To boldly go where no cliché has gone before

May 03 2019

In keeping with my long history of taking courageous positions, I opined in last week’s newsletter that hatred is a bad thing. Now MRN reader Jane is asking whether I could develop that observation into something that is, you know, actually of use to someone.

Jane put it more politely than that. I had said that we seem to be witnessing an escalating war between violent extremists—mainly white nationalists on one side and jihadists on the other. Recognizing that hatred was fueling this war, I said, was the place to start in thinking about “constructive policies the next administration might pursue and about constructive non-governmental initiatives (including the micro-initiatives that each of us can take in our everyday lives).” Jane quoted the part about micro-initiatives and wrote, “I wish you’d elaborate on this.”

OK, I’ll try. But please keep your expectations low. Remember: I said micro-initiatives.


One premise of the idea that we can all do things that might help defuse an incipient war between extremists is this: hostility is contagious, and it’s contagious in two different senses.

First, there’s inter-tribal contagion. If I see a tweet or Facebook post by some alt-righter or borderline alt-righter and reply to it hostilely (even in the sense of sarcastically), the target of my hostility will grow only more hostile toward the group he sees me as part of (lefties, coastal cosmopolitans, whatever).

Second, there’s intra-tribal contagion. The more hostile this person feels toward, say, coastal cosmopolitans, the more he’ll affirm and encourage that kind of hostility among his fellow tribe members, even tribe members whom he’s never met and who live nowhere near him. And he doesn’t even have to have that goal in mind. Social media are, among other things, stunningly efficient media of emotional contagion, and their intra-tribal conduits are robust.

So your replying sarcastically to some borderline alt-righter could, for all you know, have negative ripple effects around the world, ultimately intensifying the hatred not just of borderline alt-righters but of their ideological cousins, flat-out white nationalists, including potentially violent ones. Which means that not replying sarcastically could, relatively speaking, have positive effects around the world. And (let’s dream big!) engaging in a civil and earnest exchange that chips away at the borderline alt-righter’s negative stereotype about your tribe could have even more positive effects.

So what are the chances that a single act of restraint, or of civility, will, via these ripple effects, make a big difference—keep some teetering-on-the-brink white nationalist from becoming hate-filled enough to take the plunge into violence? Well, in the case of a single act of restraint or civility, not high. And, honestly, in the case of thousands of acts, not super high.

But if more and more people engage in these acts on a regular basis, I think the chances of an effect that dramatic do become high. And there is a chance—a percentage higher than zero—that one of your acts will be the one that does the trick. For all you know, one of your acts already has.

This is a pretty Buddhist view—and not just in the sense that it accords with the Buddhist idea of “right speech” and various other expressions of Buddhist ethics. It’s Buddhist in its conception of the way the world works.

Buddhist philosophy emphasizes the subtle causal interconnection of everything. Indeed, part of the logic behind the famously mystifying “not-self” doctrine—the idea that your “self” in some sense doesn’t exist—has to do with all the subtle forces constantly impinging on us, shaping our behavior so pervasively as to raise questions about how much of our behavior truly originates from “within.”

But, leaving aside the question of where our behavior originates, the flip side of this worldview is that this behavior—including our online behavior—is a causal force that ramifies subtly in myriad ways, and winds up, however indirectly, influencing all kinds of things all over the world. (One virtue of the Internet is that it’s made this ancient Buddhist idea harder to deny by illustrating it so vividly.)

You can’t say for sure that any one act of “right speech” will have ultimately good effects; emotional contagion isn’t that precisely predictable. Then again, you can’t be sure that covering your mouth when you sneeze will always have good effects; maybe if you’d given the person next to you your cold, they’d have stayed home the next day instead of going out and getting run over by a truck.

Still, subduing the spread of the cold virus has predictably good effects on balance, and I’d say the same thing about subduing the spread of figurative malicious viruses, like hostility.

So, anyway, this is the kind of thing I meant by “micro-initiatives.” There are kinds of things that, if you keep doing them, will make the world, on balance, a better place. And for all you know, they’ll make the world a better place in a dramatic way.

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