Tuesday, May 21

The humiliation cycle

Let me begin this post with an undoubted classic: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (Part I). The film charts the unexpected transformation of Michael Corleone from a clean-cut young American who’s embarrassed by his family’s business operations to the capo dei capi of a sprawling crime network: the new Godfather. The film is a classic in large part because of the psychological complexity with which Michael’s transformation is handled. Does he choose to take up a fuller role in the family because he’s decided that nobody else is up to the job? Are his protective instincts stirred by an attempted (and very nearly successful) assassination attempt on his father? Or were the key characteristics of a mafia boss – tenaciousness, cunning, a will to power – always latent in Michael, and just waiting for a chance to blossom?

All of the above. But for me (and I’m not alone) there’s one crucial moment that, more than anything else, explains why Michael turns from mild-mannered graduate to mafioso. On a visit to his father in hospital, Michael realizes that the guards that have been tasked with protecting the Don are absent, leaving an open door for a rival’s thugs. Michael knows that this is the work of McCluskey, a corrupt police captain in the pay of his father’s arch-enemy. But when Michael confronts McCluskey, he gets his men to hold Michael up; then he punches him in the face with such force that he breaks his jaw.

What’s in a punch? Maybe not much. After all, Michael soon recovers physically. But there’s another sense in which the punch has changed him forever. It’s McCluskey and his mob paymaster that become the first people Michael kills, an act which puts his former life irrevocably in the past and seals his involvement in the family with blood. And it’s the blow that Michael has received – not so much to his jaw, but to his pride – that shatters his allegiance to the respectable world and leads him, step by step, to the pinnacle of organized crime.

Humiliation, you see, can be a great motivator. Emotions often play this role; perhaps only emotions can. As the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume pointed out, it’s affective states – hope, love, hatred – that propel us towards certain purposes, not reason. Reason is auxiliary, ancillary, helping us (if that is the word) grapple towards the peaks that have caught our fancy or goaded our ambition. 

Mr Motivator

Hume’s intuition has since been backed up by social scientists, who have found his model almost disturbingly accurate. It’s not just that our tendency to like or dislike certain things sets goals which our reason then obediently works out how to attain. Our processes of reasoning are also regularly distorted by our aims. Once we have a strong motivation in a particular direction, we can be more likely to ignore inconvenient facts, cling onto crumbling assumptions, and generally cherry-pick data than to change or even reassess the path we’ve started along.

The polarisation that has gripped us in the West over the past few years has often been attributed to the fragmenting of public life into bubbles in which divergent and dissenting views are filtered out. This no doubt plays some role, especially when it comes to the proliferation of alternative sources for news and commentary, many of them unembarrassedly partisan. But if we think that social media – and Twitter in particular – is also a sizeable part of the problem (and I certainly do), it’s worth noting that stopping people seeing the other side of the argument isn’t an obvious feature of these fora. Another features of Twitter, in particular, seems much more obvious, and much more relevant, in this context: that it involves humiliation, often of a very public kind. 

Humiliation, of course, is worse – is more itself, more humiliating – when it’s public. The Athenian politician Demosthenes knew this; in one of his surviving speeches, the great orator talks about how a wealthy citizen called Meidias punched him in the face in a packed Theatre of Dionysus. In our own day, it’s similar: our wiring, after all, hasn’t changed much since 348 BC. And social media, Twitter especially, is a packed theatre in which strangers are constantly punching each other in the face.

Author of the punchy Against Meidias

I think this daily cycle of humiliation, in which thousands of citizens dunk on their fellows, only to be dunked on in turn, plays some role in the strange extremism that has gripped our politics. Doubling down is the new working towards compromise. Proponents of COVID-restrictions don’t just want their fellow citizens to wear masks; they want to force them to, with a zeal that would have been unimaginable only a couple of years ago. On the far right, edgelords don’t want to just speak their minds; they want to say the things that they know the other side will find most hurtful and, well, humiliating. Of course, there are other explanations for these phenomena, among them the desire to show allegiance to a tribe and to showcase ‘virtue.’ But the need to get back at people who’ve humiliated you is, I would wager, also part of the picture.

It may also be part of the explanation for the irrationality of some of these extreme positions. There’s no good reason to mandate 24 days of home isolation for those who’ve contract the omicron variant of COVID-19; the ‘normal distribution’ doesn’t assume there are ‘default humans’ who serve as a standard against everyone else is measured, as Scientific American recently averred; and, perhaps most obviously, Bill Gates is not trying to inject us all with 5G-emitting microchips.

But what’s interesting to me about this latest wave of irrationalism is that it suggests that we may have misunderstood the dynamics behind Dark Ages and Enlightenments. At the very least, part of the puzzle has been missing. Our central narratives have assumed that it’s ignorance that feeds irrationality and superstition, and education and information that does away with it. And I don’t want to deny that education and information are generally a force for good. But there’s also solid evidence that neither of these things stop us putting our motivations before our reasonings. Highly educated people are more, not less inclined to motivated reasoning, probably because they find it easier to find evidence (or at least rhetoric) to buttress their positions when they come under assault. Smart, well-informed thinking doesn’t necessarily mitigate motivated reasoning; it may, in fact, super-charge it. 

And that’s for what should be a fairly obvious reason, the reason that David Hume had already grasped in the 18th century: it’s our motivations that tend to be in the driving seat, not our reason, and that’s the case even when we’re reasoning. If that’s right, we might have to think differently about how social media is contributing to the current craziness. It may be that the main problem isn’t that social media has produced an environment that’s not conducive to good reasoning, but that it’s produced a kind of production-line for malign motives – ones strong enough to bend public discourse into an unusual and ugly shape.

Where do we go from here? My eternal hope is that this is still just a phase in our relationship with a new technology. Sure, the printing-press may have unleashed a century of religious tumult and warfare, but books stopped seeming so dangerous after that (at least, until recently). If we don’t find some way of halting or slowing the daily humiliation cycle, though, the consequences seem obvious. We will continue our journey from a society with a reasonably strong sense of a shared public sphere to a scenario that will be more familiar to connoisseurs of the Godfather trilogy: a city torn apart by rival clans, each led by callous and vindictive bosses who will stop at nothing in their quest to restore their honour.