Periscope Depth

but big heads with soft bodies make for lousy lovers

Whenever a group of people do something terrible enough to make the news, whether it’s taunting a child into suicide, lying about the creditworthiness of mortgage-backed derivatives, or adopting the SS logo for their Marine Corps squad, I see a common reaction. As the news is being passed around, wall to wall and tweet to tweet, someone asks, “How can anybody act this way? How come nobody spoke up?”

My question: “why would you expect them to?”

At what point in the curriculum do we teach children to call bullshit on people in power? I know most course loads have a few sections devoted to critical thinking, but, as I recall, that’s mostly reading comprehension and word problems. The only lessons I got in resisting peer pressure came in the drugs and alcohol section of Health class. And compared to tormenting a kid until he hangs himself, weed is harmless.

In each of these newsworthy cases, here is what happened:

  1. Someone with a bit of authority, earned or granted, suggests doing something questionable (e.g., “let’s get drunk and drag race!”, “let’s sell credit default swaps to pension fund managers!”, “let’s adopt the logo of a Wehrmacht unit for our squadron!”).

  2. A bunch of people agree that it’s a good idea, either because they genuinely believe it to be – they followed the same chain of reasoning the originator did – or because they like power and want to be seen supporting it.

  3. One or two brave souls realize that this might not be a good idea (e.g., “what if we crash?”, “what if a statistically unlikely number of mortgages default?“, “hey, didn’t the SS implement the Reich’s ‘final solution’?”).

  4. Here we fork: these dissenters either keep their objections to themselves or voice their concerns. I couldn’t say what the breakdown is, but call it 50/50.

  5. If they voice their concerns, the originator and his supporters either shout them down (“pussies!”) or, even worse, acknowledge the logic of the objections and then water down their suggestion slightly, in bad faith, in a way that doesn’t address the core harm (e.g., “let’s only sell the derivatives that Moody’s rates AAA”).

  6. Everyone goes along with it.

  7. They get caught.

  8. A fraction of them feel no guilt for what they’ve done; a sizable portion are “sorry they were caught” and grapple with guilt for a while; the fraction who recognized the issues earlier and [did/didn't] speak up are mentally broken.

There’s no solution in the existing pedagogy. You can’t teach a lack of respect for authority: even if power-worship weren’t wired into the human genome, skepticism and iconoclasm run counter to the principles of instruction. “Never take anyone’s word at face value, except mine, and only about this!” Perhaps the solution is to stop teaching, or to teach a different set of skills that will grow into independent thought, or to accept these occasional outbursts of group monstrosity as the price of a civil society.

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