Posts Tagged ‘Internet’

How To Save Our Weapons of Mouse Destruction!

March 6, 2010 2 comments

Our recent debates about the need for new U.S. laws to protect our privacy on the Internet are all inspired by the very negative emotions of shame and disgust. Where’s the love? Some smart people in this debate contend that our system of law cannot be understood without some reference to the emotional impact on those people the law is meant to protect.

For instance, Daniel Solove invokes the help of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum to define ‘shame‘ in his book, The Future of Reputation. Her book Hiding from Humanity, I think, is even better as a philosophical treatise on the difference between norms and the law. Her greatest critique and the point that Solove avoids in his arguments is that we should be wary of laws that have as their sole agents the emotions of ‘disgust and shame‘ because indulging in those emotions allows us to hide from our humanity. She refers not only to our humanity in the general sense but also to those specific features of our humanity that are most animal-istic: our vulnerability and mortality.

Nussbaum portrays emotions and vulnerability as fundamentally intertwined, and interprets laws as defenses against human vulnerability to a wide variety of harms. However, Nussbaum takes the strong position that disgust is never constructive in law, and in those cases where it might seem to be useful, indignation is actually the more appropriate constructive emotion.

Can you imagine putting ‘disgust and shame‘ on a continuum for the courts to decide? The ruling would read:

“well, let’s see, this example is ‘mildly’ disgusting and embarrassing and deserves a “3”while this is other example is ‘really’ disgusting, so let’s give that one a ’10’!”

As Nussbaum contends,

“we cannot trust disgust to carry innate wisdom or any meaningful correlation to what is really harmful and …, disgust prompts turning away from a stimulus or issue rather than constructively handling it.”

Discrimination of Jewish people and subordination of women are the result of laws based on disgust. Most people respond to disgust by distancing themselves from the object. In Nussbaum’s view, this “out of sight, out of mind” reflex undermines the ability to productively use disgust in fighting for progressive causes such as human rights.

For example, disgusting images from the genocide in Rwanda motivate some to turn away from the information and avoid learning more about it, which in turn prevents them from actively working to prevent future crimes against humanity. For others, the images are seared into the memory, and they are thereby motivated to support the prevention of such crimes. Their indignation supersedes their disgust. This type of ‘positive’ rage against the breach of human rights embodies the best kind of wisdom that has spawned the most meaningful and productive laws like anti-discrimination, for example.

Solove needs to take heart as he admits the dilemma in trying to embolden laws based on general themes of disgust, shame, guilt, depression, embarrassment, humiliation and rage. The digital socialism reinforced by the ‘open source’ world of the Internet not only exposes all of us to unprecedented sharing of our formerly ‘secret’ inner lives but also challenges us to come to realize our most difficult ability – the group consensus.

In fact, it is empirically proven in studies that the decisiveness of other cultures differs considerably from that of Americans. The Japanese, for instance, have assimilated values that actually promote building a group consensus at the expense of individual initiatives. My personal favorite is that the universal use of wearing a gauze mask in Japan to prevent others from catching the mask wearer’s cold is easily seen in America to be an embarrassing few who wear masks to prevent catching a cold from others! In Japan, it’s all about what’s good for others, in America it’s all about what’s good for me.

American culture clearly emphasizes individual decision making through concepts such as freedom and rights. We like being anonymous and selfish and singularly righteous about, well…just about anything. We also don’t care much for laws that inhibit our ability to ratchet up our personal weaponry or our scopes or our recorders.

Fortunately, our founding fathers were able, after much debate, to actually reach a group consensus and free up our speech and our press and protect our privacy as best they could. They decided to defer on the topics of gossip and rumor and the Internet.

So, instead of passing new laws because we are so disgusted or shamed about our reputations and secrets we should instead gather up our indignation and rage and channel it to admit that the Internet is the world’s free and open source binoculars, microscopes and recorders and weapons of mouse destruction. And so, let’s just be downright indignant and determined to muster up some tough laws that make sure we teach that wide-open-source lesson to the next generation!

Can we have a show of hands?

Categories: COM580 Tags: , ,