Liberty, power, and Flying Monkeys

flying monkeys

Flying monkeys: the internet is lousy with these things.


Rereading some of my old posts I came across this one, in which I carried on parallel discussions which at the time seemed to have nothing to do with each other, but which in retrospect were related.

The idea of the post was to discuss the Holier-Than-Thou complex animating so many internet controversies using the example of reactions to Facebook photos of girls who went on safari. I pointed out how it is not enough to think hunting is wrong, one must personally bully hunters (particularly female hunters, male ones get a pass) on social media, and one proves his exquisite care for animals by being as mean as possible to whomever disagrees.

The first commentator was a libertarian who argued that the source of the trouble was the overbearing modern state: people were not so much angry with the pictures of the safari girls, they were angry with the violence implicit in the system. I dismissed him, because, well, of course a libertarian is going to argue that the root cause of any problem is the overbearing modern state.

The second commentator argued that such bullying is a good thing because it betters society, encouraging some behavior, discouraging others. At the time I argued it had nothing to do with bettering society, but everything to do with making oneself feel superior.

But what if we were both right? What if in addition to making oneself feel superior by hating the right people, you also really did have an impact on society?

I suppose the method is as follows: first you unleash a horde of flying internet monkeys on the object of hate to loudly demonize the behavior you dislike. The victims will likely go on doing the behavior, but at least they are going to be quiet about it. This causes people on the fence to have their “awareness raised” about what is socially acceptable or not. Once you reach critical mass of social disapproval, or at least indifference, you make the bad behavior illegal thanks too (drum role) the overbearing power of the modern state! 

Though this was not the libertarian’s point, it could have been the start of an interesting discussion. Sorry I missed the opportunity.

If true, it would mean that the hordes of flying monkeys demanding that Facebook pages or Twitter handles be banned are not only addicted to self-indulgent moral preening, they also cultivate a lust for power and control.

To use very contemporary example: the anti-smoking campaigns in the Unites States consist of both private and state funding for advertising designed to make smoking less appealing, along with punitive taxes on cigarettes. I suppose driving down smoking is a worthy goal, but I’m uncomfortable about the fact that most smokers I know are young and poor, not the people you want to burden with taxes. I’m also uncomfortable seeing something as silly as smoking become a source of class snobbery.

A natural result of the anti-tobacco laws is unlicensed selling. It is illegal to buy a ten dollar pack of 20 cigarettes and resell them for $1 each to passersby who don’t want a whole pack. It is a private transaction, so in most public places you can do this with everything from golf balls to ammunition, but not with cigarettes because smoking is bad.

If selling “loosies” is illegal, and you are caught, you can be arrested. If you resist arrest, the police will use force. If they use force, and like Eric Gardner you happen to have a bad heart, you could die. I’ve seen the Eric Gardner video, and I do not think there was any police brutality involved. They were simply trying to enforce a law against selling loose cigarettes, and Mr. Gardner was resisting: what else were the police supposed to do? Let him walk because he insisted on breaking the law after he was told not to?

Law is more than state-sanctioned force: a good law is a practical application of social norms for the sake of the common good, and most people will obey a law out of a sense of simple morality. But there is always a minority of citizens, the Eric Gardners of the world, who only respond to force. So when you make a law you have to ask yourself if you are willing to see someone get hurt over it.

That should bother most people. Am I really willing for people to get arrested, humiliated, or even killed over my moral projects? I might think drunkenness or fornication is a sin, but that does not mean I think drunks or fornicators should be incarcerated; so why make a law about it?

But it does not bother everybody. Just as some people get a thrill out of bullying of girls who go on safari and post photos on the internet, there are some people who would get a thrill out of seeing those girls thrown into jail. This is a power fetish, and it should be called out for what it is.


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