Social Transparency and the Epistemology of Tolerance, by G. Randolph Mayes

Surveillance cameras, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsLast week I learned a new word- apotropaic -and darned if I haven’t heard it three times since then!

Everyone is familiar with this sort of thing and has at least briefly experienced it as uncanny. It is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Generalized, the BMP is our inclination to mistake an increased sensitivity to P for an increase in the number or frequency of P itself.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the BMP in relation to social transparency. The free flow of social information is a defining characteristic of the current era, and I tend to be far more sanguine about its effects than most. But I have started to think that the BMP presents a serious challenge to my optimism.

Most of my peers tend to be very possessive about their personal information. They feel like they own their beliefs, ideas, tastes, interests and habits. Consequently, they regard those who acquire knowledge of such without their permission as thieves. They are also haunted by Orwellian metaphors, and tend to react to increasing levels of social transparency in the public sphere with alarm as well. The idea of cameras at every street corner, shop window and traffic intersection feels dirty to them, despite its obvious value for public safety.

I dislike snoops as much as they do, but I distinguish between my preferences and my rights. I see unrestricted access to information as a cornerstone of liberal democracy. For me, the most fundamental human right is the right to learn. Whenever we choose to prevent or punish learning of any kind, there has to be an excellent reason for it. For some kinds of highly sensitive information these reasons exist, but they are consequentialist by nature and do not spring from any fundamental right to control information about ourselves.

I like glass houses. I think a world in which it is nearly impossible to hide the fact that you are an abusive husband or a pederast cleric is clearly preferable to one in which what goes on behind closed doors is nobody else’s business. In a liberal society, there is no greater disincentive to such transgressions than the certainty of others finding out. My friends are all yesbut. As in yes, but this is exactly what concerns them. They follow Orwell in thinking that a socially transparent society is fundamentally an informant society, conformist by nature.

But the evidence is that they are just wrong about this. We are living in a time of unprecedented tolerance for diversity and self-regarding eccentricities. This has not been achieved in spite of increasing social transparency. As long as homosexuals, transgenders, apostates, recreational drug users and the mentally disabled were confined to the darkness of the closet we could ridicule them with impunity. But it is difficult to continue in this vein when the clear light of day reveals that many of them are people we love.

Now here is my concern.

If increasing social transparency is not managed very carefully, it could backfire spectacularly, thanks to the BMP. When social transparency increases quickly, we suddenly become aware of the many intolerable things that have been happening right under our noses. Consequently, we get the impression that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we become receptive to irrationally harsh responses.

What do I mean by careful management? Two things, at least.

First, it means creating future generations of adults who are more epistemologically sophisticated than mine. We grew up thinking that being responsible and informed citizens meant paying careful attention to reliable news sources, caring about the less fortunate and following our conscience. But that is a serious error.

The news is almost entirely about relating recent interesting events; it rarely provides a statistical context in virtue of which the general significance of these events may be responsibly evaluated. This is why it is possible to be an informed and conscientious citizen by the standards of my generation and still be completely unaware of essential global facts, such as that we are living in a period of unprecedented world peace or that the global poverty rate has been cut in half during the last 20 years.

If we aren’t aware of the role BMP plays in our reaction to constant reports of police brutality against minorities in the U.S, gang rapes of girls in India, the persecution of homosexuals in Russia, the public whipping of atheists in the Third World, and terrorism everywhere, then our reactions are likely to be intemperate and counterproductive.

Second, we are going to need to find the moral strength to punish wrongdoing less severely. What? Yes. To see why, consider that whenever someone decides whether to do wrong she makes an implicit expected value calculation in which the probability of being caught figures centrally. For this reason, the severity of the current punishment is itself a function of the probability of detection. In an increasingly transparent society, the probability of detection rises. Hence the previous levels of punishment are now intemperate and must be recalibrated.

As an example, consider new surveillance capabilities which can detect every single traffic light violation. Many people oppose the proliferation of this kind of technology, despite its obvious ability to save lives. Why? I think it is partly because they foresee an intolerable rise in the cost of innocent mistakes. In this sense, Orwellian concerns are absolutely on point. If we are unwilling to attenuate the severity of our punishments, applying the technology of transparency to crime detection is the road to the police state.

Social transparency has so far been part of the recipe for a more tolerant society, but so far it is tolerance for things that we are learning to hate less. Adopting more temperate responses to crimes we perhaps hate even more than before is a whole nother thing.

I hope future generations will be enlightened enough to do it, but in the meantime some apotropaic magic would come in real handy.

– Randy Mayes is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Sacramento State University. His main teaching and research interests are naturalism, moral psychology and the nature of rational inquiry, and he has published work on the the concepts of explanation, privacy and cruelty (bio credit: Sacramento State University Department of Philosophy). This piece was originally published at The Dance of Reason blog.

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