Monday, June 04, 2012

Worth Writing About

I get bored at work, as do other people. I alleviate my boredom and try to alleviate others by asking hypotheticals primarily intended to amuse myself. Things like 'if you could add wings to any animal, which animal would you add wings to?'

Lately though I've been asking people: 'If somebody abducted you, cut your hand off, used your hand to fondle their genitals, threw your hand away and then did jail time and then came to you and said "sorry about your hand", would you forigve them?'

The fondling of genitals with the dismembered hand is a detail included only for my personal amusement, most people to their credit react mostly to the actual dismemberment. I stole the fondling idea from 'The Vandals Live at the House Of Blues' DVD. It is not my own, but it is gold.

Why this particular hypothetical though is worth writing about is the polarity of responses I got. Virtually everybody I asked said 'no' and not just 'no' but an emphatic 'no' and even incredulous 'no's. The kind of 'no' that implies it isn't even a valid question. It is clearly loaded. Even vegans said 'no', they could not forgive.

The question though, is valid. And I find it really interesting. For example when I ask people a follow up question to try and illustrate why I find their 'no' surprising or dissappointing is:

'If somebody abducted you, poured a glass of milk, spilt your millk, then did jail time (for the abduction) and then came to you and said "sorry about the milk", would you forgive them?'

This generated responses like 'why are they apologising for the milk? why aren't they apologising for the abduction?' and 'of course.'

I even tried to point out that spilt milk is actually more reversable than dismembered hands, and thus warrents less of an apology and that the saying 'no use crying over spilt milk' is not as valid as 'no use crying over a dismembered and abused hand.'

To which is the point, why it is worth writing about. People have pointed out to me that the fondling is almost irrelevant (it is relevant to my amusement in observing peoples reactions) but to the purpose of the hypothetical actually, as I pointed out to myself, the apology is irrelevant.

There is precedent of victims forgiving people who don't exhibit any remorse, and that it was a constructive process for them.

BUT, what concerns me is that my statistically invalid findings show that A) most people differentiate between 'forgivable acts' like spilt milk and 'unforgivable acts' like dismembered hands. and B) most people feel that some purpose is served by not forgiving somebody.

What could the purpose of not forgiving possibly be? I don't know, and I didn't ask any of my sample because frankly I'm not that interested.

I think though that if my statistically invalid sample does by some chance represent the majority attitude, the implications of my findings are profound.

For one it reiterates the findings of Harvard Psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert in how terrible people are at projecting the hedonic impact of events. Evolutionarily it makes sense that we would be outraged and offended if somebody were to abduct us and dismember us and then pleasure themselves with our dismembered limbs prior to the fact. But after the fact our aversion to such a situation, the reduction in our quality of life doesn't help us at all. Furthermore the jail time element gives us an opportunity to get used to our life and process what happened and move on. The imperfection of the hypothetical is that a process that takes place over time is presented all at once. It seems few people consider that after a 10 or 20 year jail sentence their rage may have simmered down and they may actually be ready to move on with their life.

But to say the hypothetical isn't perfect doesn't make it invalid in its findings. People's intuitive response is to prioritise their own hurt and offense. The scenario is deliberately extreme to make it hard not to. But that's precisely where it becomes of most benefit for the higher functions of our brain to override the lower functions of our brain.

The one person who said 'yes' they would forgive their abductor and maimer did so without hesitation, nor particularly strong emotion. I didn't question their reasoning, but they acted genuinely surprised when I said 'you're the first.' Admittedly I don't know if they said 'yes' in the spirit of 'it's just a stupid hypothetical' or whether it was because they held it to be self evident that not forgiving somebody serves absolutely no purpose at all.

There's a lot of shit human beings are typically bad at, and don't understand intuitively. One of them is the concept of sunk costs. Most people for example, struggle to grasp that if you spend $20,000 on a feasibility study and the project it cost $20,000 to research turns out to expect only a $10,000 profit that you should go ahead with that project. Most people will simply regard the $20,000 spent on the feasibility study as regrettable and decide the project is bad because its profit will not even cover the cost of the study. But the study is done, the money spent, it is a 'sunk cost' so it is irrelevant to the decision of whether to go ahead with the project. The project makes $10,000 so you should do it. Even though at the end of the year you are $10,000 down - it is better than being $20,000 down. So too, it seems few people believe that having a stump and forgiving the person responsible is better than having a stump and hating the person responsible.

The hypothetical conclusions are many and exciting. For one, it seems amazing that we could have erected a rule of law that actually intervenes between the emotions of the victim and the need to deal with the perpetrator. I've been told that an 'eye for an eye' was actually in its time quite a progressive philosophy of justice, allegedly before that it used to be 'murder all your children and wives and cut off your genitals and stuff them in your eye-socket for an eye' which in turn attracted ever escalatingly violent revenge attacks. To call it quits at even-stevens was initial progress reserved apparantly for the higher functioning brain of the son of some god dude.

Then somehow the real thinkers at some point got real political sway and devised systems of law that still aggrevate the average person today. One's that believe that offenders deserve a  chance at rehabilitation, and that justice should be carried out in a humane manner not just protecting society, but protecting society from itself. I'm not to say that the justice system isn't riddled with problems. Just that it is WAY fucken better than mob rule. What a collossal achievement it is, that some thinkers can erect a system that governs a society in spite of its emotional biases.

The next exciting conclusion is that the general inability to disregard our vested interest and emotions is probably the same appeal that sells fine newspapers such as the Herald Sun. The petty temptation to exercise some form of personal power by witholding forgiveness is probably akin to the same reasoning that demands the Big 4 banks to pass on RBA rate cuts in full. The same reasoning behind NIMBY campaigns to demand a paroled pedophile to not be located in one neighbourhood (which will inevitable have a school, day care center etc.) and moved to somebody elses (which will also inevitably have a school, day care center etc.)

Beyond that it's the same reasoning that sees a powerful nation surrender all its advantages by deploying troops to an unwinnable war in a hostile territory to fight terrorism, and the same reasoning that sees people oust a government over paying a couple of dollars more in utility bills in order to prevent efforts to save the planet from ecological collapse and the human race from extinction. It's why so many best picture and best actor oscars go to films about the holocaust, and why Palestine/Isreal conflicts will probably never end.

A simple blind spot we have to seeing a lost cause and abandoning it. It seems Joe Regular would rather cry over a dismembered and abused limb.

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