Discussion: Moral Outrage and Social Media

Since I have left Facebook, I want to do more to create conversation that is productive and civil, so I’m hoping to have more discussion posts like this where I post a little bit of info that I hope leads to more expansive dialogue.

Part of the reason that I left Facebook was how angry I was often getting.  One could argue that I wasn’t strong enough to resist the trappings of Facebook but it should be noted that this is part of the design of social media – to manufacture outrage.  I strongly recommend reading this article on the topic, and I think reading the link to Dr. Molly Crockett’s Nature article on the topic is also an excellent read.  From the CSM article:

“Moral outrage plays an essential role in human society. It drives people to expose and rise against injustice. At its best, social media can channel moral outrage into action, as seen in the success of petition drives, boycott campaigns, and protest planning.

But under the attention-driven model that underpins social media, there is little incentive to steer users toward action offscreen. Instead, it is in the interest of the social media companies to encourage sharing of moral outrage in a way that fosters amplification rather than action. Decoupling user attention from profit could break that cycle, say observers.”

On Facebook I would often see people expressing the same level of vitriol for those who might commit minor offenses against societal norms, to those who were truly monsters causing great levels of harm against other humans.  As an example the amount of outrage towards comments from Matt Damon in regards to the #MeToo movement at times seemed indistinguishable from things said about Harvey Weinstein.  Some questions come to mind and you can feel to address some or all of them:

Are there times when you have felt yourself feeling equal levels of anger for different levels of offensive behavior?  Or do you think that equal levels of moral outrage are justified even for the full gamut of what might be considered microaggressions to serious offenses against societal norms.  This seems very much like the “broken windows” approach to moral outrage.  Is this valid?

Is social media causing us to lose our way in really addressing the big problems by diminishing our ability to detect nuance among the “bad actors” in our society?  And as a byproduct of this do we risk pushing those who might just be slightly on the wrong side of some reasonable set of moral behaviors, further away from where we would like them to be?  It seems like we so easily ostracize and shame even small offenses on social media.

Perhaps the net effect of social media is still positive, but even so how can we use social  media to be more positive, given that the current model, as it stands, is designed to exacerbate outrage, and not promote productive conversation?

Thoughts?

Under Pressure

I’ve been away from blogging for a little while as work became quite busy and stressful as I was given a project that normally would take several months to prepare for and was given two and half weeks.  I’m not complaining though, I am still very fortunate to have the job that I do, and in the end it was a very rewarding outcome.  I had to organize a Science Olympiad tournament for 40 regional high schools and middle schools and it ended up going very well.  I didn’t actually have to do this task, but if I didn’t a lot of kids would have been hurt, and a lot of teachers very angry and so it really wasn’t something that I took any time to consider, I just knew it had to be done, and I did it because it was the right thing to do.

It got me thinking a lot about stress on how much it affects our behavior.  It cost me my spring break and I was bitter about that.  In that time I was also certainly less attentive to others in my life.  I was more moody, snapped a little more than I probably should have at people that I care about and had a lot of trouble sleeping.  The guilt of snapping at people at being less attentive to others, and lack of sleep are positive feedbacks which worsen your condition.  I am fortunate that it was only a rough few weeks.  I am fortunate to even have a spring break. I am fortunate that even though the semester still has lots of work left in it, there will be summer holidays starting in early May.  There are people who face what I face, every single day of the year, with additional stresses associated with finances that I do not face.  When I reflect on how irrational I might be in times of stress I think about the cumulative effect such things must have some people.  How hard they might struggle to find a way out, who they might time to blame their stress on, and wonder what things they might rely on to find peace.  It makes a lot of irrationality in the world understandable.

At the same time it makes you really question why it has to be that way.  We have the resources to feed everybody, we have the knowledge and ability to give good health care to everyone.  We know a lot about the universe and how to give people quality education, and we know the things that make people truly fulfilled and happy.  We know a lot about our own imperfections and biases so that we can avoid the pitfalls of our flaws.  We know better ways to correct deviant behavior, we know better ways to reduce the possibility of criminal and violent behavior, and we know better ways to raise.  We may not know everything, but we know better.  “Civilized” society seems so counter to how we operate as humans that somedays I really question whether or not it is all worth it.  Even though we might live longer on average than our hunter gatherer predecessors, and can avoid many of the deaths from natural disasters that our predecessors could not, sometimes I do wonder whether or not it was all worth it, and whether or not we shouldn’t all still be climbing trees to pick fruit.  And yeah maybe it would be sad to lose a few people to drought, or malaria, but so much death nowadays seems to be preventable and avoidable.  The destruction in Belgium and Turkey recently really makes one question whether all this is worth it.  Has any of this civilization experiment increased happiness?  Benefitted the home we call Earth?  Given our evolution as a species perhaps this trajectory was unavoidable, but it feels so much easier to accept deaths caused by the pitfalls of living in the wild over seeing death occur from senseless acts of violence that will never lead to any gain, or seeing children die from hunger while not very far away somebody sits on a fortune of money and resources they do not even need.

Alright, I know this is not very cheery and I am not helping much to increase human happiness either, but I think many people share these thoughts.  I of course do believe that this trajectory of civilization was to avoid human suffering and nobody really imagined the consequences we are facing now.  Maybe these are the growing pains we must go through.  I hope that our intelligence is great enough to get us out in the end.  Perhaps the real shame is that our lifetimes are still too short to be able to see the end result of all this suffering.  I wonder if a 13th century scholar who watched people die from plague after plague, and endless crusades and wars, could visit us now if he would actually be impressed with our moral progress.  Maybe what we have now is further than he or she ever dreamed.  Maybe they would remind me to consider myself lucky that I live in such times and that now that they have seen the change possible over the long march of time that there was every reason to continue to have hope and strive for more.  And if there is one thing that I know for sure is that nothing has ever been made better by despair.  And if I want a world in which people do not live in despair and have reason to be hopeful then I must lead by example, even if I only touch a handful of people in my world.  Who knows how far the ripples of our impact will travel through time.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine

There are some topics which completely perplex me, and this is certainly one of them. It seems strange to me for many reasons why people subscribe to the

From http://www.hydramag.com

possibility of the world ending in a sudden almighty purge.  This post has been a long time coming and I am sure I will not blow many people’s minds with anything I say here, but I will try to address the topic a more serious tone rather than the rant I feel like doing.

This post was prompted by an article my colleague quite humorously ranted about on Facebook about the blood moon being an indication of the end of the world. I quote: “People, it’s a freaking rock, orbiting a slightly wetter rock, orbiting a hot mess called the Sun! Shadows happen!” This end of the world prediction is just one in another line of many that have been made in human history. This Wikipedia listing gives a pretty good run down of whom and when end of the world predictions were made and you can see that there are around 150 listed in addition to ones that are supposed to still happen.  I am also sure there have been many more in human history that have not been documented. Most rational people would wonder why anyone would still buy into any more predictions about the end of the world when none of them have come true before. You know the whole “fool me once shame on you, fool me 150 times…” But it’s not enough to say well it’s obvious that these people with apocalyptic imaginations are wrong, the fact that they keep popping up should tell us that there is something in our psychology that causes some people to subscribe to such scenarios.

I read an interesting article in a great journal called Daedalus called Apocalypse and The End of Time by Richard Fenn who tried to analyze a lot of the commonalities between end of the world predictions and what societal influences seem to make them most likely. These are some of the things he came up with:

  • Many apocalyptic predictions come from people who feel society is in moral decay. This can arise from greater secularism in society, or because one culture feels that they are being influenced by an outside culture. Both of these represent cultural shifts in which an old way is being replaced by a new way.
  • Decreased economic conditions and oppression (or perceived oppression as is often the case by more religious zealots).
  • A fear of change in general. The young , people who think for themselves, and in more patriarchal societies, women all can represent a change to a current way of life.

Of course many of these things are interrelated and I think we can easily see how many of these things boil down simply to change and our inability to deal with an increasingly complex world. Thus it is not completely surprising to me that those who are more prone to believing in a fixed set of rules that govern the universe which are immutable and prescribed by the supernatural are also more likely to subscribe to end of the world predictions. As a scientist, to me change seems natural and inevitable and though some change is less pleasant than others I hope that the world will be propelled forward more than it is pulled backward.

For those who know me, you also know how fascinated I am with the subject of time, and, to me, time is also the study of change. Thus it comes as no surprise that Fenn argues that the apocalyptic imagination is an attempt to move away from the passage of time. With this timelessness we also lose change. We also lose individuality. Many of the apocalyptic prophecies involve the destruction of corrupting influences and the preservation of those who fit a prescribed moral code, merging with the one true God. Thus this desire for end times also perhaps plays to our psychological desire to remove complexity from the world to some harmonious state of peace in which nothing is changing and everyone is like everybody else.

And I can understand this desire.

There are plenty of times in which I wish I could freeze a moment and time and make it last longer. There are times in which I wish the world wasn’t so difficult, that there was no pain and suffering, and that I didn’t have to argue and fight.  This of course is fantasy. And fantasy has its place and I believe we need it from time to time to stay sane. Adhering to a fantasy for a prolonged length of time, however, is insanity. More importantly we should not forget that there is real beauty in change. The fact that I am an example of change, from a fertilized cell to a grown 40 year old man, that I have strived to learn and grow wiser and more moral with time, indicates that change can be a good thing. Change is inevitable, so let’s not fight change, let’s keep fighting to make things better. We still have a long way to go.