I don’t know if you have heard of the work of Stanley Milgram
You can read about his famous/infamous experiment at:
What he basically showed is that under the instruction of authority, most people are willing to inflict considerable pain on others, up to possibly causing their deaths. The experiment was ethically controversial, and would not be allowed by current rules on the ethics of experiments. It has also been subject to considerable debate as to what it really means as you will see in the article.
But I am interested in a related phenomena. I am working on a research program to measure the impact of conflict at the neural level. In particular, I am interested in whether conflict induces mind-blindness or autism in people, who are not technically on the autism spectrum. Once we define the other as being in conflict with us, do we switch off any attempt to understand their perspective, or feel what they feel. In another posting I will look at the relevant neuro-science. Let’s look at one implication.
In our daily lives we have arguments with other people. We sometimes say hurtful things in the heat of the moment to those close to us, or who are in our power in some way, or simply run across in our daily lives. But we are somewhat checked in this behavior by seeing the effect on others of what we have said. We feel their pain, and unless we are a sadist or sociopath, we generally don’t like this experience.
But on-line, in comment streams following on line articles, blogs etc. there are no such checks or balances. People under the cloak of anonymity say the most awful things to each other. Take a look at the follow-on from any controversial topic: climate change, moral politics, deficit reduction, Obama. The participants insult each other’s motives, fail to listen to each other’s arguments, and are like broken records saying the same thing over and over again with no one listening. Would they do this face to face?
No wonder we are walling off into on-line belief ghettos. Geographers have mapped the tendency for us to live with like-minded people so we don’t have to experience conflict over beliefs face to face, even though this might moderate the extremism of our views. (See the ‘Big Sort’ by Bill Bishop for details of the geographical ghettoization of America on political and moral value dimensions.)
In some ways then I see the internet world of blogs and commentary as a gigantic version of the Milgram Experiment. We feel empowered to inflict pain on other people without thought. The men in the white coats have said it is fine, it is free speech etc. And we mustn’t admit it: we can’t say: hey that hurt! We are in a mind-blind world like the toughest school playground (the mental age of many participants is mid high school?). We get insulted and insult back.
But we face enormous problems as a world society, and we cannot solve them from within ‘vain citadels’ where we are impervious to alternative perspectives. We cannot solve them if we throw rocks at each other and deny each other a hearing. We actually need cognitive diversity on complex problems. Just like in business we need finance, IT, sales, whoever and we need them to contribute their perspective not some vanilla middle blah.
I try on this blog to impose standards of civility not only because I think that is an appropriate way to conduct ourselves. I do it to ensure that the content of people’s arguments are more likely to be heard. When someone shouts at you at work, in the home or on the street, do you pay much attention to the content of their argument? Does it make you more or less likely to agree with them? Or reflex shouting back? Yet much internet comment is a rant, a shout. If we could see the hurt we are actually inflicting, would we like Milgram’s subjects, keep on pressing the button or would we moderate our behavior?
And I try in this blog to role model civility: I don’t mind if the content of what I say is not to some people’s liking, but I am trying to express it in a way that is respectful and can be heard. To date almost all the hundreds of people reading this blog have respected this approach. Next time you go on line, think about it. And see if you can divert a comment stream back to civility: if we all did our bit?