Posted by: N.S. Palmer | January 6, 2017

Accept the Ephemeral, Embrace the Permanent


In The Hollywood Reporter this week, feminist social critic Camille Paglia pondered the challenges of aging in show business.

Paglia is always worth reading, and I recommend her essay.

There’s no denying the heartbreaking difficulties she recounts. Her advice is to leave youth to the young, while accepting the benefits of maturity.

In my opinion, the bottom line is this:

If your success is based partly on something ephemeral (like youth) and partly on something more permanent (like talent and hard work), then

  1. Gratefully accept the ephemeral benefits while they last, and gracefully let go of them when it’s time;

  2. Focus your efforts and attention on the more permanent things; and

  3. Always remember that your value as a person doesn’t depend on popularity or worldly success. Each person has infinite value, and that applies to you.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 26, 2016

A Life That Made a Difference


Next Monday, it will be seven years since my Dad passed away.

Even after seven years, I still feel as if he’s with me every day. Remembering him makes me proud, and sad, and reminds me of the example he set for me. It’s a lot to live up to.

Some years before he passed away, we were in the car and the conversation turned somehow to his mortality. I told him that I hoped he would live as long as he wanted to live. To a degree, I think that he did. And what a life it was.

The small town kid from Minnesota became a war hero. Then he finished college in three years and went to medical school. He became a distinguished internist. The Indianapolis hospital where he saw patients gave an annual award to the doctor who made the highest percentage of correct diagnoses, but Dad won it year after year until the hospital finally declared him “permanent champion.”


Dad taught a whole generation of younger physicians. For many years, you couldn’t walk 10 feet in an Indianapolis hospital without bumping into a doctor who had been one of his students.

If you were one of Dad’s patients and you had a 9am appointment, you saw him at 9am unless you were late. He treated indigent patients without charge. He was a man of science but he also believed in the personal side of medical practice. He knew it mattered. It was how he believed in treating people: with respect, compassion, and consideration.

He wasn’t a pushover by any means. Sometimes he was too frank in speaking his mind, especially about bureaucratic interference with medical treatment. It might have served his career better if he’d been a little more tactful. But he said what he meant, and meant what he said.

He was also a community leader. Apart from elected offices such as the Indianapolis School Board, he was an officer or volunteer for numerous civic organizations. After he retired from medical practice, he delivered meals for Meals on Wheels. He worked as a volunteer “scientific expert” at the Indiana State Museum, answering questions for school tours. He was always giving speeches in one place or another.

I’ll tell you something more personal. I don’t write much about personal events in this blog, but for this, I’ll make an exception.

When Dad and my original mother split up, it took me by surprise. All of my friends’ parents were divorced but I never thought that my parents would also get divorced. I should have seen it coming. They were intellectually but not emotionally well matched.

The day that I learned about it, Dad moved out of the house into an apartment, in the shabby little building shown in the photo.


That afternoon, he picked up me at school. We went to dinner in a restaurant near his apartment, where I spent the night. About 3am, I woke up and vomited. I cried. Dad hugged me. And he cried. I had never seen him cry before that. This was something so terrible, so shattering, that even Dad’s composure broke down. I hugged him back.

I only saw him cry one other time. When he turned 70, all the family and most of his friends gave him a surprise birthday party.

On behalf of all of us, my brother Steve read a tribute to him that I had written. Dad cried, in front of everyone. He knew he was loved. He knew how much of a difference he had made — to us, to our community, to our country, and to our world.

He still makes that difference. I don’t go a day without wondering if I’m living up to his example, or if I’ll ever make that kind of difference in the world and in people’s lives. I hope so.

Dad, wherever you are, thank you.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 23, 2016

Never Say Buh-Bye to American Pie


French writer Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) thought that individualism, freedom, and religious devotion were the hallmarks of American character.

British writer George Sala (1828-1895), however, thought it was something else:


In America Revisited (1882), Sala described his observations of our strange country and its obsession with pie:

”The national manners have become softened — the men folk chew less, expectorate less, curse less; the newspapers are not half so scurrilous as our own … but to the tyranny of Pie there is no surcease. It is a Fetish. It is the Mexican carnage god, continually demanding fresh victims. Men may come and men may go, but Pie goes on forever.”

Sala said “he battled strongly against this dyspepsia-dealing pastry,” but finally succumbed to its allure:

”The worst of this dreadful pie—be it of apple, of pumpkin, of mulberry, or of cranberry—is that it is so very nice. It is flat and thin, so that you can cut it into triangular wedges, which slip down easily. Pie forms as important a factor in American civilisation as the pot-au-feu does in France.”

And it still does. Tomorrow on Thanksgiving, most of us will probably indulge (or overindulge) in those nice triangular wedges.

Give us credit: At least we’re consistent. Sala’s 1882 comment about American news media is just as valid today:

“The American press seems to offend only against good taste in their omnivorous appetite of interviewing celebrated or notorious individuals, and in filling their columns with brief personalities sometimes very quaint, but usually almost childishly frivolous and quite harmless.”

Childishly frivolous, for sure. But harmless? Well, “mostly harmless.”

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 12, 2016

Matriarchy and the Intelligence Paradox


“There are known knowns. These are things we know we know. There are known unknowns. That is, things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” — Donald Rumsfeld

I picked the Rumsfeld quote because it fit one of the topics of this blog post, but I now see that it’s even more appropriate than I’d thought.

Is he a war criminal? In my opinion, yes. But he’s also a very smart guy, typical of the type. He’s accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room, or at least thinking he is. He knows a lot. He has unrealistic confidence in his own judgment, both on matters of fact and of morality.

He’s confident that if he thinks an idea will work, then it will. He bet American soldiers’ lives and a trillion taxpayer dollars on his belief that conquering Iraq would make it a Western-style democracy and a staunch American ally. Oops. No such luck. It was a catastrophe for everyone but Iran and ISIS.

Which brings us to another very smart guy who is also, thank goodness, a much better guy than Rumsfeld. Eric Kaplan is a blogger I read regularly. He’s probably best known as the author of the book Does Santa Exist?, which I found both entertaining and thought-provoking. His blog writings are similarly good, though often whimsical and obscure. Since he’s funny, I’m never sure if the obscure parts are meant as a joke, and whether I’m acting as his interlocutor or as his straight man.

One of his recent blog posts (“Crazy Males”) seems whimsical, but it raises some serious issues. Because he didn’t pursue the issues, I will. You’re welcome. I am, after all, the smartest guy in the room. Sure, I’m the only guy in the room at the moment, but I’m still the smartest.

Are men unfit for political office?

Eric argues as follows:

  • Traditionally, men have been fathers, husbands, providers, and protectors.
  • Those roles are now obsolete. Contraception lets women avoid pregnancy, while physically undemanding office jobs let them provide for themselves.
  • As a result, men suffer from “anxiety which in turn creates neurotic, anti-social behavior.”
  • Therefore, men should not hold positions of power until they adjust to the new situation.

What are we to make of this argument?

The first point to note is that in the aggregate, people do not need a special reason to engage in neurotic, anti-social behavior. A certain amount of it is baked into human DNA, though it varies from one person to another and from one group to another. Some exhibit high levels of neurosis and aggression, while others have less. Moreover, such behavior is not confined to a single sex. A man might shoot you or punch you in the face, while a woman similarly inclined might poison your tea or falsely accuse you of child abuse.

The second point is that by historical standards, men of European and Jewish ancestry are much less violent and more tolerant than their predecessors. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker devoted a whole book to the subject. Of particular interest are the dramatic declines in violence since the 1960s, when contraception became widely available and feminism began its long march from fringe ideology to social orthodoxy.


Men commit most homicides and rapes. If altered social roles were causing an increase in male misbehavior, we’d expect to see exactly the opposite of what Pinker’s graph shows. Indeed, many men in the West are now so thoroughly domesticated, passive and weak that they invite ridicule and contempt — not least from those heterosexual women who in theory approve of gelded metrosexuals but in practice prefer to hook up with “bad boys” who treat them like dirt, which might also explain their support for Islamic invasion of their own countries. Those are, by the way, some of the neuroses suffered by women as a result of social change.


Matriarchy, novelty, and smart-crazy ideas

Be that as it may, there’s no disputing the fact that most wars are started by men, and that men’s decisions in government are frequently awful. Maybe it’s time, as Eric suggests, for men to step aside and give women a chance to run things.

At the individual level, it wouldn’t be much of a change. My father told me that when he was growing up, my grandfather made all the major decisions for the family — but the decisions he made were always the ones my grandmother wanted him to make. “We men don’t care if we really run things,” my father explained, “as long as our wives let us think that we do.” Women have always exercised power, but less obviously and directly than men. Feminists are confused on that point, since they think that they’re not exercising power unless they’re barking orders like a Parris Island drill sergeant.

My maternal grandmother was an illuminating example of how women can exercise power — that is, power as the ability to identify goals and then get them done. She founded a successful national business in an era when women supposedly couldn’t do things like that. A family story describes one of her characteristic methods. She’d have a casual conversation with a business associate and then go on her way. An hour or so later, the associate would get a brilliant idea. He’d take the idea to my grandmother, who would say, “That’s great! Well done! Go do it!” Of course, she had subtly planted the idea in the person’s mind. She not only got the job done, but she also ensured that her associate was fully committed to the goal because it was “his” idea.

At the national level, on the other hand, major decisions usually have been and still are made by men. In the highest levels of government, “the patriarchy” actually exists. Should we dump the patriarchy in favor of a matriarchy?

Leave aside the obvious problem of persuading people with power to relinquish it. Assume we can do that. Why not give it a try?

I don’t think there’s only one correct way to run a country, so if a majority voted for a matriarchy, it would be okay with me. I have my doubts about its viability, but to some extent a country is like a club: if you don’t like how it’s run, you can leave and join a different club. If I didn’t like it, I’d leave. As long as the majority doesn’t want violations of basic human rights, the majority should get what it wants — “good and hard,” as H.L. Mencken said.

However, the suggestion that we should abandon the normal practice of human societies — political patriarchy — is an example of what psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa calls “the intelligence paradox.” It’s the kind of idea advanced by very smart people who have unrealistic confidence in their own judgment and who pay scant attention to human history. They’re confident that if they think an idea will work, then it will. “This time, it’s different” is a refrain that’s heard often through the centuries, and it usually presages disaster.

Matriarchy is less implausible than a lot of smart ideas. Some of the ideas are so loopy, so utterly off-planet, that only extremely intelligent people could ever believe in them. One such idea recently surfaced in Britain: that schools should use pornography to teach five-year-olds about sex:

“Jenni Murray, BBC Radio 4 journalist, said children should analyse porn like a Jane Austen novel: ‘You put boys and girls together in a class and you show them a pornographic film and you analyse it in exactly the same way as you teach them to read all the other cultures around them.'”

The difference between matriarchy and porn-for-children is one of degree. Only very intelligent people advocate such ideas, because only very intelligent people can know enough to argue for them with even the slightest amount of credibility. The less intelligent cannot argue well but are more likely to have common sense that embodies both biological intuitions and the experience of the human race.

Intelligent or less so, male or female, human brains were not adapted by evolution to cope with the complexities of our modern technological society. Kanazawa calls it “the Savanna principle:”

”The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. We are stuck with the stone-age brain which assumes that we are still hunter-gatherers on the African savanna, and responds to the environment as if it were the African savanna.”

That’s why pornography excites people and why they form emotional attachments to TV characters. Photos and video did not exist in the ancestral environment. Despite conscious awareness that what they see is “not real,” stone-age brains cannot distinguish between the images and real people. Their emotions react accordingly.

The point is not that hunter-gatherer societies would or wouldn’t endorse matriarchy. The point is that when we try to analyze complex technological, social, and political situations, we are intellectually out of our depth. Our thinking is error-prone. We must be very careful. Just because something seems in the abstract to be a terrific idea does not mean it won’t be a terrific disaster.

In 1999, it seemed like a terrific idea to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and deregulate investment banks: the result was the worldwide economic catastrophe of 2008. After the invention of modern antibiotics, it seemed like a terrific idea to prescribe them for almost any minor illness: the result was the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria that kill people and are impervious to treatment.

The medical example is a good one, since it recalls a traditional principle of medicine:

“First, do no harm.”

The idea that a doctor’s first job is to do no harm is frustrating when we’re sick and there’s really nothing sensible to do about it. “Take aspirin, drink plenty of fluids, and you’ll feel better in a few days” isn’t what we want to hear. But there’s a lot of good sense behind that prescription.

Oddly enough, it has to do with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system, disorder (entropy) increases over time.

Disorder increases because there are many more ways for things to be chaotic than for them to be organized in useful ways. As a result, the probability of disorder is greater than the probability of order. Applied to human society, it means that there are more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right.

Thus, other things being equal, the overall result of any social change is more likely to be bad than to be good. If we want to make such changes, we should be very sure that we know what we’re doing — and we very rarely are. To minimize the risk of harm, we should make social changes slowly, in small increments, and then assess the results before going any further.

This goes to the very heart of political and moral conservatism. Conservatism is not mainly a set of doctrines, such as lower taxes or traditional marriage. It’s mainly an attitude of caution about social change. It’s the belief that if certain practices and institutions have worked well for thousands of years in many different kinds of societies, then we shouldn’t carelessly trade them for new ones that sound good but might be catastrophic. Political philosopher Michael Oakeshott explains:

”The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better.”

Proposed social change should be evaluated carefully:

”Innovation entails certain loss and possible gain. Therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change will be on the whole beneficial, is with the would-be innovator. The conservative prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite. He favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, with pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments.”

Ironically, Hillary Clinton was in one sense the conservative candidate in the 2016 presidential election. She opposed the change championed by Donald Trump. She wanted to conserve the current system, albeit a system aimed at the very un-conservative goal of remaking America into a third-world dystopia from which only the super-rich and their client groups would benefit. Trump, on the other hand, was a radical candidate who vowed to change the current system and replace it with one favorable to the American majority.

But what of matriarchy?

But what of matriarchy? I think that “Dilbert” writer-cartoonist Scott Adams got it right: Ms. Clinton won that battle, not for herself, but for a qualified and less unsavory female candidate in the future:

”Clinton deserves credit for breaking the glass ceiling for the highest office, at least in our minds, and that’s where it matters most. In 2016, no thinking person believes gender is a job requirement for president. That isn’t even a thing anymore. And Clinton did that for the country. You have to respect that.”

It’s a novelty but a reasonable risk. Disastrous female leaders such as Angela Merkel are balanced by disastrous male leaders such as Barack Obama, as well as by great female leaders such as Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. Sexually, it’s a wash.

Women can run things. Men can run things. However, not all women or all men are qualified. We’ll have to assess the candidates on merit, not on the basis of their sex.

And if you think that is sexist, then you don’t know what “sexist” means.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 9, 2016

Working Together for a Better America

american-flag-009Donald Trump was always a roll of the dice. We rolled the dice because the only alternative was to accept our destruction as a country and as a people. Now, we must work together to rebuild America for all Americans, regardless of our disagreements.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Only federalism can unite a vast country like America in which large groups of people have irresolvable differences of opinion about morality, politics, and religion. Our Constitution left most decisions to states and localities, limiting the federal government to enumerated powers for specific national interests: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” (10th Amendment, in The Bill of Rights)

  • Equality under the law for everyone. Special privileges for no one.

  • Limited only by basic human rights, the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. Law and social policy should promote the interests of the majority while respecting the legitimate rights of minorities.

  • Immigration policy should protect Americans and American society.

  • Americans and Somalis (et al) are not interchangeable.

  • Men and women are not interchangeable.

  • There are only two sexes. Accept reality.

  • Corporations (including banks) are legal fictions chartered by the government. They should serve the public interest. The public is not here to serve them.

  • The mission of education is to educate, not to babysit, to humor the mentally ill, to foment social destruction, or to provide jobs for people with worthless victims-studies degrees.

  • The mission of the courts is to interpret and apply the law, not to create new law from the bench.

  • The American flag symbolizes our country, its people, and its history. If you feel like burning it, spitting on it, or stepping on it, then you may leave. Saudi Arabia would be happy to take you.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | October 12, 2016

“Mischievous Kiss” Comes to Netflix


One of my favorite romantic comedy television series has just come to Netflix: “Mischievous Kiss.”

Based on a Japanese graphic novel (manga),1 it’s the story of Kotoko Aihara, a girl who loves Naoki Irie, the smartest boy in her high school and probably the smartest in Japan. He doesn’t even know she exists, and when she tries to give him a love letter, he callously rejects her.

After her house is destroyed by a meteorite, Kotoko and her father move in with the family of her father’s best friend — a family that includes Naoki, the older son.

It’s not a mystery how the story will end, since the the opening credits show Naoki and Kotoko kissing. But there are a lot of twists and turns along the way.

Naoki is so smart that his life has been easy and predictable. Kotoko brings him a healthy dose of chaos. Though initially frustrated and confused by Kotoko, he starts to realize that life is much more interesting with her around.

Kotoko isn’t as smart as Naoki, but she has qualities of character that he lacks: she is determined, courageous, and passionate about everything. Each of them complements the other.


Naoki still can’t quite admit how much he loves Kotoko, but in the final episode he thinks he’s going to lose her. The moment when his reticence finally breaks is symbolized by a nice visual, and he declares his love for her.


Most Japanese TV shows have only one season of 10 to 15 episodes. “Mischievous Kiss” has two seasons of 16 episodes. The first season follows Naoki and Kotoko through their last year of high school and their first years of college. The second season begins with their honeymoon in Okinawa, after which Naoki becomes a physician and Kotoko a nurse who works with him.

I liked the series so much that I bought the DVD sets, which cost a pretty penny to order directly from Japan. It’s nice to see that the show will finally get a wider audience in America.

  1. Japan isn’t exactly Western civilization, but it embodies many of the qualities that once made Western countries great: honor, decency, hard work, and consideration for others. The Japanese respect themselves, each other, their culture, and their country. 
Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 29, 2016

A Picture of the Problem


Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 28, 2016

I Couldn’t Get Into Yale (in 1745)


If the year were 1745, I couldn’t get into Yale as a student.

I’m fairly well educated for the 21st century. However, I lack the qualifications that 18th-century Yale expected of incoming students. The Yale regulations of 1745 list the requirements. They’re an illuminating read. I found them in The Annals of America, but they’re also on the web.

Concerning Admission Into College

First, students had to be able “extempore to read, construe, and parse Tully, Virgil, and the Greek Testament.”

I’ve read a little Virgil and Tully (Cicero) in English translation, but I know only a few words of Greek. I couldn’t even begin to read “the Greek Testament.”

Second, students had “to write true Latin prose.”

I took two years of Latin in middle school, but I’m not sure if I could have written “true Latin prose” even then.

Third, students had to know “common arithmetic.”

Finally, it’s something that I’ve got covered. As a mathematician, I know a lot more than common arithmetic.

Fourth, each student had to “bring sufficient testimony of his blameless and inoffensive life.”

Hmm. Not sure about that one. A few people might say that about me, but I wouldn’t say it about myself. My ex wouldn’t say it about me, either.

Of A Religious and Virtuous Life

“All scholars shall live religious, godly, and blameless lives according to the rules of God’s Word, diligently reading the Holy Scriptures, and constantly attend upon all the duties of religion, both in public and secret.”

Frankly, I think that anyone who claims to lead a “blameless” life is a saint, a liar, or deluded. I read the Bible, but I have a feeling that “the Holy Scriptures” here means the New Testament. As a Jew, I’m familiar with it but don’t regard it as binding. And I’m sure that Yale in 1745 didn’t admit any non-Christians.

“If any student shall profane the Sabbath by unnecessary business, diversion, walking abroad, or making any indecent noise or disorder on the said day, or on the evening before or after, or shall be guilty of any rude, profane, or indecent behavior … he shall be punished, admonished, or otherwise according to the nature and demerit of his crime.”

It’s a safe bet that the regulation covers driving on the Sabbath. Darn it! Oops. That’s rude.

Concerning Scholastical Exercises

“No student shall walk abroad, or be absent from his chamber, except half an hour after breakfast, and an hour and a half after dinner, and from prayers at night to nine o’clock without leave. To this end, the president or tutors shall visit students’ chambers after nine o’clock to see if they are at their chambers and apply themselves to their studies.”

And of course, “his” chamber refers exclusively to male students. Yale did not admit female students until 1969.

“In the first year, they shall study tongues [languages] and logic. In the second year, they shall recite rhetoric, geometry, and geography. In the third year, natural philosophy [physical science], astronomy, and other parts of mathematics.”

Sounds like a pretty strong curriculum. But no gender studies? No “politics of pop culture”?

“Every Saturday shall especially be allotted to the study of divinity, and the classes shall recite the Westminster Confession of Faith received and approved by the churches in this colony.”

Apparently, all the Muslims who Obama says have been part of America since its founding were nowhere in evidence. Maybe they showed up later when they all signed the Declaration of Independence. Hmm. I don’t see them in the picture. They were probably taking a break.


Of Penal Laws

“If any student shall be guilty of blasphemy, fornication, robbery, forgery, or any other such great and atrocious crime, he shall be expelled forthwith.”

There goes half of the football team.

“If any student shall deny the Holy Scriptures or any part of them to be the Word of God, he shall be expelled.”

Good luck with that now. Yale can’t even suggest that people chill out about Halloween costumes without causing hysteria among the special snowflakes.

“If any student shall be guilty of profane swearing, cursing, vowing, any petty or implicit oath, profane or irreverent use of the names, attributes, ordinances, or Word of God …”

Oh, and here’s a good part:

“… disobedient, contumacious, or refractory carriage toward his superiors, fighting, striking, quarreling, turbulent words or behavior …”

Someone call the speech police, because this is hateful transphobia:

“… wearing women’s apparel …”

And back to more mundane offenses:

“… defrauding, injustice, idleness, lying, defamation, or any suchlike immoralities, he shall be punished by fine, confession, admonition, or expulsion, as the nature and circumstances of the case may require.”

So let’s see: Students can get expelled for blasphemy, heresy, cursing; showing disrespect to professors (Nicholas Christakis, call your office); cross-dressing, and generally acting like the backside of a horse.

“That every freshman shall be obliged to go any reasonable and proper errand when he is sent by any student in any superior class.”

Uncompensated and involuntary? I don’t expect the snowflakes to like that very much. And please, nobody tell them that Elihu Yale made a lot of money in the slave trade.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 31, 2016

When Smart People Say Stupid Things


“It isn’t possible to get to the moon.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, September 1950 (On Certainty #286)

“It isn’t possible to get to the moon without a rocket.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, July 1969 (probably apocryphal)

Sometimes, people who I respect say things that seem stupid. It’s disquieting but it’s actually helpful.

If stupid people say stupid things, it’s expected. That’s their job. However, if smart people say “stupid things,” it forces us to re-examine the issues. That applies especially when the people are every bit as smart as we are, and then some.

Are their ideas really as stupid as we thought? What’s the evidence?

When the evidence is open to multiple interpretations, what “judgment calls” do they make differently from us, and why?

What’s the role of life experience? Of emotional sympathy? Of their intellectual environment?

No two thinking people always agree, and if they did, it would be intolerably boring. I hate being bored.

In the current case, I think I understand the disagreement. It’s mainly a matter of life experience, generosity of spirit, moral courage, and judgment calls that reasonable people can make differently. We are the people we are — virtues, flaws, blind spots, and all.

Understanding the reasons for disagreement doesn’t eliminate it, but it helps us see the issues in a wider and more tolerant perspective. It helps me, at least.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 18, 2016

Why Are People So Mean on the Internet?


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Why are people so mean on the Internet?

Political polarization is sad, but it’s not the problem. Every day, we encounter people who disagree with us, but we do it without histrionics or name-calling. We probably even count some of them as friends and family.

Nasty people are also not the cause. They exist, but there aren’t enough of them to poison the Internet. And even they restrain themselves most of the time.

However, the Internet is a different environment. We don’t interact with people face to face. We don’t see them. Sometimes, we don’t even know their names, nor they ours. That’s important in a couple of ways.

First, the people we encounter on the Internet seem less real to us than those we meet in person. As a result, we tend to take them less seriously as human beings. We are less inclined to worry about hurting their feelings or treating them unjustly. Quite realistically, we are also less likely to worry about arguments leading to physical confrontation or retribution.

Second, the Internet feels anonymous even if it really isn’t. We are sitting in our homes where nobody can see us. We are less inclined to feel shame if we do something hurtful.

Those two factors combine to bring out the nastiness in many people who are otherwise perfectly normal.

All of us suffer from occasional anger and frustration, but in real life, we might not be able to do anything about them. Our boss might unjustly criticize our work, but we don’t want to get fired so we say nothing. A friend might disappoint us, but we have no recourse. A spouse might infuriate us, but we don’t want to prolong the argument. So we bottle up our rage, until we get on the computer. Then, some of us have a rage-fest.

On the Internet, people often vent their anger at whatever targets are available. Someone who has a different political opinion. A celebrity who did something that made the news. A person who we think made too much money and didn’t deserve it. Someone we just don’t like for no particular reason.

A psychological principle applies both on and off the Internet: If people’s anger is wildly out of proportion to what they say they’re angry about, then they’re really angry about something else.

If someone on the Internet calls you vile names or makes horrible accusations because you support candidate X or you’re a member of religion Y, then it’s not about X or Y at all. It’s about something in the person’s own life that he or she can’t handle, so the anger gets targeted at you instead. The drama is playing inside the person’s head, and you got cast as the villain.

The same thing is true off the Internet. If your spouse is enraged because of something trivial, it’s not really about the trivial thing. It’s about what happened yesterday, or last week.

Knowing the causes of Internet nastiness doesn’t solve the problem. Sometimes, the results are tragic. Children, especially, are vulnerable to Internet bullying – even to the point of suicide. Adults can suffer depression or job loss because of Internet harassment.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to offer a reassuring solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. The best I can suggest is this:

  • Don’t take Internet insults seriously. People who resort to insults, name-calling, and other kinds of online vitriol are either venting anger that has nothing to do with you, or they are deliberately trying to goad you into a screaming match. Ignore them. A long-standing bit of Internet wisdom applies: “Please do not feed the trolls.”
  • Remember that even well-meaning comments sometimes don’t come across as the writer intended. In real life, we rely on vocal intonations, facial expressions, and body language to provide context that is completely absent on the Internet. If something can be interpreted in an innocuous way or as an insult, then you should interpret it in the innocuous way.
  • When you write things to other people on the Internet, remember that even if you don’t see them, they are still real people. Don’t treat them in ways that you wouldn’t treat them if they were standing in front of you. And be careful to avoid saying things that might be misinterpreted.

American founder Benjamin Franklin had a helpful motto: “I will speak ill of no one, and say all the good I can of everyone.”

It works just as well on the Internet.

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