Sayre’s Law and Internet Controversies

duty_callsI just watched Christiana Ellis’ most recent episode of Five More Minutes where she talks about the Batgirl variant cover being pulled. I mentioned in a comment to her that it is time to invoke Sayre’s Law, not just for this but pretty much every time one of these internet controversies erupts.

The law states “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” This is the dark flip-side of bike shedding, which is that trivial decisions get more discussion because the important and high value topics are difficult to discuss and require expertise to criticize.

I will admit to completely not understanding the mentality that leads people to make death threats over comic book covers and stories, Kickstarters they don’t like, keynotes by UX designers and other such things that are ultimately bullshit in the scheme of things. How a dislike of posted words or easily ignorable actions leads one to make real world (if virtual and thus far always bogus) threats of violence is beyond my way of thinking.

My own half-baked hypothesis is that these are the follow-on effects of the 9/11 aftermath. When America responded to a horrific unconscionable act of violence with a decade and a half of violence on nearly random targets and a culture of dehumanization, that spreads. We’ve picked up innocent people and locked them in Guantanamo indefinitely with no recourse or process to prove their innocence. We’ve decided certain populations are subhuman and don’t deserve even the minimal treatment granted by the Geneva Convention. When this permeates the culture, what do you expect is going to happen?

That’s why persistent racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious intolerance are such a large problem. When you have that mechanism of dehumanization against one group, it doesn’t take much to broaden that out to any group you decide is the next for that feeling. The best way to deal with it is to grant that everyone – your friends and your enemies, the followers of religions you believe in and the ones you don’t, the citizens of friendly countries and unfriendly countries, saints and suspected terrorists and criminals – everyone has a certain floor of humane treatment they must be afforded as a living member of the human race. It’s not a question of whether they deserve it or not, which is always where the discussion goes.

It’s not that terrible people forfeit their right to humane treatment by their actions. Humane treatment isn’t on an accrual basis like your Social Security benefit, you don’t bank it up or exhaust it. It’s that for a culture treating even the worst people as subhuman takes away our humanity, makes lives worse for the good people, foments a culture of fear and hatred and violence. The only way to avoid violent threats about silly bullshit is to avoid dehumanization as a cultural backdrop. Everyone deserves a base level of compassion and humanity, because to deprive them of it makes us monsters just like them and we want to be better.

In the end, this all sounds a little Jesusy for an atheist, no? So be it.

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11 Replies to “Sayre’s Law and Internet Controversies”

  1. Hey there, thanks for the mention. šŸ™‚

    Anyway, I think you’re on to something. Dehumanization of “the other” certainly isn’t a new thing, but neither has it gone away, so the social ills it causes just morph with the times.

    Also relevant, I think, is that the Internet has been an amazingly powerful force for democratizing communication. Many people have a voice now that didn’t before. That’s a great thing, I think, but a side-effect is that it can produce a sense of entitlement where people feel that they not only have the right to speak, but also the right to be listened to. Their response, if their insights are ignored, can be to escalate until they get noticed, one way or another.

  2. When did you become so articulate?

    I’m not being sarcastic. This is a gem of a post. Tightly written and very insightful. Solid analysis that puts forward a very well argued explanation to the widespread dehumanization we now see on the Internet. And posits a correct course of action: egalitarianism. Treat everyone as human deserving respect because you yourself don’t want to be an animal.

    If the culture values common humanity more at large, then the temperature will cool and less misogyny, homophobia and stupidity will be expressed on the Internet and in society.

    Bravo. Well said.

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