David R. Henderson  

Roberts and McArdle on Internet Shaming and Online Mobs

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This October 16 EconTalk episode with Bloomberg writer Megan McArdle is excellent on both sides.

Some highlights, along with my comments, follow.

McArdle: I'm down on hatred in general. I don't think I hate anyone that I've ever known. And, because, you know: we have, what? 70, 80 years? I'm in middle age now, and it's such a pitifully short period of time. And to waste any of it--you know, anger is different. Anger is a natural response to things that are often outrageous. But hate--this wishing someone ill, wishing terrible things for another human being--it's destructive. It plays no good role. And it is chewing up precious seconds of your life that can be better dedicated just for you: forget the person you are hating.

I agree. I can't think of anyone I hate. I can think of people I intensely dislike, but hate is way too far. I think I was this way even as a kid. I had a friend in my town of Carman who seemed eaten alive by his hatred at one of the really popular kids, a kid who had a mean streak. I didn't want to be that way.

I think I apply this even more extremely than Megan. I think of the three arguably worst people of the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. The only one I overlapped with to any appreciable extent was Mao. Even while aware of the huge evil he did, though, I didn't hate him. I just wanted him dead. So maybe she and I disagree about what hate is. She characterizes hate as "wishing someone ill, wishing terrible things for another human being." I did wish Mao dead and if I had been born in, say, 1930, I would have wished Hitler and Stalin dead.

McArdle: And, there's this great quote from a rabbi whose name now escapes me--because I'm in middle age. He said, 'When I was young, I admired people who were clever; and now that I'm old, I admire people who are kind.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Megan McArdle: And I think that that's really true. Clever is easy. Kind is hard. And kind is, I think more effective. I'm teaching a class at Duke this semester on persuasive writing. And, the thing that I am--more than anything I am trying to drum into my students' heads is that the minute you are clever and mean and outrageous, you've lost someone. That's it. They will never listen to you. The minute you are sarcastic to them. And like, it's fun. I get it.

Russ Roberts: It's so fun.


I agree completely. Kind is so much better than sarcastic. It's also much more powerful. The last sarcastic comment I made in class to a student was in about 1995. It was a great line--or at least it seemed so at the time--but I lost the student for about 2 weeks. I resolved never to do it again. I kept my resolution.
Russ Roberts: This is a form of coercion. And since, as classical liberals, we should be worried about coercion, we should be worried about this.

Russ doesn't say what "This" is. But in context he seems to be saying that shaming people and ganging up on them verbally is coercion. I disagree, It often is horrible and nasty and ugly, but I can't see how it's coercion. Of course, if people threaten to kill you or injure you, that's different: that's certainly the threat of coercion.

Later, Russ seems to backtrack a little on that point:

Russ Roberts: So, my strategy--I take your point that there is a--social pressure can be very powerful, and near coercion. I do want to keep it separate from government coercion.

How to deal with attacks:
Russ Roberts: But, what I was going to say, the two things I would recommend are, 1). Humility. I think it's incredibly important in today's world to imagine the possibility that you might not be right. You can think that you are right. You can believe that you are right. You can act as if you are right. But you should, in your heart and in your head realize the possibility that you might not be right. And, the more you think that, the less you are to dehumanize the people who disagree with you. And I think that's the deepest threat to our daily life right now.

I think that's usually good advice but it can be overdone. I'll give an example. I might be wrong that a modest minimum wage would cause job loss because there could be monopsony in the labor market and, if so, a modest minimum wage could increase employment. I think it's highly unlikely. But it's possible. But one thing I am absolutely certain of, and an area where I don't think humility is justified, is the law of demand: when the price of something rises, all else equal, the quantity demanded falls.
Russ Roberts: The second thing I would recommend is not responding in kind to people who troll you, who send you ugly emails, etc. It took me a long, long time. I may have mentioned this before, but I've found it--it's really exhilarating to not come back with that snarky, sarcastic response to the person who says something hateful or negative to you. And when you respond, not in kind but respond kindly, and with compassion, and say, 'Well--' and maybe you just re-state your opinion calmly and make it clear that you feel the way you do--I think that's the right response.

I agree wholeheartedly. This gets back to Megan's point about kindness. I find kindness often exhilarating.

Megan ends it beautifully.

Megan McArdle: Yep. I'm not going to try to top Adam Smith. That's exactly right. Human beings can be monstrous. But we can also be glorious. And, we can choose--we have done--if you look at society, there's stuff wrong with it. But there's a lot right about it. And we have chosen those right things. We have chosen to be decent to each other. We can choose to be decent to each other more often, to assume ignorance rather than malice. And, to assume decency and respect for every person in society, not just the people who you happen to think of as your tribe.

One thing I would add, and it's complicated, is that, in certain circumstances, I have a tit-for-tat strategy. Possibly I will post on that later.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Philo writes:

Regarding Mao: I think what you actually wished was for a radical improvement in his behavior. If he were dead, that would constitute radical improvement, but there were other possibilities.

David R Henderson writes:

@Philo,
Regarding Mao: I think what you actually wished was for a radical improvement in his behavior. If he were dead, that would constitute radical improvement, but there were other possibilities.
You didn’t know me then. I knew myself pretty well. I’m positive that I wished him dead.

Lex writes:
[H]atred is by far the most powerful and durable of political emotions. One’s feelings for one’s political enemies are warm and lively, while those for one’s political friends are cool and torpid. It is obvious that the rich and the foreigner are in general hated much more than the poor and the fellow countryman are loved; while hatred of oppression is much stronger than love of freedom, especially when it is other people’s freedom. To hate injustice is easy, to love justice, or even to know what it is, is difficult. Hatred, in short, makes politics, and much else besides, go round; and while Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, he might just as well have spoken of the hatred caused by small differences.

Nor is hatred exhaustible. On the contrary, it is indefinitely expandable. It often increases with its own expression, becoming more virulent with every word uttered; it is not a fixed quantity like fluid in a bottle. It is very easy, as most people must surely know, to work oneself up into a fury of indignation and insensate rage merely by dwelling on some slight or humiliation. Above all, hatred is fun: it gives a meaning to life to those who otherwise lack one.


— From Theodore Dalrymple's "Hating the Truth," in the Summer 2011 edition of The Salisbury Review.
Hazel Meade writes:

The thing about this is that this sort of social coercion, shaming mobs and such, is often used in the context of other kinds of social coercion such as racism. The effect of systematic racism is very similar to the effect of shaming mobs in the way it pushes people who have the wrong skin color or ethnicity out of society - it ostracizes them.

In order to counter that effect, if we're not going to have government enforced laws against ostracizing people on the basis of race (i.e. anti-discrimination law), then we have to have some other socially coercive mechanism to stop it. In this case, it's a kind of defensive social coercion - we ostracize people with racist views so they won't be able to ostracize people with black skin.

Debates on this issue often seem to lose track of this fact, as if this was just a dispute among white people about etiquette among white people. When really, what's going on is a dispute about whether some white people should be allowed to privately ostracize non-whites without being ostracized themselves.

Saying that social coercion is coercion must take into account that racism is also social coercion, being decent to the racist might entail being indecent to the black person the racist is abusing. If you want to minimize social coercion entirely, that's going to entail taking some action of some sort against those who want to use social coercion to make sure that non-whites remain socially excluded out-groups.

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