Sunday, 24 August 2014

Damn! A Blog Post of Calumny

I believe it was in the opening monologue of the hilarious sixth-season episode 'The Big Salad' that Jerry Seinfeld said that "the finger" is too easy a gesture to make to be really insulting. The idea is that an insult should require some additional work. He went on to suggest that "the toe" be the really insulting gesture, particularly if you are in traffic.
Now that messages are being sent much more cheaply with the advent of the Internet and of other great advances in information technology, it seems that the cost of insulting someone should have declined. Online message boards and other discussion fora provide simple ways of informing fellow human beings of their perceived shortcomings. I wonder if this has led people to take insults "on the chin" with much more gusto than before these developments.
An analogy is the case of presents. These are like insults, but with swapped signs. Many people are not impressed with cheap gifts, wanting lots of thought and money to have gone into them, so if cheap presents are no significant cause for happiness, why should similarly cheap insults cause them any discomfort? A few possibilities:
1. People are high-strung. Possible, but unappealing since one ought to be responsive to price changes and so be less sensitive to calumny when one knows that (everybody knows that) it is made so much more easily. However, this seems to be consistent with my observations of people's feeling wronged.
2. People have become more tolerant of (cheap) insults, I just have not seen it. This is more likely, because there is a tonne of things of which I am completely oblivious, and because, according to this explanation, people do respond to price changes.
3. There is a "publicity aspect" when many cheap messages can reach just about anyone, not just the person to whom the message is intended (akin to what may have triggered the recent Dawkins abortion controversy). So even though the insult is cheaply made, its greater reach compensates. Perhaps others will think the insult good and proper for some reason. However, this does not apply to e-mails or PM's and other private messages. This still requires that the audience not infer that the insult may just be thoughtless slander. Jerry Seinfeld made the inference and of course everyone is capable of logical reasoning, so I am not sure this is a good explanation either. But if there is some probability that they believe in the calumny, this can work well in expectation, which relates to the fourth possibility.
4. There is an information problem due to the insulted person's not knowing for certain if there may be a point to the insult. He does not know this because he normally cannot tell for certain whether an insult represents considered opinion or just thoughtless drivel. Who among us is not occasionally a little bit short of perfect self-assuredness?

It seems clear that one should bear in mind the fact that it is a lot easier now than it used to be to thoughtlessly attack someone else, and attach some positive probability that one is indeed in that situation. But there remains a possibility, consistent with explanations (3) and (4), that one is in a different situation. Perhaps cheaper information transmission comes with the disadvantage of a greater propensity for insults after all?

(PS. The title of this blog post is a play on an old book by the great H. L. Mencken.)

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