Moral Mathematics

Learning to love getting hit in the face with a rake.

I got into a discussion lately about how to improve society on a one-to-one basis, in our daily lives, related to our perception of sexual assault accusations.  The question in its original form was this:

How do we convince people that sometimes people we look up to, befriend or even love are capable of something unforgivable, monstrous?

Without driving them away because from their perspective you are attacking their loved ones?

Without minimizing the harm that victims experience?

How, in effect, can we get people to accept and believe survivors rather than interrogating as their first response, without accusing them of being intolerant in the first place?

Is it possible to get people to confront their own casual hypocrisy and cruelty without making them feel bad?

And the problem is… no, it’s not.  Moral development is painful, because it involves looking back on your own actions and deciding whether they represent the person you want to be.  When they don’t – and they don’t, not always – it hurts.  If you truly accept that you behaved contrary to your own ideals, you will experience pain.  If it doesn’t hurt, it’s because you have not yet truly bought and owned that you were wrong.  And that’s natural!  No one wants to believe that they did something wrong, but we do make mistakes, and how we absorb that experience determines our quality.

When a person hears that their friend, or a celebrity they like, or the Goddamn President raped someone, that’s them getting smacked in the face by a rake wearing a goofy wig and a sign that says “You were WROOOOOOOONG.”  They were wrong about their perception of that person.  Wrong to like them, wrong perhaps even to love them.  Wrong to do all the things they did to help them.  That hurts, badly, and it should.

Then we get to decide what to do about that hurt.  A lot of people, again like our Goddamn President, react instinctively, defensively.  They want the hurting to stop, so they blame the person they see as the immediate source of the pain – the victim.  That’s how a missing stair is created; that’s how we get whole families, organizations, societies protecting rapists and predators because any attempt to speak up about what Brett does to girls at parties gets met with, “You’re just trying to start drama.  You’re just trying to destroy the career of a good man.  You’re hurting me, stop hurting me!”

But we don’t have to react that way.  We’re not simply our instincts, whatever pseudoscience the manosphere is peddling these days.  We actually do understand that pain is survivable, that intellectual confrontation is not the same as physical threat, that new ideas don’t need to be met like armed invaders.  We know that, but it takes a lot of effort and practice to remember it in an emotional moment while our amygdala is firing.  Think of the test Paul Atreides is put through in the first chapter of Dune.  He’s subjected to horrific pain, and if he flinches or pulls away, he will die.  The Reverend Mother tells him that the separation between men and beasts is that a man can choose to endure pain for a purpose.  So when we’re confronted with painful information – “Your boss/dad/friend raped someone” – we can endure that pain rather than throwing it back at the victim.  We can make a little decision matrix for ourselves – it’s like Pascal’s wager.  Pascal’s got your back, kids.

Problem: Amy says Brett raped her, he says he didn’t, I like them both and right now that’s all we know.

  1. If Amy is lying and I treat her as if she’s telling the truth, I will have to support her in seeking justice against Brett.  This will rapidly result in her being found out – false rape accusations are vanishingly rare and the vast majority of them do not even name a specific suspectPositive outcome.
  2. If Amy is lying and I treat her as if she’s lying, she’ll likely no longer be a friend, and the fallout of that situation may have other social consequences in our group.  Mixed outcome.
  3. If Amy is telling the truth and I treat her as if she’s telling the truth, I will have to support her in seeking justice against Brett.  This will hopefully result in some form of justice.  The immediate result is that Amy will have an ally in a very nasty situation where she may have no others, and long-term, she will likely be vastly better off for having had any support at all in her trauma.  Positive outcome.
  4. If Amy is telling the truth and I treat her as if she’s lying, I will both destroy our friendship and further abuse someone who has already been brutalized, while propagating a culture that creates this exact situation every day.  I will continue supporting and defending Brett while he (statistically) goes on to rape five more women.  Negative outcome.

The only rational choice is to treat Amy as if she’s telling the truth – it creates the highest probability for a positive outcome.  So a rational person would choose to believe Amy.  But when we’re hurting, we’re not rational – pain fires at the base of our brains, bypassing the prefrontal cortex entirely.  It takes practice and perspective to survive that moment calmly, to endure the pain long enough to decide how to respond instead of simply reacting.  Moral growth is a gom jabbar– it has to hurt if it’s to work, because the goal is to learn to think while hurting.  This is how we learn to be human.