Thursday, April 25, 2013

Threats and Violence: The Demons Are Never Far From the Surface

Focus has turned to the hardest question in the Boston marathon bombing case: why? We have a living suspect (very likely guilty by the existing evidence) as well as a wealth of information from social media, witnesses, friends, and family on both him and his brother. Yet despite all of this information, understanding why two people would do something so obviously heinous and evil is never an easy thing. We may never have a fully satisfactory answer.

But while we find acts of wanton violence incomprehensible, there is more violent thought in our midst than we would care to admit. This is not news; in the 1960s and early 1970s Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo conducted experiments that showed us just how easy it is to move people across the line to otherwise unacceptable behavior.

A recent story from higher education has brought this to mind again. Earlier this week Dartmouth College cancelled classes after a public protest on campus sparked a nasty, even vicious backlash of rape and death threats in online fora. I'm sure additional details will emerge; you can read the initial news story in the Chronicle here.

What interests me isn't the initial protest, which was poorly targeted (a presentation to prospective students?) and probably counter productive. What I find more interesting is the response, apparently from other Dartmouth students who took to anonymous online discussion forums and expressed a desire to either kill or rape the protesters. One quoted example:
"Wish I had a shotgun. Would have blown those [expletive] hippies away,"
Clearly there's a logic in anonymous online environments that is different from the real social world. It's almost certain that, if you gave that particular author a shotgun and put him in that room during the protest, he probably would not have pulled the trigger and shot anybody. I say probably, because in the heat of a passionate moment people are known to do things they later regret. And I suspect that most of the other authors of similar comments are unlikely to actually commit murder or rape in their real lives, either now or in the future.

That said, I don't find it very satisfying to write this off as simply "harmless online chatter blowing off steam". As Richard Weaver famously wrote, ideas have consequences - our actions flow from the ideas in our heads. I blogged just last week about the hard questions surrounding violence and the relationship between our ideas (or our emotions) and our willingness to justify one kind of violence or another. Sooner or later, philosophies of violence become actions of violence - often when and where we least expect it.

In this sense, Dartmouth College's reaction (cancel classes) is probably a good one. The online threats are serious, not just because they make the targets of the comments feel unsafe, but because they ought to make everyone feel unsafe. There are, apparently, people within the Dartmouth student population willing to entertain the notion that private, person-to-person violence should be used against people you disagree with. This is not just wrong, it's barbaric to a degree that stopping classes for a day to discuss it seems a measured response.

I doubt that the interrupted day will change very much by itself. What the exchange at Dartmouth has done is remind us that the demons of violence are never far from the surface of our collective thoughts. Take any population - even one as wealthy, privileged, and safe as Dartmouth's is - and you will find them skulking in corners waiting for a chance to peek above the surface. If we really want to make headway in banishing the barbarism within ourselves, it can't be done only in response to crises - it must be an ongoing, everyday conversation.

In the course of living our lives we form, test, and entertain ideas about conflict and force and violence nearly every day. Most of the time we don't pay attention to the paths our thoughts travel - and that is the demons' opportunity to sneak in and take up residence. Let's hope that folks at Dartmouth - and everywhere - will start paying more attention to their own thoughts and attitudes, before the demons become actions.

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