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Shaming Vs. Criticism: Why The Difference Matters

Let’s be honest. It’s very difficult to have honest, civil discourse with anyone these days. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it sure feels that way sometimes. Try expressing any opinion about any issue that’s even mildly controversial. Chances are you won’t spark a civil discussion. You’ll likely trigger a flame war, especially once Godwin’s Law comes into play.

Now, I’m not going to blame all of this on the internet and social media. I don’t deny that it plays a role, but let’s not miss the forest from the trees here. We, the users of these tools, are the ones driving the content. We’re the ones who guide these discussions towards angry, hate-filled outrage. The medium is only secondary.

There are a lot of reasons why civil discourse is so difficult, but I want to highlight just one that has become far more prominent in recent years. It’s an objectively bad trend and one I genuinely believe we need to reverse. It involves this inability to distinguish shaming someone from criticizing them.

It goes like this. Two people connect, either in person or via the internet. They have a disagreement. When there’s criticism, it tends to go like this.

Person A: I hold Opinion X.

Person B: I hold Opinion Y.

Person A: Why do you hold that opinion? I don’t understand how you could.

Person B: Well, it’s because of X, Y, and Z.

Person A: I don’t disagree with Y and Z, but I take issue with X.

Person B: Why is that?

Person A: Well, it goes like this…

Ideally, both people in this exchange get something out of this discourse. Person A offers Person B another point of view. Person B has their opinion challenged and they’re now in a position to defend it. In doing so, they may reaffirm or question their position. They may even convince Person A of the merit of their position.

That’s a healthy level of discourse, guided by fair and civil criticism. There’s certainly a place for that. I even see it on social media from time to time. However, that’s not what makes the headlines. It’s the shaming that usually generates the most noise. Shaming is very different from criticism, both by definition and by practice. At its worst, it goes like this.

Person A: I hold Opinion X.

Person B: I hold Opinion Y.

Person A: What? You’re a horrible human being for holding an opinion like that! You must be a fucking asshole fascist Nazi prick!

Person B: Fuck you! Your opinion is a goddamn atrocity! Only a true fucking asshole fascist Nazi prick would even entertain it! You should be fucking ashamed!

Person A: No, you should be ashamed! You should lose your job, your money, and all manner of sympathy for the rest of your fucking life!

Person B: No, you should be ashamed! You should cry like a baby, get on your knees, and beg everyone like me to forgive you! And you should also lose your job, money, and any semblance of sympathy until the end of time!

I don’t deny that’s an extreme example. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’ve seen stuff like this play out. I’ve seen it in comments section, message boards, Twitter threads, and Facebook posts. It’s not enough to just criticize someone for holding a different opinion. People have to outright shame them to the point where they’re mentally and physically broken.

In some cases, people look for that kind of rhetoric. Some people just love trolling others by posting opinions they know will piss people off and start a flame war. They don’t care about civil discourse. They just care about riling people up. It’s what gives them a cheap thrill.

Those people are trolls. The best thing anyone can do is ignore them.

They’re also in the minority. They may be a vocal minority, but they are the minority. Most people, in my experience, are inclined to be civil. They’ll give people a chance, even if they don’t agree with them. Things just go off the rails when they interpret criticism as shaming. It’s not always intentional, either. Some people just frame their criticism poorly, which sends all the wrong messages.

Whereas criticism is impersonal, shaming evokes some very basic emotions. There’s a tangible, neurobiological process behind it. It’s linked heavily to guilt, an objectively terrible feeling that most people try to avoid at all costs. Shame attempts to impose guilt. While there are some things we should definitely feel guilty about, holding certain opinions is rarely one of them.

Does someone deserve to be shamed for how they voted in the last presidential election?

Does someone deserve to be shamed for believing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was a terrible movie?

Does someone deserve to be shamed for thinking certain female characters in media are too sexualized?

Does someone deserve to be shamed for thinking they shouldn’t believe every claim a woman makes about being sexually harassed?

These are difficult, emotionally charged issues. With that kind of complexity, there’s going to be many points of criticism. Some have real merit and they should be discussed. That’s how we learn and make sense of our world and the people in it. Once shame enters the picture, though, the merit tends to vanish.

The problem is that once the shaming starts, it escalates quickly. It doesn’t even need to escalate that much before a person stops listening and gets defensive. At that point, there’s basically no going back. It’s less about understanding someone else’s perspective and all about defending yourself.

That’s not a metaphor, either. Like it or not, people take their opinions seriously. Attacking them with words, even if it’s through a computer screen, still feels like a physical attack on some levels. You’re not just attacking an opinion, anymore. You’re attacking a person. You’re throwing metaphorical punches that have non-metaphorical meanings to those you’re attacking.

With that in mind, look at it from a purely instinctual level. When someone is physically assaulting you, is your first inclination to engage in a reasoned, civil discussion? For most people, it’s not. You go into survival mode and that often involves attacking the attacker.

You throw your punches.

They throw theirs.

They call you a fascist, Nazi-loving bully.

You call them a worse fascist, Nazi-loving bully.

There’s no logic or reason to it. Once emotions override everything, criticism becomes a moot point. It’s all about hitting back to defend yourself. It’s not about being right. It’s about survival, at least from your brain’s perspective.

If there’s one silver lining, it’s that people get burned out quickly on this kind of discourse. You can only hear two sides call each other fascist for so long before the rhetoric loses its impact. It also gets boring. It takes too much energy to sustain that kind of hatred towards someone you don’t know. Most people who aren’t trolls have better things to do with their time.

As I write this, I understand that we live in contentious times. I see the same heated debates online and in person as everyone else. I know that civil discourse is a scant and precious commodity at the moment. That’s exactly why we should make the effort, regardless of what opinions we hold.

Once we stop shaming each other for daring to think differently, we’ll realize just how much we have in common. We don’t have to agree with one another. We don’t even have to like one another. We can and should still be civil with one another. That’s the only way we’ll make any real progress.

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Why Bigotry And Prejudice Can NEVER Be Resolved (For Now)

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It’s all around us. It generates protests, outrage, and angry rants of every variety on cable news. It floods social media, infects college campuses, and drowns out any and all meaningful dialog that might actually lead to productive change. I don’t even have to reveal it at this point. Everybody knows what I’m talking about on some level or they at least have a vaguely accurate idea.

It goes by many names. Call it racism, reverse racism, sexism, man-hating, homophobia, islamophobia, or transphobia. It all falls under the same overly-divisive rhetoric that is bigotry and prejudice. It always seems to be in the news. It always makes a conversation awkward and unsexy. It seems to get better some days and regress the others.

Now I know I’m making everybody’s panties very dry by bringing this up, but bear with me. This post is not going to get as bleak or depressing as it would if it were a Michael Moore documentary. I prefer to convey a more optimistic spirit to my audience. It puts them in a better mood, which is important if you’re trying to sell erotica/romance novels.

On the surface, though, there’s no way around it. This is as ugly a topic as it gets these days, the concepts of bigotry and prejudice. If it isn’t the stereotypical white male patriarchal types bemoaning how lazy and violent minorities are, it’s the radical left-wing hippies who call everyone who doesn’t support interracial gay couples kissing in the streets Nazi supporters.

It really is a strange, distressing state in which we find ourselves in. There used to be just one extreme in terms of prejudice, namely that which tried to preserve the overtly-unequal status quo that favored one particular group, be it white men or one particular religious group. Now, the extremes are all over the place.

I’ve talked about a few of them, like radical feminism. They’re just one of the many extremes that have emerged in recent years, often in conjunction with trends in identity politics. It’s not peace-loving hippies who put flowers in guns anymore. It’s angry, entitled, hashtag-starting narcissists who go into a Hulk-like rage whenever someone dares contest their utopian worldview.

There’s an extreme for women, who want men to suffer for their historical crimes against gender. There’s an extreme for race, some of which favor completely disenfranchising all white men for their historical crimes. There’s even an extreme for those who dare to use the wrong pronouns when describing boys and girls. Yes, it really has gotten that crazy.

That says nothing about the craziness that has emerged from extremes within religious groups, but we’re all kind of used to that. We expect extremes in religion, whether they’re favoring the execution of cartoonists or demanding that their particular religion be given a right to discriminate. It’s just the same bigotry and prejudice, but with holy decrees and a convenient excuse to not pay taxes.

No matter the extreme, the outcome is the same. It divides people. It makes them angry, unruly, and hateful. It makes the comments section in every YouTube video about feminism and race relations a raging tire fire that undermines whatever faith in humanity you might have had at this point.

It’s as frustrating as it is tragic. It often leads us to ask the same question Rodney King once asked. Can’t we all just get along? Well, with all due respect to Mr. King, I’m sorry to say that there’s a wholly valid answer to that question.

Unfortunately, the answer is a definitive no. We cannot.

That’s not the solemn musings of cynical man who has read one too many BuzzFeed articles. It’s a cold, inescapable fact. However, there is a context here and a fluid context, which means we shouldn’t be too cynical. If anything, we should be even more hopeful.

The reason why prejudice and bigotry exist is simple and it has nothing to do with some vast, elaborate conspiracy by cisgendered white heterosexual males. Any conspiracy involving that many straight men probably involves fantasy sports or a “My Little Pony” marathon. Once again, this immutable problem in our society has roots in our biology.

It’s another byproduct of caveman logic. Those same settings in our brains that haven’t been updated in 200,000 years essentially guarantee that there will always be some level of prejudice and bigotry. The fact we’re able to function as well as we do as a global society is nothing short of miraculous.

To understand why this is, you need to recall the circumstances of our distant ancestors. They did not live in big cities full of a diverse mix of people from various cultures and ethnicities. They didn’t even live on farms in rural towns where cow-tipping counts as entertainment. They were hunter/gatherers, roaming and foraging in small, close-knit tribes.

For most of the history of our species, that’s how we lived. As such, that’s how our brains are wired and that wiring has not changed much. Due to the slow, clunky processes within our biology, it really can’t and that’s the crux of the problem.

Modern neuroscience has revealed a great deal about our brain’s capacity to form groups and cooperate. These groups become tribes and we, being the very social species that we are, come to tie our identity to those tribes. We work with them. We trust them. We rely on them. Most importantly, as it pertains to prejudice, we defend them and make endless excuses for them.

Picture, for a moment, how this works in our hunter/gatherer context. You’re an individual living 100,000 years ago. You have only a loin cloth, a spear, and functioning genitals. On your own, you’re not going to survive for very long. In a fight against a hungry lion, you’re basically a walking snack.

Then, you join a tribe. You ally yourself with other people who can help you, share resources, and give you an opportunity to use your genitals with others in a more enjoyable, intimate way. Suddenly, that hungry lion loses its appetite. One human is easy to maul. A hundred humans, each armed with spears and an incentive to impress fertile women, is much harder.

Being in that tribe, you come to rely on them and cherish them. Being around them gives you a sense of purpose and identity. You come to love and respect them. You form your own rituals and quirks. You sing certain songs. You do certain dances. You wear certain loin cloths that you think are stylish as hell. This tribe makes you feel complete.

Then, one day, you encounter another tribe. However, this tribe is not yours. They look different. They talk funny. They believe weird things. They wear weird clothes. They follow different rules. Everything about them is so strange and that freaks you out, so much so that you cling harder to your tribe.

Maybe there’s something about that other tribe that’s scary. Maybe they have weapons that are bigger. Maybe they have talents that your tribe can’t do. Maybe their food tastes better and their gods are more powerful. This is all causing you some serious stress and when your brain gets stressed, it does a lot of crazy things to mitigate it.

The next thing you know, your tribe goes to war with the other tribe. Your tribe loudly proclaims that theirs is the greatest tribe in the world. Their gods are better, their food is better, and their rituals are better. The other tribe is so wrong and misguided that they can’t be human. As such, killing them or demeaning them isn’t a big deal. It’s no more distressing than putting down a rabid dog.

Now, extrapolate this tribal mentality, carry it out a billion times in a billion ways within large multi-cultural societies, and apply the reaction to the comments section of a Justin Bieber video, and you now understand why prejudice and bigotry exists. You also understand why nothing can be done about it for now.

Remember those last two words though. I bolded them for a reason. This is where I offer readers a sliver of hope. Does racism, sexism, and homophobia truly disturb you? Do you wish that our society could move past it and forge a more peaceful existence? Well, you may live to see that day.

Keep in mind, these traits that make us so hateful and divisive all stem from our brains. It’s that flawed wiring that still thinks we’re hunter/gatherers picking nuts out of elephant shit on the African savanna that fosters so much bigotry and prejudice. We humans are capable of a great many technological and intellectual feats, but we cannot circumvent the wiring of our brains.

Thanks to companies like Neuralink and advances in human enhancement, like smart blood, we are very close to finally tweaking those outdated settings that make us mute certain people on Twitter. It may very well happen in our lifetime. We may see a new breed of humans whose brains can function beyond brutish tribalism.

We don’t know how these humans will think, how they’ll function with those still stuck in caveman mode, or how they’ll relate to one another. If they aren’t as hateful or petty as we are today, then perhaps they’ll find creative new ways to relate to one another, connect with one another, and make love to one another.

We can only imagine/fantasize for now, but I do take some comfort in the progress we’ve made as a species. We’ve done remarkably well, despite our caveman brains. It’s fun to imagine how much more we can do once we update the software. It may make for a more promising future and some very sexy stories, some of which I intend to write.

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