Ah, NPR… why you always making me think?
The above link is to an article about how we, as a society, judge parents for exposing their children to entirely imaginary risks. Letting kids play in parks by themselves, putting kids in cars before we return our shopping carts to the store. Leaving a kid at home alone when we can’t find a baby sitter. Choosing between watching our kids and having a job. It’s not just a think piece (like this is) but an overview of and interview with the authors of a recent study; it illuminates a lot of interesting problems.
We’ve know for a long time that humans, as a species, are terrible at risk assessment. We think things we do every day, like driving cars, are safe. We’re afraid of things that hardly ever kill anyone, like airplanes and sharks– which is why I have to remind myself how safe I am every time I board a plane or ride a shark.
What the University of California, Irvine study shows is that the problem is even worse than we thought. We’re not just bad at risk assessment, we think there’s a moral component to it. The over 1,300 participants in the study thought that it was less dangerous for a parent to leave a child alone unintentionally (hit by a bus) than intentionally (had to go to work) and if the interviewers added an element of moral outrage (left their kid alone to visit a lover) then the participants thought the kid was at much greater risk. The actual risks didn’t change, just the circumstances surrounding them. We tend to think bad things happen because people deserve it.
In Judeo-Christian terms, this goes all the way back to Deuteronomic Law– “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son,” that sort of logic. Logic that I should add is completely refuted by The Book of Job, a righteous man who does nothing wrong but loses everything– he even watches his family die– purely because God and Satan are hanging out and gambling in Heaven. It’s a compelling story of an unjust universe, but somehow humanity has never moved past this idea that people must be sowing everything they ever reap. It appeals to our gut, and guts are hard for ideas and facts to argue with.
The Internet, great gift that it is, has also become a breeding ground for public shaming. One wrong tweet and– because The Internet never forgets– a person’s life can be ruined. Under extraordinary circumstances, a family loses their home in order to save their child’s life after both their satellite phone and their ship’s radio fails them… and The Internet’s rage descends upon them before any of the facts are actually known. Of course, the facts didn’t matter– taking an infant and a toddler on a months-long sea voyage seemed like an immoral risk to people who (like myself) know nothing about sailing.
Reality is not objective. It’s one of the great problems with advocating a reality-based approach to morality. In the Age of the Internet it’s especially true that anyone and everyone can find a comforting set of facts that support their carefully nurtured presumptions and and prejudices. When we’d rather feel right than be right– most of the time– Truthiness conquers Truth, Self-Righteousness replaces Right, and so forth. For many people the belief that they have a monopoly on reality is the problem, the reason they go forth and harm people that fail to conform to their vision.
The thing is, these aren’t plays being put on to test our moral judgement. These are people’s lives, and we’re not asking “who am I helping?” I can’t know why people make the choices they do, but it feels like self-righteousness and pride. That’s a shitty reason for a kid to be taken from a loving home and placed with Social Services.
It reminds me Sandy Hook and 9/11 Truthers, of Westboro Baptist protesting at American soldiers’ funerals– people that have long since exchanged facts for feelings, people who have stopped thinking about the individuals they are hurting as ‘people.’ People I automatically assume that I’m better than, that I tend to dismiss without any sympathy or human consideration.
I guess that’s why the idea of secret Lizard People undermining our society remains popular among the conspiracy-minded in our population. It’s the same reason that old women were accused of witchcraft and lynched– excuse me, and still are. It’s easy to feel superior to literal monsters and no one has to worry about the monsters getting hurt.
When people do bad things, it’s never for no reason. It’s usually for bad reasons, reasons they fabricated, reasons built on imagination instead of facts. I’m kind of a hyperrational guy; I make the mistake of thinking I can float above emotional stuff, like Sapphire on Steven Universe.
I think of things like information literacy as moral imperatives. None of that makes me immune to the above tendencies, of course. I tell myself stories where I’m the hero. We all do.
That’s why taking that moment to consider whether what we’re doing is actually heroic is crucial. Who does it help? Who does it hurt? Shame has a long history but how often has it helped anyone? Make no mistake, shame has a body county, too. Shame has killed more people than most ideas and feelings.
If you want people to be better then jog their imaginations with your own good behavior. Show them how good they could be. Trying to force morality on people, via shame, threat, or violence is a dark path. But that’s a topic for another post– where evil comes from. Even as a believer in a supernatural universe, evil strikes me as a wholly human creation. And I think it starts from trying to make everyone else “objectively” right and good.