When I think about the awful shit happening around the world right now—whether on the murderous level of ISIS (which I shall speak no more of qua too fucking depressing) or the sordid pettiness of the coproliths from 4chan behind #GamerGate, I often find myself in a state not so much of moral outrage as weary bafflement, unable to comprehend the kind of mentality behind it. I don’t think of myself as notably nice, and on occasion I can out of sheer irritability be petty and unpleasant (above baseline levels). Yet the thought of launching a campaign of black hat hacking, libel, and fraud to ruin someone’s career, livelihood, and life, merely because their opinions offend me, feels…unthinkable, quite literally: I can verbalise it, but I don’t know that I can actually think it per se. Thomas Nagel wondered what it is like to be a bat: to see the world through senses and perceptions completely different from those of humans. I do, too, but (albeit with less interest and more distaste) I also wonder what it is like to be that kind of active misogynist.
I read once, a long time ago, the claim that in order to truly understand something, you must believe it—that is, at least briefly entertain the notion, even though you will discard it in the next moment.¹ I do not know whether this is true, but it always seemed to me that it has a ring of truth to it.² I can verbally describe how bats perceive textures with sound modulation and motion via Doppler effects and shifting frequencies, how a particularly base and virulent form of religious extremism perverts people to cutting other people’s heads off, or how criticism of their preferred monoculture appears to stir some basement-dwellers into fomenting anger, but I have no sense at all of the qualia involved.
Sometimes I find myself wondering to what degree this is emotional self defence. Perhaps (part of?) the reason I don’t understand is that I don’t permit myself to understand—that I hesitate to gaze into and have that abyss stare back at me. Of course I don’t want to experience the qualia of being these people: after all, I find them vile and do not ever want to be like them. Perhaps that implies (in the logical sense) that I do not permit myself to understand them. It’s certainly pleasing to be able to honestly say that I cannot fathom what manner of mind would stoop to these levels.
That might not be an unalloyed good, though, because it sounds an awful lot like a defensive flavour of othering, of rejecting these people utterly and as morally subhuman³ to avoid having to suffer the quale of comparing myself to them and finding any moral similarities, however tenuous. Perhaps at the personal level, that’s OK, but on a larger scale, it leads to retributive justice systems where the focus is on ensuring that They—Those People who commit iniquities—suffer their Just Desserts: putting a priority on making rule-breakers suffer rather than minimising harm. Consider the difference between the dystopian prison system of the US with, say, Norway.⁴ My gut tells me that if I somehow found myself in the same basement with one of Zoe Quinn’s or Anita Sarkeesian’s erstwhile tormentors, the most satisfying course of action would be to hamper their typing, tweeting, and hacking abilities by breaking both of his⁵ elbows. Yet reason and data both tell me that the only way to solve these problems in the longer term is to despise the attitudes and behaviours, yet empathise and build bridges with the perpetrators.⁶
I can’t do that. I couldn’t, even if the opportunity improbably arose—perhaps because I lack the interpersonal skills, perhaps because I lack the moral courage to attempt to understand these people well enough to talk to them, or perhaps because I’m just too judgemental and unforgiving. If, for example, your moral hackles were raised by my suggesting just now that we should on some level attempt to sympathise with the slime currently harrassing Quinn, Sarkeesian, et al, I want to point out that I’ve already described them in such terms as “sordid pettiness”, “coprolite”, “misogynist”, “vile”, and earlier in this sentence, “slime”. In my defense (on the rational side), I let this be my lodestone for personal views, not for voting in political elections—I wouldn’t want to base policy on classifying those people as slime (that and a bit of racism is how you end up with the world’s largest prison population).
Ultimately, though, we all need to remember: The #GamerGate harrassers aren’t sordid, petty, vile, misogynist, slimy coprolites. Like us, they are human beings—they just happen to be particilarly petty, misogynistic people with petty, sordid, coprolitic, and vile opinions, words, and deeds.
¹ If anyone knows the source of this idea, I should be grateful to hear it.
² Put it this way: At the very least, I feel confident that I understand the proposition.
³ I do not regard anyone as inferior on the basis of ethnicity, biological sex, gender identity, &c., but I do judge opinions harshly.
⁴ Not that I’m an expert on the Norwegian justice system, and I’m sure it has many glaring flaws, but surely the focus on rehabilitation and minimising recidivism is more useful to society than basically torturing criminals and teaching them them to hate.
⁵ Inevitably, alas.
⁶ See this Cracked list, item #3. I find it oddly touching.