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Monday, February 19, 2018

When the impartial spectator is missing [feedly]

When the impartial spectator is missing

Is good behaviour more fragile than generally supposed? For me, this is the question posed by the unpleasant controversy sparked by Mary Beard's tweet:

I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain "civilised" values in a disaster zone. 

One interpretation of this seems to me plain wrong – that it is an attempt to justify the wrongdoing at Oxfam.

Another interpretation is that there's an undertow of racism here. Even in quote marks, that word "civilized" echoes imperialist talk of white men "going native" – of "white aid workers as Mr Kurtz figures caving in the strain of 'The horror, the horror'" in Priyamvada Gopal's words.

But I wonder, might there be another reading of that tweet? We could read it as meaning that decent behaviour – civilized behaviour if you must – is not hardwired into us, and that many of us have darker tendencies

One reason for this, as I said recently, lies in a mix of ego-depletion and self-licensing. We cannot maintain full self-control for long under stress: we have to let off steam. And a belief that one is a good person doing good gives one a self-licence to behave badly. If you've just saved a few lives, you can convince yourself that it's OK to see a young prostitute, just as colonialists justified greed and brutality to themselves in the belief they were bringing Christianity to ignorant people, for example. Self-serving biases are powerful things.

But there's something else.

It lies in Adam Smith's idea of the impartial spectator. What keeps us behaving well is the suspicion that there is someone watching us. When we play outside as children, we might think we are only with other kids. But often we're watched by family friends or neighbours, so our parents learn of our misbehaviour. That keeps us honest. As D.D. Raphael writes in his exposition of Smith:

The approval and disapproval of oneself that we call conscience is an effect of judgments made by spectators. Each of us judges others as a spectator. Each of us finds spectators judging him. We then come to judge our own conduct by imagining whether an impartial spectator would approve or disapprove of it (The Impartial Spectator p 34-5)

When this impartial spectator is fully internalized it becomes God or conscience. But it isn't always so internalized. When it isn't, it is the fear of actual real spectators that keeps us well-behaved. There's always the danger that our spouses or bosses will hear of our misdeeds.

When we go overseas, however, we leave the most influential spectators behind, which lessens the constraint upon us. The only observers we have are foreigners who are, at best, less likely to report us to our employers or partners*.

The result of this is that there is a massive tradition of white men behaving badly outside their own countries, from imperialist brutalities to war crimes. We see faint echoes of this today. Men who go on business trips often behave worse than at home; West Brom footballers are more likely to steal cabs in Barcelona than Birmingham; there's a reason why stag parties go to Amsterdam or Prague rather than the fiancee's house; and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. As Paul says, "rampant power to abuse was part of the 'expat' tradition, even folklore, alongside its hard-drinking culture."** Heart of Darknessand Lord of the Flies both speak to this tradition.

In other words, what we call "civilization" is not some property of individuals. It is, instead, emergent; it arises from social pressures upon us and might evaporate when those pressures are absent, depending upon how much the impartial spectator is internalized.

Which brings me to a paradox. Although Professor Beard's tweet has been interpreted as having an undertow of racism (perhaps rightly if inadvertently) it might also bear a very different interpretation - that white men are not as "civilized" as they pretend. And there's a lot of history to support such a view.

* There is, of course, often a baser motive for discounting their opinion, which is that the opinion of people who aren't like us counts for less – which is one reason why we should be so wary of "othering" other people.

** It shouldn't need saying, but I fear it does: I'm not claiming any moral equivalence between these examples but merely suggesting that a similar mechanism is at work.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed