Internet In-Group, Internet Out-Group, and Virtue Ethics

One of the funny things about the internet is that it allows people to interact with each other over long distances. While human relationships formerly had a strong geographical component to them, now, thanks to the internet, geography has lost some of its power. But a new kind of terrain dominates the internet instead: ideology.

For some reason humans form groups based on ideas. You like Apple computers, I like IBM? ACK!!! Anathema! You like Catholicism, I like atheism? Anathema!!! You like Sarah Palin, I think she’s a knucklehead? Anathema!!! Giants or Dodgers? Anathema!!!

While religion and politics may seem to us like good things to schism over, why are they any more important (in terms of schisming, i.e. “why schism at all?”) than type of computer or baseball team? I think it’s fairly obvious that we can say this: the content is almost beside the point. The point is that humans split based on commonalities, and ideas seems to be the prime commonality to split over. Group-dynamics are psychology. Group-splitting is innate to us, an irresistible proclivity. Might as well ask dogs to not like fire hydrants.

Add the internet to this psychological mix and an interesting thing happens. First of all, the only people who tend to get into internet discussions are people who are REALLY interested in whatever it is they are talking about. Sometimes they can be kinda fanatical.

Second, they are often ostracized in their real (i.e. geographic) world environments – like atheists in the Southern or Midwestern US, theists in secular places, or IBM lovers surrounded by Apple lovers. In other words: alienated. And so they run to the internet to find others like them and commiserate and encourage each other. I’ve spent enough time observing atheist and Catholic blogs to see how it works. Groups form.

Then add one more thing to the mix: internet people have no accountability for what they say. In the real world, people are more polite because you can see who they are, and therefore they demand a modicum of respect (they might make a mean or sad face at you, after all). But on the internet, you can have anonymity – nothing you say can necessarily be traced back to you.

So what happens when these three things get together? Inflamed groups of alienated ideologically-bound people with no responsibility for their actions, often arrayed around internet demagogues who build up little ideological empires by appealing to in-group / out-group relationships. This is the world of PZ Myers, for example. Or various creationists, or even geocentrists (yes, they still exist). On the internet you really can find anyone to agree with you.

Luckily, these people just like to type. I’m not sure they are dangerous in the slightest (though it is not as if the written word has no power). But they can be rather rude and generally unpleasant. And being rude to people just because you can do so without repercussions and because your in-group says it’s cool is unethical. Not only does it hurt others, it distorts one’s own character.

The funny thing about our blog here at TMMF is that we do not fit a clear internet group. Our focus is ethics (surely an under-represented field on the net), but although we have an interest in religion, collectively we are not terribly partisan. We write about food and sports and the environment and so on. Sometimes religion is explicit, but often not.

I write about atheism and religion sometimes, and I have a clear side that I’m on – I used to be atheist and now I’m not. But it’s not like I think atheists are all evil, since I used to be one and I wasn’t so evil back then. So when I write about atheism I try to be extremely specific and address specific persons or ideas, not generalities or groups of people. I don’t want to be rude. I accept correction if I make a mistake (just read the first few comments on this thread, ouch! But read on, it improves).

But often when people read my stuff, they automatically assume (it seems) that I am some ignorant Christian who lives in a cave. Sometimes they come out verbal guns blazing and then act weird and disappear when I’m not what they expect. Whoops. Wrong internet old-Western saloon.  Try the next door.

But sometimes they do not. Sometimes they stick around and make friends, and I like that. The internet should be a place to make friends across ideological lines precisely because it is not limited by geography. Why should the internet by dominated by the angry, alienated, and socially-inept? Why not the friendly and socially-inept? (Or perhaps social ineptitude and unfriendliness are linked?) Why does the internet bring out the worst in people rather than the best?

Enter here: virtue ethics. And it’s all to do with the group, again. Virtues and vices have a bad tendency to be set by whatever group happens to have them. Person approaches group. Group sets standards for membership. Walk like this, say this, graffiti this. Now you are a loyal one of us. Go write a mean comment on that out-group blog! (PZ Myers’s community does this all the time.) Hurt others and you are really one of us. Just like a gang.

This is the pitiable state of humanity where this is considered normal, even as we are surrounded by the riches of technology and thousands of years of culture and science. We can talk to anyone in the world and we choose to be rude to them. What small hearts we have. We can seek truth in conversation with others and instead we see who can land the best verbal punch. Thus we gain the approval of our in-group and validate our beliefs against those of our out-groups. Little dopamine receptors get stimulated in our brains and we get all happy. How embarrassing.

The groups sets the ethic, sets the virtues, and the individual signs up and participates, all automatically, easy as falling off a log. As though we were born to act that way. Which, of course, we are. We find a group willing to accept us, and then we mold ourselves to its standards.

Interestingly, the internet also entices bloggers to fall into patterns which encourage this group formation. For example, if I wanted to really attract a bunch of traffic to this blog, I could blog on atheism and religion ALL THE TIME. I could adopt a progressively more extreme stance until I became a caricature. I could constantly comment on and link back to other blogs and attract new readers and commenters like poking beehives attracts bees.

Eventually I would nauseate myself, no?… but then commenters could start steering conversations. And approving or disapproving of my actions. And depending on my temperament I could find this attractive. And low and behold, I could become a demagogue. Not likely, really, since I’m not anywhere near that exciting, but that is how groups get steered. There might be a leader, but even the leader is susceptible to influence and approval.

That is why, just to finish off, I appreciate blogs where real virtue (not gang virtue) is not crushed and where the “leader” has some standards and refuses to get pushed into demagoguery. The blogger sets the tone, and the commenters follow suit or not. People are not automatically assumed to be adversaries, but rather just fellow human beings looking for friends or the truth or at least some meaningful conversation. For example, “Unequally Yoked” does this better than most. “Rationally Speaking” also gives it a go. Both are atheist. There are good religious blogs of course too. So maybe it is possible.

That is what I would like this blog to be, at least my little part of it, but even I have trouble being so noble at times. I guess it’s because I’m human. Darn millions of years of selective pressure for group loyalty and approval! Now we’re stuck with it!

We need to work hard to overcome these tendencies to split over stupid ideas. We need fewer groups and more friends across groups. We need fewer loudmouths and more “thoughtful mouths” (yeah, wishful, I know). We need to be loyal to the truth, not loyal to the group. The internet gives us unprecedented abilities to learn new things, meet new people, and see how we are all human together. Wasting it all on dumb old human psychology really is a shame.

UPDATE: Leah at Unequally Yoked wrote a response to this post which is worth taking a look at. She asks: what is worth schisming over? Isn’t pursuit of the truth worth it? I suppose I’ll have to respond!

And here are a few related stories on this blog: Mental Violence and Toxic Narratives (on being bio-culturally composite creatures and using stories to bind groups); On Narrative Malfunction (on when you do not live up to your group’s stories); Is Power Evil? (on the goodness and badness of power and how to tell the difference); and Ted Peters and the Wolf, um, I mean aliens (on how groups perceive each other and whether morality progresses).

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