Welcome to number thirteen in my ongoing series where I ask the men who are leaders in our community to speak out against sexism and hate.
Today, I am very proud to bring you the words of Todd Stiefel. Todd is the President and Founder of The Stiefel Freethought Foundation. He is a secular humanist, an atheist and full-time freethought activist. Todd also serves as an advisor to many of the top nontheistic organizations.
Todd speaks to us today specifically about abusive behavior on the internet and how anonymity can sometimes cause people to behave in terrible ways. He speaks of how we need to rise above our individual moral weaknesses and as a community we need to build incentives to encourage altruism and compassion.
Todd’s words after the jump.
As a society we need to stand against hate, intolerance and ignorance. Freethinkers are in an excellent position to lead the charge, as we are not bound to the broken morality of ancient texts and misguided dogma. One of the best ways to fight against hate, is to set an example of love and kindness. Unfortunately, the freethought community is doing no better in this category than other groups when it comes to our utilization of the greatest communication tool of all time: the internet.
Much like other corners of the web, our online communities are rife with anger, hate and even threats, particularly against women. This is not unique to freethinkers and skeptics. I have been on music forums where people have reported receiving death threats for posting bad reviews of guitar gear. Additionally, Michael Nugent provided a great summary of many other ridiculously unacceptable examples of internet nastiness (http://skepchick.org/2012/08/speaking-out-against-hate-directed-at-women-michael-nugent/). Of course, we have all seen the wicked vitriol regularly spewed in the comment section of any controversial post. Why is this so common and what can we do about it?
My opinion is that the main problem here is that anonymity on the internet allows people to hide and behave in ways they never would in face-to-face situations. When societal consequences disappear, people have less incentive to behave in socially acceptable ways. It is similar psychological phenomenon as moral hazard is in economic theory. A moral hazard occurs when someone, such as a person with insurance, will have a tendency to take additional risk because the cost of something going wrong will not be incurred by that person. On the internet, we get anonymity moral hazard; people are more likely to post things that would be risky in normal personal interactions because their pseudonym protects them from most of the repercussions.
The reality is that humans are the descendants of creatures that survived and reproduced because of traits that helped them out-compete other creatures. There are many traits that were selected, but two are particularly important to this discussion. First, is that compassion provided a huge advantage to our ancestors. Coupled with our intellect, it enabled them to figure out ways to take care of each other and work in teams to survive and thrive. Second, unfortunately, greed and violence were also selected as successful traits. Many of us exist today because our ancestors were better at raping and pillaging than their neighbors.
I have come to accept that all humans are capable of great good and great evil. We need to accept this and learn that our instincts can sometimes lead us down a path that creates more suffering than joy. We can never completely eliminate selfishness and aggression, because they are hardwired into our very natures. But, we can recognize our inherited moral weaknesses, and as individuals and societies we can choose to treat each other well. We can decide to build incentives to encourage kindly behaviors. We can live our lives focusing on leveraging our instincts for teamwork, altruism and compassion.
Online, much of the anger and nastiness could be eliminated if people performed a simple mental exercise before clicking to post. Visualize the answer to this question, “How would my peers react if I said this in front of a crowd of people who know me?” This question helps people see how their words might hurt others. It helps them understand the consequences of being kind or cruel. If this exercise leads to envisioning appalled faces, then the post is probably a very bad idea. If the exercise leads to seeing people wanting to engage in a calm dialogue, then the post is likely going on the right track.
Of course, there will always be people who are psychologically troubled, irrational or just plain mean-spirited. When they issue the inevitable threat of rape, death or depraved violence, we should treat it like the crime it is. Though I am not a lawyer, a few clicks reveals that such online comments are worthy of being reported to the authorities. Fortunately, society has built mechanisms to help control the people who act like our ancestral barbarians. People in the U.S. can go to this site to alert the Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://www.ic3.gov/complaint/default.aspx. More information on the legal aspects of cyber-threats can be found here: http://huff-watch.blogspot.com/2010/11/online-threats-and-stalking-and-law.html
As a community, I hope we can grow to treat each other with love and respect, even if our ideas are not deserving of respect. While acting as good critical thinkers, we can choose to be known as vitriolic or kindly in our skepticism. I would ask we take a step towards clemency in the comments that follow…
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Todd. And thank you for encouraging humanism and compassion and for supporting so many wonderful projects. It is very much appreciated.
Prior posts in this series can be found here:
More to come.