?

I'm not hatin' on hatin'. I want to be clear about that up front. Condemning rotten behavior is a crucial moral activity, and Facebook is a powerful means of doing so. My friends' Facebook condemnations of sexism and racism and ableism, for example, have increased my awareness of those issues.

And yet... condemning people's bad behavior on Facebook is almost too fun, in a way that niggles at me somehow. Why is it so fun, and what do its pleasures reveal about it?

Clearly part of the fun is that you're on a team. You and your friends get to be on the team of the righteous, aligned together against the target of your condemnatory passions, the person (and more broadly the people like them) who have done that stupid/awful/foolish thing! -- the stupid/awful/foolish thing that you (of course?) would never do. One of the great pleasures in life is building solidarity with like-minded folks in condemning others outside of your group, triumphing over them at least in imagination if not in reality. It's a moral pleasure as well as a social one, and when your condemnation is morally correct and epistemically defensible, it can be entirely good and justified.

Also crucial to the fun, I suspect, is that you receive no genuinely negative feedback for your condemnation. Your Facebook friends are probably like-minded. And if they're not, they're probably quiet. And even if they're not quiet, you can hide their posts or at least, by not "liking" their posts, make their posts less likely to appear at the top of your feed. There's a "like" button, but no "dislike" or "disagree". Now, if you condemn something that is controversial among your friends, you might get some pushback in the comments, but since that's not what we seem usually to want from Facebook condemnations, the activity works most smoothly when we condemn something safe, something we know our friends will also condemn or at least not rise to defend.

Another part of the fun, I think, is a kind of depersonalization of the target of the condemnation. You are condemning a person, yes, but almost always you are condemning a single act, or maybe a few acts of a similar type. The target of condemnation is seen only through one or a few quotations or photographs which might reflect a single moment's poor choice in a complicated life, but which come implicitly, through stasis and repetition, to signify some enduring and central trait in the condemned. You do not see how the person reacts to the condemnation; you do not see the context of the condemned action; you do not see the person attempting to apologize and reform -- or if you do see the person's apology, because the apology is inept (as most attempted apologies and reforms are), it becomes a fresh target for a new round of condemnation, itself again held static and repeated. Maybe one difference between sadism and its lighter cousin schadenfreude is that sadism revels in power over a flesh and blood victim, while schadenfreude (of a certain type) laughs at only a slice of someone, intentionally not gazing upon the target's full humanity. The pleasures of Facebook condemnation are in part schadenfreudist.

I don't think the practice should end. We must laugh at and also more seriously condemn people who do foolish and immoral things; and sharing this laughter and condemnation reinforces community norms. We can't always feel sympathetic pain and embarrassment on behalf of those who go wrong. Yet scrolling down through my Facebook feed that mixes shared indignation and laughter at foolishness in roughly equal proportions with cute kittens and talent shows, I feel that something human is missing -- the perpetrator, as a full person, before and after, with color and nuance and a suite of other traits, sometimes enough to earn forgiveness or forgetting.


Cati Porter said...

I see this too in the literary community. There have been a lot of allegations lately of sexual misconduct, and other instances of questionable judgement. I don't know any of these people personally, but in each of these cases, based on what little I've seen, it would seem that there is plenty of room for discussion. I empathize with the victims, because I've been there, too; and yet I find it disheartening the way so many have been so quick to condemn on very little information, and the way that anyone who has tried to be even a little more balanced in their discussion has been skewered. It makes me uneasy, how quickly people can turn on one another, to the point of not wanting to be on *anyone's* team. Facebook is a strange place.

Neal Tognazzini said...

Condemning on Facebook is fun for the same reason that using Facebook (in general) is fun. You get to carefully curate a public persona, and then select a group of people who will tell you (indirectly, of course) how much they like that persona. Vulnerability to shame is almost nonexistent, which is part of why the term 'friend' is so inapt.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Neal, that's fun too! Since people can only "like" or be silent, you can show yourself and get approval without (explicit) condemnation for your cultivated persona! What's not to "like"? :-)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Cati, I'm sure the phenomenon is not unique to the corners of Facebook I know. I have some concerns about the "piling on", but I also don't want to condemn piling on, since I think it is an important moral activity of affirming and enforcing community norms, often in favor of victims against people in positions of power.

Scott Bakker said...

'Little information' is the key. A couple of years back, a feminist blogger reviewed my first novel on the basis of the first six pages. She and several others specialized in using troll tactics to 'shame' authors they deemed sexist. It remains, to this day, one of the most surreal and illuminating experiences of my life, watching as blog after blog, message board after message board, took up the mantra of my moral degeneracy. Not one of these people knew anything about me, save that I had written a book that others hated. I debated them, and debated them, all the while knowing (I had just finished reading Haidt's Righteous Mind) that it really didn't matter, that the phenomena I was witnessing, though expressed in epistemic language, had precious little to do with what was actually the case. It really felt mechanical, and so I enjoyed a parade of characters commenting on my sexuality, my intelligence, my appearance - even extending pity to my daughter and my wife! - all expressed in terms of moral outrage.

I learned that complete strangers can want, ardently want, you dead for no more reason than a whisper in their ear.

These are some pretty powerful, pretty low-rez social heuristics we're talking about here. They become ugly real fast, and they inspire some with real terror. People I had known for years caved and joined the chorus. This is the PTSD mechanism of culture, I now think. Fast. Prone to false positives. And motivationally powerful.

The ringleader has since recanted, interestingly enough, apologized for all of it. There's rumours of a suicide attempt made by one of their targets.

I certainly don't regret it. In fact, I count it as an artistic triumph, given that my whole point in raising gender issues in my books was to trigger the reader into feeling the same moral outrage as my characters.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting, Scott! That must have been quite an experience.

As a blogger whose words go out irrevocably into public every week, and being a flawed person with my share of biases, bad judgment, and ignorance, I fear someday making a misstep sufficiently embarrassing that it becomes the target of group ridicule, or even being ridiculed for something that wasn't really a misstep but was taken out of context or misinterpreted. I feel some sympathy for the celebrities and politicians who are mocked for their failings, and also for those in the philosophical community who are mocked.

Sometimes, group condemnation of this sort is important. Some targets deserve it, and it can help enforce and reinforce community norms, especially when the targets of condemnation are socially powerful and they have behaved in a way that harms people who are socially less powerful. Other targets of group condemnation, I'm sure, do not deserve it. Often, I don't feel that I have a good handle on which is which.

I see some parallels here to your picture of self-knowledge, where inferences about a huge target (one's own full mind) are based on a very narrow slice of information. "Low-rez heuristics" as you say. Low-rez heuristics can be pretty awesome, when things go right; of course they can also go disastrously wrong.

Scott Bakker said...

I worry, though. Previous to that blog war, I had concluded a blog war with a crypto-fascistic libertarian, one who continually argued for the racial purification of America, relieving women of the right to vote - you get the picture. These guys, as you might imagine, did not play nice either. I remember checking the guy's numbers one day and was dumbfounded. You and I could blog for the rest of our lives, combine our numbers, and we still wouldn't match a single year on this guy's site.

Snark is an ingroup activity, and wherever you see it, you have a good indicator of social insularity, I think. I worry that the kind of extremism you see creeping into American politics, for example, is an expression of the way the web allows these kinds of atavistic ingroups to coalesce, work through their messaging, and refine their tools for recruitment.

Sounds paranoid, I know. But on my view, big transformations in a problem ecology mean big changes in the functionality of our heuristics. These guys appeal to some pretty basic social intuitions regarding my-side exceptionalism, parochialism, things that likely served our ancestors well... Now, not so much.

I shudder to think where the snark train would lead us were we to experience a real economic depression, for instance.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Snark as an indicator of social insularity -- interesting thought, Scott! It rings true to me. I also agree about heuristics working best in their original ecologies and presenting greater risks as the ecologies change. An important point. There are times it's fine, even good, to be insular and express snarky opinions in a safe space (esp. with your spouse, or with close friends at a party); and I think there might be a positive role for it too on Facebook, sometimes. I share your reservations, but I also want to be moderate about it.

Callan S. said...

I think it's a question of what task is the snark supposed to achieve? What outcomes? It's fun to knock down pins in a bowling alley, but they aren't to roll out and across the road, causing road accidents. There's definate effort ensure the activity is contained. But how far does snark roll?