Friday, December 3, 2010

Wikileaks retreats to underground bunker

Which of course leads us to start the countdown to the inevitable "Downfall" parody video, starring Hitler as Assange.

I take it back, some analogies are precise.

Ron Paul is to the Republican party as Cynthia McKinney is (or was) to the Democrat party. Is...was... Ok, so the analogy isn't precise. Damn.

But it fits in so far as among other things, Paul the elder is a fount of profoundly subtle and nuanced analysis of the day's events, adept at either entirely missing the point, or entirely misrepresenting arguments he is intending to address:

“In a free society we're supposed to know the truth,” Paul said. “In a society where truth becomes treason, then we're in big trouble. And now, people who are revealing the truth are getting into trouble for it.”

“This whole notion that Assange, who's an Australian, that we want to prosecute him for treason. I mean, aren't they jumping to a wild conclusion?” he added. “This is media, isn't it? I mean, why don't we prosecute The New York Times or anybody that releases this?”

1: Manning is the one facing possible treason charges. Assange is not an American citizen, dontcha know.

2. As to your question about the Slimes, that's actually a good question, but be that as it may, your definition of "media" is, how to put this, excessively broad. Say I find your personal info Mr. Paul, and post it with Brave Sir Julian's approval on his website. Hey, don't stand in the way of the truth man. Right? I shouldn't "get in trouble" for it, and neither should Assange, media mogul that he is. Right? Right? And "get in trouble". Sounds like you expect that he has a time-out coming.

Get a clue Paul.

Research from the Brauhaus: Schadenfreude is best served cold, and with friends.

This would evidently explain much of the world's blogo-spheric output. I submit as evidence my own unhealthy repeated indulgences of long cold draughts, butt firmly parked on a stool at the bar of the Schadenfreude Brauhaus, most often in response to the misfortunes of Brave Sir Julian waif-like mufti-coifed international man of mystery.

But, I feel better about such indulgence, because, well, it's an evolutionary inheritance over which I have no control. Seriously. Scientific American says so. So, it must be true. Behold:

In a study published in 2009 neuroscientist Hidehiko Takahashi of Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences and his colleagues asked 19 adult volunteers to read scenarios describing the successes and misfortunes of fictional characters and to report their feelings about these people. Meanwhile Takahashi’s team scanned their brain using functional MRI. The researchers found that when the participants reported feeling envy, a brain region known as the anterior cingulate cortex became unusually active. The anterior cingulate plays a role in processing physical pain, suggesting that envy is an unpleasant experience. On the other hand, feeling schadenfreude activated the striatum, a brain region involved in processing rewards. Thinking bad thoughts can feel good.

From an evolutionary standpoint, schadenfreude makes a lot of sense. The world is a competitive place, and an individual benefits, for instance, when a sexual competitor breaks a leg or a hunting rival falls ill. “Anytime someone suffers a misfortune, that’s an opportunity,” says social psychologist Richard H. Smith of the University of Kentucky. “Life is essentially relativistic; [others’] misfortunes are good for the self.”

Now, one wonders if there lurks, in this purported explanation of the phenomenon an inescapable maze of such evolutionary speculations, some of which confirm the usefulness of schadenfreude, others which would indicate that it should not have survived as an active component of our brain function, but more as a sort of appendix.

Using the purported scenario above, one might say

"Hey look, the world is indeed competitive, but, humans are also notoriously unable to survive as individuals in the sort of 'war of all against all' you use to illustrate how good ol' schadenfreude might have got a foothold in our striatum. For reason of individual ineptitude and frailty, humans have lived socially, and are completely dependent on that sociability for individual existence, so, rather than finding joy in the misfortunes of others, wouldn't there have been some sort of fear reaction in small groups (which were the first human groups)? Something like this: "Shite! I'm closer to being on my own now that Ug has broken his leg. One less source of grub for the group, one less defender. Yikes and Crimeny."

So, at the very least individual humans these days should have conflicting emotions or reactions when they see things like that."

Ok,so perhaps schadenfreude would have come into being, not so much in small group situations, but might have been a result of inter-group conflict and rivalry? Yep. Sure enough, that's the idea. The piece continues:

Most of the psychological research has focused on the schadenfreude that people feel toward individuals—such as when a girl who dissed you in high school goes through a nasty, high-profile divorce. But a few investigators are beginning to explore how schadenfreude plays out between rival groups, such as nations, political parties or sports teams. They are finding that such inter group schadenfreude can be even more potent, and insidious, than individual schadenfreude. It may, in fact, be the first step toward more malicious group interactions, driving deep-seated prejudices that can ultimately lead to violence.

One might wonder though, that there could be a similar maze of evolutionary speculations involved with inter-group conflict. After all, we apparently got the idea that merging of groups into what eventually became urban life, was a not too shabby way to deal with the task of survival. So, given that there was evolutionary pressure that way, (with the groups now playing the role of the Ugs with broken legs) would we not have had time to select out propensity to the sort of inter-group schadenfreudastic emotions that the argument here suggests?

I suppose the authors would say that our life as urban animals has been relatively brief as compared to our prehistoric pre-urban life, so there has not been sufficient time to select out schadenfreude. Thank goodness, eh? Where would the fun be in that?

Now, this brings me to a point that seems to be under emphasised in the speculations here. The paper seems to put a lot on what you can call "mere in-group / outgroup explanations" for schadenfreude, and claims some experimental backing for this style of explanaition. That is, the explanation is that, because schadefreude is an evolutionary relic of sorts, the mere fact that a person from another group, or the group itself is indeed an outside entity, not one contained in ones own group, tends to cause individuals within the 'home' group to enjoy their misfortunes more than would be the case if the suffering individual were from ones home group.

Yet, in the examples sited, there is always an element of moral condemnation. Note; in the last excerpt we are invited to consider schadenfreude at the expense of someone who "dissed" the observer in high school. What is dissing? Well, treating one badly. So, it seems that at least that example of schadenfreude has an essentially moral core component to it. My point here is that the article makes use of examples like this, but does not seriously note the moral component. Instead it relies on an almost mechanistic model, relying on hypothesised reflex in-group / out-group reactions. To see this consider this experiment, detailed in the article:

In one study that revealed the exceptional intensity of inter group schadenfreude, social psychologists Wilco van Dijk of Leiden University in the Netherlands and Jaap Ouwerkerk of the Free University Amsterdam asked individuals—and separately, teams of two people—to play a game in which they were given money and could decide how much to share with others. After several rounds of sharing, the participants were allowed to vote one of their fellow players or teams out of the game for whatever reason. Van Dijk and Ouwerkerk found that the teams shared less money with their competitors than individuals did, and they also reported that the participants felt more joy when rival teams were voted out of the game than when individuals were.

Now, notice here that two things are true. Teams were voted out, consequent to the required sharing of money. Also, although not terribly clear from this write up, teams tended to be stingy with their inter-group giving. So, one can argue that it was not merely the outsider status that gave rise to the 'more joy' reaction, no mere prejudice, so much as perceiving that stingy bastards were getting theirs. In short, this seems to indicate that there is a moral element to at least some instances of schadenfreude, something that would account for its ubiquitous nature, and appeal. But, the writers here think a sort of mere 'competitiveness' triggers all schadenfreude:

“Schadenfreude is normally triggered by competitiveness,” van Dijk says. And social scientists have repeatedly documented that individuals in groups are more competitive than they are by themselves. Researchers are not sure what is responsible for this phenomenon—known as the individual-group discontinuity effect—but one theory holds that group members feed off the emotions of other team members, amplifying their drive to win and desire to eliminate rivals.

Schadenfreude may be particularly susceptible to this group effect, says social psychologist Russell Spears of Cardiff University in Wales. Because it is not a feeling people trumpet with pride, individuals may hide it, dampening its effect. But among members of a team, the emotion becomes acceptable as a way to bond or express group loyalty, and knowing that others share your joy can constitute permission to embrace the feeling. Once in the open, the feeling can grow. “The sharing of an emotion is likely to strengthen it by validating it,” Spears says.

I think this psychologistic or semi-mechanistic explanation just misses the mark because it says nothing about the often moral nature of schadenfreude. In addition to the dissed observer case, consider the examples the piece opens with:

Tabloids have long relied on people’s fascination with public failures: moralizing politicians or entitled actresses disgraced for their peccadilloes. And in recent years schadenfreude has become a prime-time staple, with models, boyfriends, parents, overweight people and recovering addicts, among others, routinely humiliated on cable television.

Now, not all of these are cases of people that can be described as deserving of misfortune, but some are. Most notably, the hypocritical politicians. Both parties are full of those clowns.

Indeed, the article does use, as data, some finding from the political realm. But, to explain, they postulate the simple semi mechanistic in-group / out-group, reflex reaction explanation, leaving out of that explanation any explicitly moral component. Research showed Dems experienced schadenfreude when they read accounts of things during the 04, 06, and 08 elections that boded ill for the GOP, including deaths in Iraq:

The scientists analyzed undergraduate students’ reactions to current events in the run-up to the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections and the 2006 midterm elections. The students completed surveys about their political beliefs and gave their reactions to news stories detailing various national and political misfortunes. The researchers found that Democrats experienced schadenfreude—reporting that they were “secretly happy,” for instance—when reading about the economic downturn and the deaths of American troops abroad because they believed these events would bode well for their party. “Whether the event was good or bad in the objective sense was not as important as ‘Well, will this help my party or not?’” Smith says. And the more strongly the students identified as Democrats, the more schadenfreude they reported. (The Democrats, Smith noted, were sad that soldiers had died, but unlike the Republicans, many of them thought the cloud of casualties had a silver lining.)

One might say in response, that the schadenfreude was not simply a reaction to the misfortunes of THEM, but a reaction based on the judgment that THEY were knowingly acting badly, and that public recognition of that fact would have boded well for removing bad people from power. Surely, partisans often think this way. But central to that way of thinking is a moral judgment. Whether or not that moral judgment is in error is beside the point here. The fact is, that, if you must make reference to these judgments to explain these cases of schadenfreude, then, at least in these cases, the simplistic explanation proffered in the paper is not adequate as an explanatory hypothesis.

In fact the the researchers seem to recognize this. But they don't go as far as this, probably because they want to issue a cautionary tale. But, in so doing, they ignore the full complexity of the phenomenon they are attempting to explain. The closest they get to recognizing the moral element in at least some instances of schadenfreude is to postulate that moral judgments come in as a sort of after the fact rationalization of the mechanically induced autonomic inter-group feeling sports fans often feel. They appear to hastily generalize from that sample to the wide wide world of schadenfreude:

Colin W. Leach of the University of Connecticut. In a 2009 study he and Spears asked 119 Dutch students to complete a series of surveys, which included questions about how much they disliked various nationalities, including the Germans. The subjects then read articles about a major soccer tournament in which their national team reached the semifinals and the German team—a fierce rival—was eliminated early in the tournament. The students reported how they felt about the German loss and to what degree a list of positive and negative traits such as “persistent,” “strong,” “arrogant” and “rude” applied to Germans as a whole.

Although a person’s overall fondness for or dislike of Germany was not correlated with the amount of schadenfreude he or she felt, the more schadenfreude a student experienced, the more he or she subsequently believed the negative stereotypes of the German populace. The researchers speculated that the students wanted to rationalize the fact that they felt pleasure at another group’s misfortune. To do so, Leach says, they might have had to tell themselves, “We’re feeling good about people suffering, and we’d only do that to bad people, people who aren’t deserving of nicer treatment.” In this way, schadenfreude resulting from seemingly benign rivalries could foster real prejudice.

What in the Wide Wide World of Sports is going on here? The picture here seems to be this: Schadenfreude can be dangerous, because it is a more or less 'autonomic' and evolutionarily created emotional response, on the part of individuals which is amplified in groups, and particularly strong when members of groups are privy to the suffering of out groups. That autonomic reaction, when it occurs, is subsequently rationalized as being morally justified in some way. This sort of mechanism, if indulged, can lead to dehumanization of the out groups, and atrocities, such as those that occurred in Nazi Germany.

I don't think that it can be gainsaid that this sort of scenario can unfold. But, it must also be pointed out that sometimes schadenfreude is richly deserved, that is; the moral judgement component of the emotion is not only NOT after the fact, but concurrent with cognizance of the fact, AND entirely appropriate to the situation. Schadenfreude at the hypocrite seems entirely correct, and defensible. Schadenfreude at the expense of the hypocritical who, without much concern, endanger the lives of others is entirely appropriate, and not simply a knee-jerk, in-group / out-group emotional reflex reaction. Brave Sir Julian gets what he deserves from the Wide Wide World of the Blogosphere.

As with any other moral emotion, schadenfreude is not without potential for abuse, as this article does make clear, but, what needs development is the positive side of the emotion, and a more full, true and adequate phenomenology of the same.

When used or indulged properly it, and like emotions, are effective teaching tools and methods of protection for human societies. An analogous case comes to mind. As I recall, ridicule was used effectively by some Eskimo tribes, as a way to protect the group from predation by thieves and the like.

Seems to me that schadenfreude serves similar noble purposes. Those 'moralizing politicians' learn a thing or two from the Jay Leno's of the world do they not? And is not the mere fact of schadenfreude's ubiquitous nature a disincentive to bad behavior?

Comon guys give the emotion a fair shake!

Jack Benny: Christmas Shopping