In a recent interview to promote Cold Pursuit, his latest film about vengeance, Liam Neeson was asked how he channels anger. Responding with brutal honesty, Neeson described an event that happened some forty years ago. The Irishman had just come back from overseas to find that a female friend of his had recently been raped. In the actor’s own words:
I asked, did she know who it was? No. What color were they? She said it was a black person. I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody—I’m ashamed to say that—and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [making air quotes with his fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could … kill him.
The gravity of this confession was not lost on the actor: “It took me a week, maybe a week and a half, to go through that. She would say, ‘Where are you going?’ and I would say, ‘I’m just going out for a walk.’ You know? … ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘No, nothing’s wrong.’” A palpable tension hung in the air as Neeson, visibly upset, finished: “it’s awful, but I did learn a lesson from it … I eventually thought, ‘what the fuck are you doing,’ you know?”
The reaction on social media was as predictable as it was brutal. Savaged as a racist, Neeson found and still finds himself the subject of vitriol. Predictably, the studio promptly cancelled the red carpet premiere of his new film. This is typical of the age in which we live. Instead of offering up an anodyne answer, Neeson opted to make himself vulnerable by sharing a very personal story about a dark period of his life. Yes, at that time rage consumed him, and yes, Neeson wanted to carry out an act of violence against a man of color, but, as he reflected on events, he clearly condemned his past self. This was not encouragement of racism. This was a cautionary tale.
Piers Morgan, a journalist of questionable repute, compared Neeson to a Klansman. Although inexcusable, this is not surprising. Morgan’s complete lack of clemency and nuance is indicative of something malignant within our societal DNA. Neeson is being torn to shreds. The backlash was to be expected. The question is why?
From an evolutionary perspective, moral outrage once served a constructive purpose. When people lived in small groups and communicated face to face, our survival depended on group harmony; outrage provided a powerful incentive for decent behavior. If you stole a neighbor’s food supply, for example, he could call a group meeting and have you expelled from the group. Since being part of a group was the only way to survive, expulsion was a death sentence. Today, thanks to modern methods of instantaneous communication, a different sort of death sentence can be handed out, one more akin to character assassination.
The Thrill of Naming and Shaming
We’re all familiar with the painful emotion of shame. Caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcomings or impropriety, it informs us of incompetence, dishonor, ignominy or remorse. An unambiguous signal, the experience of shame disturbs one’s equilibrium. And, just as another person can trigger shame in us, we can trigger shame in other people. The power to shame is intoxicating, especially in this age of social media, in which defective behavior is considered inseparable from a defective self. Public shaming appears to be our default setting.
As research suggests—and as the vilification of Monica Lewinsky showed—the desire to see other people suffer is an intrinsic part of human nature. Why do you think the TV show Jackass was so popular? Whether it’s our fetish for BDSM or our obsession with celebrity scandal, the allure of pain is all consuming. Erin Buckels, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, studies everyday sadists. These folks derive pleasure—especially sexual pleasure—from hurting other people. Sadism isn’t a category, it’s a spectrum. While we all possess a degree of wickedness, some people are clearly crueler than others. In a 2013 study, Buckels and her colleagues found that people who scored high on measures of sadism, agreeing with statements like: I enjoy making jokes at the expense of others, were more likely to dish out vicious comments. Unsurprisingly, trolls and cyberbullies tend to rack up high sadism scores. Again, the question is why? More specifically, why do everyday sadists enjoy inflicting pain onto others?
The jury is out. Maybe they simply find it enjoyable, relaxing or soothing. Whatever the reason, these people need to stop acting in such poor taste. Right?
Not so fast. Human beings hate being told what to do. We are fundamentally wired to resist control. Messages that tell people to stop nasty behavior are not just futile—they tend to make people lash out even more. A 2011 University of Toronto study illustrated this perfectly. Campaigns with explicitly anti-prejudice messages—such as fight racism—actually served to intensify prejudice.
Pain is intimately related to embarrassment. However, this is not a monogamous relationship, as pain also shares a bed with humiliation. Unlike shame and guilt, which are usually the results of self-appraisal, embarrassment and humiliation are primarily the results of appraisal by other individuals. Although embarrassment and humiliation are often used interchangeably, there is one important difference between them: we tend to bring embarrassment upon ourselves (by, say, wearing Crocs in public). Humiliation, on the other hand, is inflicted on us by others (people pointing and laughing at those horrendous Crocs). Furthermore, embarrassment tends to be more fleeting than humiliation. For example, let’s imagine that, while out jogging, I fall on my behind. Somewhat sheepishly, I pick myself up and continue on my way. A few people witness the embarrassing incident, but it is no big deal. My life will not be defined by this event. I’ll probably share the story with friends over a few drinks. Together, we’ll laugh about it.
Humiliation, on the other hand, tends to be extremely painful. It cuts deep because it involves the erosion of self-respect and self-worth. As Louis CK knows only too well, humiliation often comes with a loss of social status. The Latin root of humiliation is humus, which literally means dirt. Those who seek to humiliate often hope to dig up dirt and rub it in our faces. Unlike embarrassment, humiliation causes the humiliating act to become the person’s defining feature. Think Lance Armstrong, Rachel Dolezal and Elvis Presley. The latter, despite all his artistic prowess, died on the toilet. Even Jesus Christ was publicly humiliated. Interestingly, many of us now use the words crucify and humiliate interchangeably.
Shortly after the interview with Neeson began to circulate, celebrities began tweeting furiously, desperate to insert themselves into the conversation (the narcissistic current runs deep). They adopted several approaches: concern about the state of our communities; dramatic professions of personal anguish meant to re-center the locus of pain from the broader public to the tweeter (This is Trump’s America!; Why is this ok? How is this ok? Please help me understand. Because right now I feel like my soul is living outside of my body); and the obligatory excesses of the temperamentally overexcited: (#racist; #NoMoreNeeson). The cherry on the unappetizing cake was Nick Cannon, the American rapper, actor and comedian, challenging Neeson to a fight.
Clearly, the actions of others shape our behavior. We use the decisions of others as heuristics, to help us navigate life. By observing the behavior of the masses, the principle of social proof enables us decide what constitutes proper conduct. Whether the question is what to do with an empty bottle of Coke on the street, whether or not to participate in Facebook’s ten-year challenge, or how to sip wine at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will guide the decision-making process. When it comes to deciding how to act, however, social proof is a dangerous shortcut. Remember that, until 1973, the APA, the official “voice” when it comes to all things psychological, listed homosexuality as a mental illness.
In our evolutionary past, our ancestors were under constant threat. An awareness of the actions of others wasn’t just helpful—it was necessary. Our ancestors lived in a treacherous, unforgiving world. Modern humans have inherited a whole host of formerly adaptive behaviors, but what happens when such behaviors turn maladaptive?
Social media provides us with all the answer we need.