Thursday, July 30, 2015

You Can Lead a Mob to Reason, But You Cannot Make it Think

I am slowly starting to hate the Internet.

Well, technically, it's not the Internet's fault. The Internet is just a bunch of computers linked together. It's the people using the Internet. That's right. Let me start over.

I am slowly starting to hate the people using the Internet.

The viral news story that sparked this angry, measured rant off is the discovery of the killer of Cecil the Lion, a famous lion living in a Zimbabwean nature reserve. The big game hunter in the Internet's collective cross-hairs is a dentist living in Minnesota, and his actions have riled up the well-meaning social justice public into action, posting the address of his business online, and slathering his Yelp page with hate "reviews", although I think the social justice public has already earned a special place in one of the circles of hell for making me link a BuzzFeed page as a legitimate source.

I want to articulate very clearly here that I do not condone big game hunting and hunting in general, and especially so for endangered species. I believe that hunting, if it's not for sustenance or protection, if it's for sport, is incredibly stupid and useless. If you want the thrill of stalking a creature through a hostile environment before sneaking up on it and killing it in the face, go play Assassin's Creed or Arkham City or something. Stop killing endangered animals because we're running out of endangered animals to kill. (Also you're disrupting ecosystems and hastening the process of environmental destruction and holy crap why are you so obsessed with killing things anyway.)

But what I am fed up with are the knee-jerk reactions of the Internet-empowered, Facebook-attention-spanned, road-to-hell-paved-with-good-intentioned public who don't stop to think before hitting that 'Share' button and rallying a huge mob of the pitchfork-and-torch variety. Because I think that's where most of today's so-called "social justice" is headed: pitchforks and torches. Angry mobs with ideological AK-47s for everyone. Witch-hunts. You know, like those things that happened in the 15th Century involving moral panic and mass hysteria and the literal burning of people at giant stakes. And I'm not exaggerating either, because that's what some people are actually calling for.

For God's sake, people. Stop to think for a minute. Just one minute. Stop to hammer the gunpowder in your moral musket before shooting it off indiscriminately at the world.

Here are three reasons why I don't agree with social mob justice:

Point #1: What are your Shares actually doing?

Quick poll: hands up, all of you who knows at least one Facebook friend who is actually into big game hunting. Sure, this is an impersonal digital medium and I can't actually see any hands, but I'm willing to bet good money that it is going to be a small handful of you. For all you people with your hypothetical hands up, thank you for cooperating, and at least you've got a reason, albeit it might not be a very good one (at least I don't think it is). You're not off the hook though, so sit tight for the rest of this section.

For the people who can't name a specific friend who you know engages in the killing of animals for sport, why are you sharing this article in the first place? It's not to educate anyone, surely, because nobody you know hunts lions and rhinos on their weekends off. At best, what you're doing is preaching to the choir, because all you friends are going to agree with you anyway; and at worst, you're playing the zither to the water buffalo, because you're not going to listen to the people who disagree with you anyway. So who are you sharing the article for?

Here's who you're sharing that article for: yourself. This is the reason for plastering the offending article all over your Wall and writing a paragraph or two of angry, riled up, righteous indignation for the world (at least the world circumscribed by the people most likely to agree with you already) to see. You get Likes, you get Comments, you essentially create a feedback loop to reinforce your own self-perception. I disagree with this on an emotional level, other people agree with my disagreement, so therefore my belief is justified and not wrong. That's what it's for, that's the reason you're posting all this righteous indignation stuff: to reassure yourself that the representation of yourself in your own mind and in the minds of the people around you isn't totally insane.

I will admit that I do this too. I share things on Facebook. I post things like Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, articles that agree with my worldview, and songs with emotionally-charged lyrics which cryptically hint to my own pathetic mental state. I, too, crave the attention and validation of my peers. It's a human thing. It's natural. I get it. That's not what I disagree with, though.

What I disagree with is the justification of doing these things for "social justice". What are you doing exactly? What are you achieving? What has this entire witch-hunt of Walter Palmer achieved except the shutting down of a dentist's office and the Facebook page and website attached to it? What is your purpose, what is your goal? Aside from sitting there with a smug look on your face saying, "I've done my part!"

At this point, angry people will start shouting things like "We are spreading the message to those who have might not heard it before!" and "There are other social justice issues that are a lot more relevant to the people I'm friends with, and that's why I'm sharing it!" To which I say, sure, that's all good and fine. If you're spreading a message and educating people about it, then that's great and fine and wonderful job, keep up the good work. That takes care of the social part.

Which brings me to my next point...

Point #2: Who are you to decide what is Justice?

Or, alternatively: Is this worth destroying a man's life over?

There are two things here. First is the question of Justice as a concept. Many philosophers over the ages have argued over this very thing, and the last I checked we're all so mixed up about it that we have specialized an entire legal industry for the sole purpose of finding out the answer.

What is the just remuneration for the murder of a proud, living creature? To what is the murderer owed in just punishment, which incidentally, is neither the same thing as karmic retribution nor bloody eye-for-an-eye revenge. What this Twitter mob is doing right now - public ridicule, disruption of his business, forcing him into hiding, calls for actual physical violence - is that just? The man has disconnected his office phone and directed all calls to a PR agency - is he cowering in his house right now, with the concentrated fury of hundreds of thousands of people distilling into him a fear that you wouldn't inflict on hundreds and thousands of people? Would the release of his address constitute a terrorist act? Should this man be executed? Jailed? Merely fined? Does his years of service to the community as a dental practitioner mitigate things somewhat? Should he be thrown to the lions, strung up by a lynch mob, taken to dance the hemp fandango? Is the murder of a lion a worse crime than the murder of another man?

It may look like I'm trying to make a rhetorical point with these questions, but I honestly do not have the answers myself. I don't feel like I have the responsibility to weigh a man's life in my hands and judge him by my own, personal, biased standards. But who actually thinks of these things when they hit a share button in the name of social "justice"? (This is the true rhetorical question, and the rhetorical answer is: very few.)

The way I see it, Yelp has been one of the only few sane persons in this entire firestorm, because they've been deleting the hate reviews of the man's business page for not "[describing] a firsthand consumer experience" as per their Terms of Service. I think (and you're welcome to disagree with me here) that the man's skill in repairing your teeth should have absolutely nothing to do with what he hunts and kills in his spare time. Disagree and rail against his poaching habits all you want, but if a man does a good polish and rinse then admit it.

If we had a universal set of rules and law and some kind of overarching decree which states clearly what is just and what isn't (and I think this would be impossible because humanity's concept of justice is different across contexts, cultures, religions, and it also evolves with time), we wouldn't need judges, we would just need to teach people how to read.

And that's the second thing: I am apprehensive of leaving the decision of justice to a mob of emotionally-charged, pitchfork-wielding general public. That's why we have a legal system, with a judge at the top of the table, who's very job it is to weigh both sides of the argument before passing a impartial, just judgement. Individuals need to think because there is no one else to do their thinking for them. But put that individual in a mob, and they stop thinking; he becomes a neuron in a network which wouldn't be considered fit to operate the motor controls of an earthworm.

You know how fish in a school are able to weave and dart around larger predators? You know how flocks of swallows are able to make intricate and mesmerizing patterns of shifting beauty? It's because each individual fish doesn't think about the whole picture, it's because each individual swallow doesn't stop to consider its place within the aerial formation. All they do is react to the movements of the fish around them, of the other swallows flying alongside. That's what a mob is, each individual member reacting to the outrage of the people next to them, creating a beautiful ripple of stupidity that travels around the world seven times a second.

Maybe the Internet can successfully argue that the man is getting all that he deserves for killing a defenceless animal, and that the focused laser of hatred and loathing is just as well as justified, and the man should burn in hell for an appreciable eternity. But I'd like to point out that the Internet's focused laser has all the precision and discretion of a dirty bomb, because:

Point #3: What are you going to do with the fallout of your nuclear hate bomb?

The cover photo from the dental clinic's defunct Facebook page showed twelve people, exactly one of which is Walter Palmer, the big game hunter in question. With social justice warriors firing bombshell after bombshell at the dentist and his business, who spared a thought for his eleven colleagues, employees, co-workers? Even if the people in the photo are, instead, family members, who the hell thought it would be a good idea to drag them into the firing range as well? (I had to add the mosaic to the faces of the others, because BuzzFeed apparently thinks it doesn't need to.) Who the hell considered the dental assistants and receptionists and other workers in the dental office, whose careers are now on shaky ground, when they started carpet bombing the man's business? Who's thinking about his wife and two kids, who are probably huddling in their house right now, afraid of the angry mob that's going to march up their doorstep because some idiot leaked the guy's home address to the world? If you are going to destroy a man, why are you destroying everyone around him in the process?

Stop sharing the man's address. Stop leading the pitchforks and torches to his doorstep, because I can't imagine people blasting the guy's coordinates to the world so that someone will track him down and angrily knock on his door, insisting that they sit down and have a short but delightful discussion about the negative effects of poaching. I'm very amused by the article by Vox, because after explaining that Palmer's address has been shared all over Twitter, they put in neat little parentheses: "(This is a practice that is often used online to facilitate real-world harassment of targets.)"

Has anyone imagined what effects the death threats are having on his family?

Okay, I admit, this last point is quite masturbatory, because as far as I know, nobody I know is spreading addresses. But here's the message I'm trying to convey here: stop to think. Stop to think of what your actions are doing, of the ramifications a simple click of a mouse can have on people on the other side of the world. , real, living people with families and friends and hobbies and interests and jobs and loves and hates and so many other various things in this kaleidoscope of life.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

On Writing

It's 5 a.m. and I've just finished reading Terry Pratchett's Nation for the third time.

There is something to be said about a book that lights a fire behind your eyes, that wrests you from the sweet caresses of sleep and hauls you in front of your computer screen and forces - no, inspires - you to write. Sometimes I sit here four hours and barely scrape together a couple of mediocre paragraphs, and I often get distracted by my research and Facebook and other things that abound on the Internet. But now I sit down and write, because the fire that has been lit burns hot and bright and fast, like a firework.

I wonder if other people feel this too, at the ends of books they love and enjoy and that lights a fire in their soul. I wonder if it is the same for people reading the Bible, the Quran. I have often lamented the fact that even though I may pass this book around to friends and people I know and love, even though they will hold the same book and flip the same pages and read the same words, it will not light the fire in their soul as it has in mine. I reach the end of a Pratchett book with my soul ablaze and I wonder, no I marvel, at the circumstances of my life, all the little coincidences and choices and quantum collapsing that has evolved this mental shape which is so inflammable to the word of satire but curiously fireproof to the word of God. And I wonder, as I pass the books around and lend them out to friends and people I love in order to spread the good word and bring the good word of Pratchett to these people, beseeching them to read it because it will Change Their Lives; I wonder if all the little circumstances and coincidences and quantum collapses in their lives have evolved a mind which is insulated against my fires, just as mine is insulated against theirs.

I've been writing a story and so I've been reading a lot of Pratchett for inspiration. I've read the stories before, and every time, by the end of the last page and the last word, the smoke is streaming out of my ears. But now that I have started writing myself, I am able to see the intricate and masterful craftsmanship that goes into each and every single word, line, sentence, paragraph. You read about foreshadowing and imagery and back references and when you write it comes out as though you've read the manual and followed the instructions to the letter; but there is a kind of magic in writer's craft, in the work of a wordsmith, weaving plot and character setting and action into one Big Idea...

I hope there's still people reading my blog, because if not then these are just my own thoughts bouncing back to me in the steel ball of a mind.

Poets. Poets are, well... they're like impressionist painters. They have a blank canvas, and they want to communicate a feeling. So they paint, in their clear strokes and gaudy contrasting colours, and when you look at the painting, you see a mess of lines and shades; but there is what looks like an eye here, and here, and this one looks like a mouth, and a nose, and so on; and once you connect the shapes you get the general feeling, the impression, of a man, a face. And the lines and shades and vaguely recognizable shapes will leave you with an impression of a man, but it cannot tell you his height or weight, where he was born or how many siblings or children he had, what he did or what he was going to do. A poem offers an impression, and for some people this is very important, because feelings are experiences too, and so people write poems and poets have their place.

But writers... writers are more like Renaissance sculptors. They have a blank block or marble, and they want to communicate an idea. So they carve it out of the marble, with their chisel of letters and their hammer of narrative; they carve out of the millions and billions of words, the infinite arrangement of letters and spaces and punctuation; out of this infinite space they carve out a story. And with their chisel of letters and their hammer of narrative, they carve out the curve of the eye and the curve of the eyelid, the indentations of wrinkles and the pattern of eyelashes; they carve and they chisel the detail, so fine and so intricate. But when the work is done and the dust is blown away, what is left is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. And unlike the impressionist's painting, the sculpture has form, the sculpture has a shape. And the shape of the sculpture is like the plot of a novel, while the idea the sculpture represents is like the theme, the Big Idea, the fire-starter. And the plus side is that, even if you don't get the Big Idea, even if you can't see the embodiment of Perfection in the form of David, then at least you can say it's a damn fine sculpture.

The fires are burning out now, flames are sputtering, the steam is being run out of. It takes so long to write a book, but so much shorter time in comparison to consume it. And the flame, the flame that it ignites burns out faster still. But perhaps there is a different heat, a kind of glowing ember buried deep in the soul, which ignites the passion and inflames the brain, and launches the firework high into the night sky where it will explode with the brilliance of a sun, for an instant.

The young man smiled, and believed.