A Systems Perspective on Punching Nazis

Violence is never to be preferred, but in this case I contend that it was inevitable.

Richard Spencer, about to be punched.

On 20 January 2017, Richard Spencer, a repugnant white supremacist slug, was punched in the face. Violence is never to be preferred, but in this case I contend that it was inevitable. As such, it’s a sign of what’s to come if some very deep societal shortcomings (globally; not just in the US) are not addressed very soon.

The two sides of the Spencer case are quite easy to grasp. On the one hand, freedom of speech (especially as practiced in the USA) requires that even deplorables like Spencer be given the chance to express themselves. On the other, there is overwhelming evidence that hate speech — which Spencer’s monologue clearly was — undermines the well-being of a society and therefore ought to be suppressed.

How can these two principles be reconciled? There’s been a lot of talk since the event, and no resolution is in sight. The event itself borders on the absurd: that one feels driven to punch someone in the name of peace and well-being is the sort of thing one expects on Opposite Day.

I believe the solution lies in recognizing and understanding the broader systems at play here. Now, bear with me for a bit, because I have to start with the big picture. Also, I should warn you: I propose no solution here. The problem is too big. But that mustn’t stop us from studying it, because sooner or later, we will find a solution that makes sense to everyone — if we don’t make ourselves extinct first.

A defining characteristic of a “community” (or, more broadly, a “society”) is the existence of a collectively recognized set of behaviours that everyone agrees to follow for the general well-being of the community and the individuals that compose it. These behaviours embody the values of the community, giving them form and quantity.

For small communities, these behaviours are usually only implied, and that’s fine. However, as a community grows, so do instances of behaviours that run counter to those implicit norms. This is perfectly natural. As the population grows, the number of atypical behaviours will grow, as will the degree of diversity of those behaviours. (You’re more likely to get more highly statistically “abnormal” events as you increase the number of actors and of events.) This effect is accelerated as more “input” arrives from outside the community (e.g., globalization, the Internet,…) that causes community members to revisit if not adjust their beliefs. The friction that outlier/atypical behaviours cause within the community will also increase, leading to a general decrease in well-being: the friction between individuals and groups erode the sense of safety and security.

That’s where laws and regulations (hereunder, just “laws” in the interest of brevity) come in. As the community’s size increases, the only way to maintain the overall well-being of the collective and its individuals is to codify and enforce the behaviours that had theretofore been left only implied. That is to say, laws are necessary in very large groups to help bring about, improve, and maintain, the well-being of both the group and its members.

If laws are absent, weak, vague, or unenforced, atypical behaviours will increase. The same thing can happen if the laws are too rigid and inflexible, or enforced too strictly and without accommodation for case-by-case particulars. Atypical behaviours will often increase at an exponential rate because a behaviour becomes more and more “accepted” the more often it occurs without consequence, which in turn makes even more atypical behaviours seem less atypical. It’s a positive feedback loop. And as those behaviours become more “normal,” they happen more often. That is, statistically abnormal behaviours will become normalized over time, and the rate of increase depends in part on the number of instances of those behaviours.

While such behaviours are always disruptive, they can be either a good thing or a bad thing in the long run. They can be a good thing, because new behaviours are sometimes demonstrably superior to old ones, resulting in cultural/societal progress and an improvement in well-being. They can also be a bad thing, because new behaviours are sometimes demonstrably inferior to old ones, resulting in cultural/societal regression and a deterioration of well-being. So each law must be developed carefully and subject to ongoing review and revision as evidence is found for or against it.

(Right there — on the matter of regular review and revision — most nations already fail miserably. But perhaps that’s a topic best left for another day.)

When regressive behaviours become more common through normalization, well-being is undermined. People will feel less safe and more stressed, and they will seek ways to address those problems. For instance, if the crime rate in their neighbourhood increases beyond some threshold, people who feel particularly at risk will move away (if they can). The vacancies created by their departure will destabilize the community, presenting an opportunity for more criminal behaviour. Whether this kind of social degradation actually happens will depend on the particulars of each case, but if you have a large enough sample (e.g., a whole society or nation), the odds of this happening somewhere within it, and then spreading, increase significantly.

But what happens to those who cannot or will not move away? It’s one thing to feel forced to move to another neighbourhood; it’s quite another to feel forced to emigrate to another country. If one cannot escape a deteriorating societal situation, one’s level of stress increases even further. Desperation will set in. Actions intended to offset the deterioration will increase in severity and frequency. Without the support of properly enforced laws that adapt quickly to changing circumstances, community members will end up taking matters into their own hands — not because they want to, but because they have to, because they are unsupported by the community itself as manifested by its laws.

These actions will begin to polarize the community: some will gravitate to the side causing the deterioration (as a result of normalization), while others will gravitate to the side trying to stop it. The separation will create in- and out-groups and create an us-versus-them mentality within the community. It will create a schism. We know that one excellent way to help defuse vilification of “the other” is to have people just talk to each other. The converse follows: the lack of meaningful discussion that occurs when in- and out-groups form can magnify the separation between them. So polarization itself creates a positive feedback loop that just increases the polarization.

The situation will be aggravated by trolls who revel in the chaos of antagonism between the groups, by media interested in eyeballs and mouse-clicks above all else, and by assorted other opportunists and feckless layabouts who are able to run amok because of insufficient laws providing a suitable framework for their behaviour. Many of these antagonists have relatively free reign because laws don’t present sufficient obstacles to prevent them from doing so.

These are all powerful positive feedback loops that will keep pushing the two sides further and further apart. Eventually, and inevitably, the community will begin to exhibit chaotic behaviours — like punching Nazis — all because society has changed to the point where its laws are no longer able to provide a proper framework to embody values that promote well-being.

The speed at which regressive behaviours are normalized matters too: the faster that things get worse, the more likely it is that reactions will increase in severity and frequency. Technology speeds this up even more. A slow and gradual change can more easily be accommodated for (if beneficial) or mitigated (if harmful); changes that occur too fast for the system to respond will always lead to catastrophic failure. The problem is that catastrophically fast system changes often begin so gradually that no one really notices them; only when they snowball uncontrollably because of positive feedback do they become evident — but it’s often too late to avoid catastrophe by then.

The last century has seen an explosion of “information technology” — a rate of growth that has far outstripped the speed with which cultures, and legal and governmental systems, can adapt. It should not be surprising at all that the abundant oversupply of cheap information technology has created a demand for actual information, and that the quality of that information would suffer as a result. As information quality suffers, so does the decision-making capacity of the citizenry, leading to poorer outcomes and further decrease in well-being. (And, yes, that’s yet another positive feedback loop.)

All this also figures into Donella Meadows’s 12 levels of system leverage points. Punching nazis is an intervention of fairly low effectiveness, down around Level 11 or 12. In the (very) near term, it has immediate positive aspects: if any hateful utterance diminishes a society, then its sudden and immediate cessation (via punching) prevents those utterances from causing harm. In the longer term, however, such interventions rarely help much. Indeed, a recent call to “punch a zionist” is an obviously symmetric albeit utterly repugnant response that shows exactly how a near term solution can do more harm than good in the longer term.

To truly change things in a sustainable and pervasive way, one must go for a deeper type of change. However, those deeper types of solutions generally require significant if not intractable efforts. With respect to the Nazi-punching situation, some of these might include:

  • significantly redefining the nature of “free speech” to more severely limit the propagation of intentional lies and hate;
  • significantly limit the media from providing vehicles for spreading recognizable lies and hate;
  • significantly reward acts of kindness and compassion;
  • significantly improve educational systems, especially with respect to critical thinking and ethical behavior; and
  • perhaps the most important — and most difficult — thing to achieve: revising the legal system to be more adaptive to cultural progress while preserving the fundamental values of a society.

The problem with long term solutions is that they don’t address the immediate concerns that are having immediate and detrimental effects. Focussing only on the long term will not prevent harm in the near term, which can make things spiral out of control so quickly that not even the long term solutions will suffice.

Different people will think about this in different ways, depending on their life experience, their beliefs, their education, their positions in society, their culture,…. This is how we come to argue about punching Nazis. Some people are content to act as Meadows’s Level 11 or 12, usually because their principal concern is focussed on the immediate and the near-term. This is not without merit. Other people will naturally be drawn to longer-term, deeper solutions. This too has merit.

But both approaches have disadvantages as well. If you’re willing to accept that Nazi-punching and related interventions are “as good as it’s going to get,” then you’ll be forever fighting a rearguard action, and will very probably make things worse, thanks to the many positive feedback loops I sketched earlier. If, on the other hand, you exclude short-term solutions completely in favour long-term ones, you exclude handling the “clear and present dangers” that will cause the society to spiral out of control making even the long-term solutions irrelevant.

I can hear you saying: Yeah, but what about…. Of course, nothing is this simple. Volumes could be written — indeed have been written — about these notions. I have no silver bullet. You’ll come up with a thousand objections, reasons why none of these things will ever be achieved. Well, if that’s what you really believe, you may as well arm yourself and go on a shooting rampage till someone else kills you, because that’s exactly where that kind of thinking will lead in the long run.

So. What’s the solution? I don’t know. The kind of organization that’s necessary to resolve this in “textbook” fashion is very probably intractable for now. It would, for instance, require building a reliable system dynamics model of an entire society — no small task. If things got really bad — like, World War III bad, or worse — then maybe humanity would be sufficiently motivated to invest the resources needed. In the meantime, we need to talk, to discuss, and to offer up as many ideas as possible, because we don’t know which of these will stick and make a difference.

One thing’s for certain, IMHO: we won’t get anywhere till we can start thinking more in systems, about us, about our actions, about our cultures and societies, and laws and governments. About everything.


AFTERWORD

In the course of writing this piece, I stumbled across a variety of other stories that relate in one way or another. I note them briefly here to suggest how widespread the systemic problems are that I describe above. This is by no means an exhaustive search; I’m confident there are literally millions of other examples out there.

I should note that I mean no disrespect to anyone mentioned directly or indirectly (except, of course, for Drumpf, that tiny fingered, Cheeto-faced, ferret wearing shitgibbon). I make no value judgements on any of the positions taken either (except with regards to the above-noted shitgibbon).

  • A typical Twitter exchange that went from 0 to OMG in record time. “That escalated quickly” is a classic sign of an extremely positive feedback loop.
  • An article about the global impact that Drumpf can have. Given that the rest of the world influences the US too, we have another feedback loop. The more Drumpf alienates the rest of the world, the more the rest of the world will push away from the US.
  • The magnifying effect of media coverage and propaganda is a key driver pushing different groups apart. Here’s an article explaining a bit of that, with respect to climate change.
  • Language can be regarded as a key factor in determining whether you “belong” to a group or society. Language barriers reinforce in- and out-groups, which also drive societies apart. The unwillingness to adapt one’s language to accommodate other perspectives becomes a value judgement on “the other,” driving groups apart even further.
  • Overgeneralization is a key feature of many driving forces that drive people apart, and is fallacious reasoning. Here’s an example from Twitter. In this case, the accuser may have abundant life experience to draw her conclusion (not to mention the accused’s use of a trigger phrase “Keep America Great”), but in fact knows virtually nothing about the accused.
  • A natural systemic outcome of toothless or unenforced laws is that more and more people are willing to break the law because their values are not supported by those laws. Here’s an example. In this case, a number of historical examples are used to justify the present claim that law-breaking is acceptable. However, as with virtually every statement made on social media, it is unsubstantiated by any kind of deeper reasoning.
  • Singular extreme reactions to an accumulation of (possibly) less extreme events is one way that societal deterioration occurs. It’s a question of “the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” Here’s an example. In this case, the accumulated events perceived (rightly in this case) as generally detrimental lead to a (probably exaggerated) reaction. But as “speech acts” are themselves acts, even something like this will influence others who read it.
  • The same kind of “tipping points” that cause chaotic systemic activity in human societies have been observed in the animal world, indicating that there are evolutionary and instinctive forces at work here. It’s hard to push back against the result of millions of years of evolution, especially if you only trust your instincts and intuition, because they are very often wrong.
  • The systemic spread of harm by way of lying is explained here.
  • A great essay on the ethics of punching a Nazi is available here.
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