Rhinoceros

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Where is it written?

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I recently came face to face with irrationality.

I was attacked online…

Called terrible things…

Directly threatened.

Why?

I pointed out an inaccuracy.

My crime was naively wandering into the world of online conspiracies, believing I could set things right with “better information.”

Here’s the story:

A mixed martial arts account I followed on Instagram posted a story about a California law called “SB-145.”

The post claimed that SB-145 “legalized pedophilia” as long as the criminal was “within 10 years of the age of the victim.”

If that sounds insane to you, that’s because it is.

Who would pass such a law? 

Who could possibly benefit politically from such a thing? 

Why wouldn’t every single TV station and newspaper be screaming about it?

The experience was very similar to the one I described in Just Perfect, where I wrote about the Kevin Carter story:

“We are much less likely to give it the scrutiny it deserves when it reinforces our preconceived notions about how the world works.

…to create any narrative – be it historical, or social, or personal – we must first sand down the edges of reality.

The problem with the internet is that in all it’s chaos, it’s very easy to miss the narratives…

And mistake them for reality.

So the next time you find yourself immersed in something that seems too good to be true, too perfect, too chef’s kiss….

Ask yourself:

‘Is this real?

Or is it Just Perfect?’”

After a brief Google search, I discovered a few things:

– SB145 in no way legalizes sex with minors. Sex with any minor remains illegal in California.

– Existing law in California already gave prosecutors some leeway in deciding whether to charge offenders with a felony or a misdemeanor in cases where vaginal penetration was present.

– This meant that gay teens, having sex underage, would always be charged with felonies, while heterosexual teens could receive leniency if the court felt it was called for. SB-145 sought to remedy this.

– The 10 year age gap is in the law to make sure it doesn’t get applied past a certain age range, regardless of the particulars of the situation.

That’s it.

(Don’t take my word for it. If you wish to read more about SB145, you can access the entire text of the bill here. You can also find coverage of the bill in the Los Angeles Times and in USAToday.)

My “crime” – for which I was harassed, bullied, stalked, etc – was posting the text of the bill in question on the original post.

Now, maybe you think SB-145 is a terrible idea. Maybe you think it’s great.

Maybe you think the age range should be larger, or smaller, or shouldn’t be there at all.

These are all perfectly reasonable positions to hold. Debate is the lifeblood of democracy, and should be encouraged.

What isn’t a valid position to hold is that all interpretations of reality are equal, and any rebuttal of your position is evidence of a satanic conspiracy to kidnap your children.

Because…yeah.

Irrationality is not new. 

Mob mentality is not new. 

In-group thinking and “logic-proof compartments” are not new.

What is new is the extent to which the internet makes irrationality viral.

Case in point:

After my comment on the original post because a flash-point for harassment, I blocked the account in question and everyone involved. 

Done and done, right?

Not quite.

People found my comment, then created fake accounts to make wild allegations on my personal profile.

Other people – unconnected in any way – saw these comments, then commented on them, raising their visibility.

Still other people saw those comments, and soon there was a post on Reddit, asking about the “allegations” against me.

“I can’t find anything on Google,” one post read. “Does anyone know anything? It’s really disturbing, if true.”

Disturbing, if true.

People responded, expressing dismay, wondering if I was secretly a monster this whole time.

Because there must be something to it, right?

After all, there were all these comments…

…And where there’s smoke, there must be fire.

See what happened here?

An idea, with zero evidence, zero connection to reality…

Had somehow manifested itself into reality.

If I hadn’t taken steps to remove the content in question, it would still be out there…

Providing a form of “evidence” to those who sought it out.

Smoke, implying fire.

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From this irritating, idiotic, and frustrating experience…

I learned a secret of Power.

Here it is:

You can gain power by becoming expensive to deal with.

Michael Korda wrote about this in his manual of “corporate warfare”, conveniently titled Power:

“A person who has required the reputation for being hysterical, thin-skinned and oversensitive will usually get a raise or a larger office more easily than a placid worker, for the excellent reason that no on wants to provoke a nasty scene….

When you’ve got treat somebody with kid gloves all the time, you pay more attention to them than you would to somebody else, and in the long run, they get more.”

True of the individual…and doubly true of the mob.

Irrationality, mob mentality, herd dynamics…

Whatever you want to call it, it spreads because regular people choose to do and say nothing.

Because it’s simply too expensive.

Most people are simply trying to live their lives. They don’t want to be stressed, or worried, or looking over their shoulders all the time.

Commenting on someone’s online profile may not seem like a big deal; amplified across dozens or hundreds of accounts, it can be terrifying. It is a “tax” on speech – making it just painful enough to speak up or speak out that regular people choose to look the other way.

In the incredible Among The Thugs, Bill Buford describes how large, unruly gangs of soccer “hooligans” would get to games via train, despite not having any money: 

They’d simply make it difficult to make them pay.

“They’d scream, holler, and make a fuss. They’d crowd into trains in large throngs, so that it was impossible to pick out any individual. Instead of handing over a ticket when asked, they’d make a game of handing over something else – a sock, some belly-button lint, a cigarette – until the ticket-taker simply moved on…

‘[The gangs] had learned two principles about human nature—especially human nature as it had evolved in Britain.

The first was that no public functionary, and certainly not one employed by British Rail or London Transport, wants a difficult confrontation—there is little pride in a job that the functionary believes to be underpaid and knows to be unrewarding and that he wants to finish so that he can go home.

The second principle was the more important: everyone—including the police—is powerless against a large number of people who have decided not to obey any rules. 

Or put another way: with numbers there are no laws.

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To be clear:

I don’t think I’m “better” than these people.

I don’t think I’m “above” irrationality or the rush of the mob.

We all get fired up by misleading news stories, share articles we haven’t read, form opinions on things we barely understand.

But we have an ethical responsibility to resist, as much as possible, the lure of the irrational.

The alternative is not simply misinformation…

It is destruction.

Eugene Ionesco knew this.

The avant-garde playwright had watched his homeland of Romania fall under the sway of fascism. 

He wrote vividly about the experience in his haunting play, Rhinoceros.

In Rhinoceros, Berenger, the everyman main character, watches in horror as the citizens of his small town all gradually transform into rhinoceroses.

BERENGER: [He opens the staircase door and goes and knocks at the landing door; he bangs repeatedly on it with his fist.] There’s a rhinoceros in the building! Get the police!

OLD MAN: [poking his head out] What’s the matter?

BERENGER: Get the police! There’s a rhinoceros in the house!

VOICE OF OLD MAN’S WIFE: What are you up to, Jean? Why are you making all that noise?

OLD MAN: [to his wife] I don’t know what he’s talking about. He’s seen a rhinoceros.

BERENGER: Yes, here in the house. Get the police!

OLD MAN: What do you think you’re up to, disturbing people like that. What a way to behave! [He shuts the door in his face.]

The horror is magnified by the fact that nobody seems particularly upset about this transformation.

The intellectuals rationalize and explain it.

The religious adopt a posture of resignation.

The political assure him that there are “good points on both sides.”

DUDARD: Oh stop thinking about it. Really, you attach too much importance to the whole business. Jean’s case isn’t symptomatic, he’s not a typical case—you said yourself he was proud. In my opinion—if you’ll excuse me saying this about your friend—he was far too excitable, a bit wild, an eccentric. You mustn’t base your judgments on exceptions. It’s the average case you must consider.

BERENGER: I’m beginning to see daylight. You see, you couldn’t explain this phenomenon to me. And yet you just provided me with a plausible explanation. Yes, of course, he must have been in a critical condition to have got himself into that state. He must have been temporarily unbalanced.

At some point, the balance is tipped; people switch from explaining and excusing the rhinoceroses to accommodating them. 

Bewilderment becomes resignation, which becomes acceptance.

Before long, only Berenger is left. The streets are overrun:

BERENGER: There’s a whole herd of them in the street now! An army of rhinoceroses, surging up the avenue…! [He looks all around.] Where can I get out? Where can I get out? If only they’d keep to the middle of the road! They’re all over the pavement as well.

Where can I get out?

Where can I get out?

Of course, by then, it’s too late. 

With numbers, there are no laws.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Nowhere is it written that we have to give in to our worst impulses:

Our tendency to trust what’s in print (regardless of who wrote it…)

Our tendency to jump to conclusions (regardless of whether we understand the issue…)

Our tendency to dehumanize our intellectual opponents (regardless of whether we know them or not…)

Our tendency to lose ourselves…

And become the rhinoceros.

Nowhere is it written that it must be so.

So:

How do we resist?

How do we fight?

How do we retain what makes us reasonable, what unites us as citizens, what makes us human?

For one, we can simply hold ourselves to a higher standard.

To stop, as I have, sharing articles we haven’t read completely.

We can require a higher level of journalistic integrity from our news sources.

We can keep an open mind, especially on complex issues.

To admit, without shame, that the world is complicated and that we’re probably wrong.

But I also think we need to admit that these conversations – 

the important ones, like the one we’re having right now, you and I –

These conversations can’t happen on social media.

Every aspect of the online experience makes deep and reasonable conversation unlikely, if not impossible.

The distraction…

The anonymity…

The noise.

These platforms pretend to be the “town square,” a place for people to meet, exchange ideas, and debate…

But they aren’t.

At worst, they are Skinner Boxes, rewarding our very worst tendencies.

At best?

They are the city streets upon which the rhinoceroses trample each other.

We can do better. Be better.

Build something better.

This newsletter?

This is me, trying to build something.

A place for thought.

For becoming a better person.

For intellectual humility.

For teaching.

For tolerance.

Is it working? 

I don’t know.

But I am trying.

And you can do the same.

Could be a conversation at the dinner table…

Could be a text-chain with friends…

Could be a book you pass to a colleague…

Or holding yourself to a higher standard when you debate politics.

It doesn’t have to be big.

It doesn’t have to cost anything.

But we need you to build something better.

This is how we fight.

This is how we resist.

This is how we win.

Yours,

Dan

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Cool Stuff To Read:

JillLepore may be my favorite historian.

This article – The Last Time Democracy Almost Died – is both haunting and hopeful. 

Highly recommended.

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