The Dynamics of Moral Outrage, Group Hatred, and Violence

By Joe Campbell
January 7th, 2009

Reem Al Ghussain, an English teacher at Al-Azhar University in Gaza in the Guardian:

[My children] ask me: “Why are the Israelis doing this to us?” My child in fifth grade asks me: “What did we do to them?” I tell them that they want to take our land and they want all Palestinians to die.

It is this attitude, this indoctrination that passes down hatred and a sense of the ‘Otherness’ of the enemy from parent to child, that is at the root of so many long-simmering conflicts. As Glenn Greenwald wrote, channeling George Orwell:

If you see Palestinians as something less than civilized human beings:  as “barbarians” – just as if you see Americans as infidels warring with God or Jews as sub-human rats — then it naturally follows that civilian deaths are irrelevant, perhaps even something to cheer.  For people who think that way, arguments about “proportionality” won’t even begin to resonate – such concepts can’t even be understood – because the core premise, that excessive civilian deaths are horrible and should be avoided at all costs, isn’t accepted.  Why should a superior, civilized, peaceful society allow the welfare of violent, hateful barbarians to interfere with its objectives?  How can the deaths or suffering of thousands of barbarians ever be weighed against the death of even a single civilized person?

So many of these conflicts – one might say almost all of them – end up shaped by the same virtually universal deficiency:  excessive tribalistic identification (i.e.:  the group with which I was trained to identify is right and good and just and my group’s enemy is bad and wrong and violent), which causes people to view the world only from the perspective of their side, to believe that X is good when they do it and evil when it’s done to them.  X can be torture, or the killing of civilians in order to “send a message” (i.e., Terrorism), or invading and occupying other people’s land, or using massive lethal force against defenseless populations, or seeing one’s own side as composed of real humans and the other side as sub-human, evil barbarians.

As Bill Bishop described in Slate the tendency of groups to polarize towards extremes (in the context of the Palin rallies in the news then):

We are constantly comparing our beliefs and opinions to those of the group. There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.

“It’s an image-maintenance kind of thing,” explained social psychologist Robert Baron. Everybody wants to be a member in good standing, and though it sounds counterintuitive, the safest way to conform is to be slightly more extreme than the average of the group.

Cass Sunstein, a law professor and adviser to Barack Obama, described how this dynamic works in a social setting as a preface to his discussion of “leaderless jihad“:

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman, David Schkade, and I were involved in several studies of punitive damage awards by juries. We began by asking one thousand or so demographically diverse people to register their judgments about misconduct by various wrongdoers. We asked them to rate their moral outrage on a scale of zero to six, where zero meant “not at all outrageous” and six meant “exceptionally outrageous.” We also asked them to come up with an appropriate dollar award…

[As our] goal is to understand how juries really behave – or more ambitiously, how outrage develops in the real world…we conducted a follow-up study, involving about three thousand jury-eligible citizens and five hundred deliberating juries, each consisting of six people. Here is how the experiment worked. Every juror read about a personal injury case, including the arguments made by both sides. Jurors were also asked to record, in advance of deliberation, their individual judgments on a bounded numerical scale, and also in terms of dollars. Next they were asked to deliberate together to reach a verdict, both on the bounded scale and on the dollar scale. Our goal was to discover the relationship between people’s individual judgments, in advance of deliberation, and the ultimate views and actions of group members who have discussed the matter.

You might predict (as I did) that deliberation would lead to compromise, and hence that the verdicts of juries would be pretty close to the median of punishment judgments of jurors; but your prediction would be badly wrong. It turned out that the effect of deliberation was to create a “severity shift.” When people began with a lot of outrage, their interactions made them significantly more outraged than they were before they started to talk. And with dollar awards, the severity shift was especially large. The ultimate award of juries was usually higher than the award favored by the median juror in advance of deliberation. In many cases, the jury ended up with an award at least as high as the highest award favored, in advance, by any of the jury’s members.

Sunstein connects this experiment of moral outrage and social dynamics to Marc Sageman’s “Leaderless Jihad”:

Drawing on the data, Sageman offers an arresting conclusion, which is that a major explanation of Islamic terrorism lies in patterns of social interaction that transform moral outrage into extremism. In his account, terrorists are not mentally ill, poor, uneducated, sociopathic, or victims of trauma. In the main, they are ordinary individuals who move to radical positions as a result of discussions with like-minded others. Sageman focuses in particular on the rise of what he calls “global Islamist terrorism” – a large and loosely organized social movement that is subject to no command-and-control structure and has prospered in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. What makes Sageman’s account distinctive is his emphasis on the crucial role of social networks – in the real world and on the Internet – and his effort to show that an understanding of those networks has significant and sometimes counterintuitive implications for how to safeguard national security. At the same time, Sageman offers general lessons about how enclosed enclaves of like-minded types help produce political beliefs and action of many kinds, including violence.

This same dynamic plays out on many different scales in our society and in societies around the world, with differing levels of ferocity. How a society deals with this dynamic helps determine it’s stability, or lack. One of the ways to address this issue seems to be dialogue and communication among polarizing groups – and friendships between these groups – a principle which Obama, to his credit, has often stood for. As Americans increasingly clustering and moving into areas in which they are ideologically comfortable, as they tend to find media outlets that cater to their ideological preferences and ignore as biased those media sources that do not, we are moving away from those aspects of American society that have tamped down extremism and encouraging this dynamic of polarization.

At the same time, we shouldn’t overstate things about American polarization. It’s hard to believe we are close to the point that Russian academic Igor Panarin is predicting – that America will break into six seperate parts [map]. Much more significant is the extent to which this dynamic plays out amongst Muslim populations that are trending towards extremism and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as these situations demonstrate extremely heightened forms of this dynamic. Without understanding this dynamic, we can never address the root of these issues – and we will be tempted to respond without adequate reflection.

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2 Responses to “The Dynamics of Moral Outrage, Group Hatred, and Violence”

  1. How Obama Uses Civility and Respect as Political Weapons - 2parse Says:

    […] method seems designed to short-circuit the dynamics of moral outrage that lead to polarization, extremism, and even violence. He illustrated this in his campaign […]

  2. Why I Despise Sarah Palin - 2parse Says:

    […] this accomplishes is what Cass Sunstein in the Spectator describes as the dyanmic of self-reinforcing moral outrage: Political extremism is often a product of group polarisation and social segregation is a useful […]

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