Amanda Palmer
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Amanda Palmer: Playing the Hitler Card

We live in an age of endless, foaming outrage. The only answer is to try to feel empathy for other people, no matter who they are.

“You can’t play the Hitler Card,” said Neil. “Godwin’s law: once you play it, you’re out. Trust me.”

“But it’s different. Hitler’s the example people use. That’s why I’m using him.”

“Don’t do it.”

“You’re missing the point. If I’m talking about people talking about absolutes, I’ve got to use him.”

He looked at me with that polite, British look he uses when he knows I’m wrong.

“If you must use a Nazi as an example, darling, you’d be better off using Mengele. He was the one who did unthinkably gruesome experiments on pregnant women and their babies.”

“Thank you for that lovely image.” I looked down at my swelling belly. “But that’s not a meme. You don’t ‘play the Mengele Card’ . . . Most younger people probably won’t know who that is.”

“He was the villain in William Goldman’s Marathon Man.”

“Don’t change the subject. This isn’t about books. This is about Hitler.”

Neil sighed. I sighed back. This conversation was going nowhere.

 

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“Playing the Hitler Card”, otherwise known as “reductio ad Hitlerum”, is the point in a discussion “where someone compares an opponent’s view to those of Adolf Hitler or the Nazi party”. Godwin’s law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

Both Neil and I have been engulfed in our fair share of what we refer to as “internet kerfuffles” and we now discuss online PR tactics in the way that other married couples discuss whose turn it is to drop the kids off at school.

“Honey, your blog defending this person’s honour is really noble but if it kerfuffles, do you have time to deal with the three days of Twitter and Tumblr backlash?”

“Not really, I’m insane with deadlines.”

“Oof. Then don’t post it. You don’t have the time or energy to kerfuff this week.”

 

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Everyone’s tired of internet outrage. It has got to the point where we censor ourselves so carefully to avoid kerfuffling that we might as well get off the internet altogether and go back to plain, old talking in cafés and pubs, because those places are where people can actually be honest. Erika Moen, who draws a sex-positive web comic called Oh Joy Sex Toy, wrote a blog recently about a handful of female celebrities who had had their naked phone selfies stolen and distributed. She wrote a friendly reminder to people that if they wanted to protect their identities from hackers while taking naked selfies, they should consider not including their distinguishing tattoos, or, obviously, their faces. She then got an outraged email from a long-time fan, calling her out as a “face shamer”.

People on the web are addicted to ­outrage. It’s become an epidemic but nobody seems to know quite what to do about it.

I look at Monica Lewinsky’s Ted talk about the “price of shame”, the US journalist Lindy West’s befriending of her worst troll and the inexplicable harassment-vortex morass that is Gamergate and I also see a widening conversation about the reality and effects of hatred. If there’s a theme in the backlash to the backlash, it is this: to defuse the Outrage Generation, we need better empathy skills.

A few years back, I endured a relentless ten months of internet controversy and I quickly learned the red flags, symptoms and lifespan of an average kerfuffle. There are two-day kerfuffles and two-week kerfuffles. There are kerfuffles that stay contained on Twitter and those that spill on to the blogs and, worse still, into print media.

The year 2012 began with my Kickstarter Kerfuffle (when I crowdfunded an album through online donations), which evolved a few months later into the Volunteer Musician Kerfuffle. Just as those were dying down, the spring of 2013 brought the Poem Kerfuffle, which started when I sat down to reflect on the harrowing days following the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened a few blocks from my apartment.

After the lockdown, Neil and I drove from Boston to New York and back, listening to the radio news non-stop as the ­horrific manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers crescendoed and exploded. We heard our friends on the radio – one of them had a son who had been friends with Dzhokhar, the younger brother. She had been at a backyard graduation party with him. Both of them had gone to high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near our house.

Dzhokhar was 19.

I wondered how he felt.

The poem I posted on my blog was a stream-of-consciousness sequence that connected the feeling of being trapped in “the bottom of the boat” (the location in which Dzhokhar was ultimately found, not far from the house I was raised in) and my flailing sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming pain and tragedy. It was about my parents, my inability to
leave Boston because of a friend’s battle with cancer, my fragile marriage and my mundane indecision.

Before I uploaded it, I showed the poem to Neil, my personal kerfuffle filter. His red flags didn’t wave. He recognised the poem’s ingredients and commented on the punctuation and we set off for lunch. I called it “A Poem for Dzhokhar”, posted it and read the first few comments. The readers seemed to like it.

By the time I turned on my phone after lunch, the poem had been discovered by the right-wing news sites and the blog had 1,000 comments. One website said it was “the worst poem ever written in the English language”. Even generally lefty Boston journalists wrote op-eds condemning me for daring to write such an insensitive poem at such a sensitive time. Too soon, they said. Too far. Too much.

 

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What frightened me about the Poem Kerfuffle weren’t the attacks on my poetry skills. It was the realisation that I was more alone than I had thought in my stance on compassion, expression and how we use art to cope with tragedy. How dare you empathise WITH A MURDERER? My Twitter feed had filled up with hate so fast that I couldn’t even read it all. A television news programme referred to me as “a loser”. Someone told me that I should have a bomb shoved up my cunt. An emailed death threat came in, credible enough for me to talk to the police. One concerned Boston journalist found himself “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”.

Distinctions between empathy and jihad­ist leanings were quickly blurred; I was ­labelled a terrorist sympathiser. Some of my local friends told me that they couldn’t stand by “my support of the bombers”. But I wasn’t supporting their actions. I was imagining their feelings. I wasn’t totally alone, however. Most of my friends shook their heads in sadness about the misunderstanding. And slowly, over the next few days, I received a string of emails and voicemails from local Bostonians who wanted to tell me, in private, that they, too, had felt empathy and compassion and even concern for this 19-year-old kid. But they dared not say it aloud.

“He’s exactly my son’s age,” a friend wrote to me. “I can’t not imagine how he must be feeling. It’s heartbreaking. But you don’t blog those things, Amanda. That’s too much.”

Too soon, too far, too much.

I kept running the phrase in my head: “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”. What’s too far? Is there even such a thing?

I believe that to erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the possibility of human progress. Erasing the possibility of empathy also threatens to erase the possibility of art. We watch Oedipus Rex not because we celebrate and condone the concept of motherfuckers and father killers but because it is cathartic to see our worst nightmares exposed in a safe context. We do not cheer when the blade cuts deep. We weep. We empathise. And we put the play on over, and over, and over again. These differences are crucial. Empathy is not sympathy and compassion is not condonation. Stage blood is exactly that. We spill it, on the stage and on the page, precisely because we can do it without harm.

I am, perhaps, an extremist in this regard. But I am starting to think that the only true antidote to extreme hate may be extreme love, a radical empathy. Jihads of compassion. Crusades of kindness. A movement in which we attempt to love our enemy . . . Oh, hold on. Jesus already said all that. Wait – did it work?

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that it might. In order to practise extreme empathy, you have to be able to empathise with . . . well, anybody. You have to be able to imagine loving and feeling compassion for the worst of the worst. Last year, this philosophy got me into a bit of a tangle with the various editors of my memoir-manifesto, The Art of Asking, when I drafted a section explaining that, yes, you must feel compassion even for the worst of the worst. For Hitler. There. I did it. I played the Hitler Card. But does it still count if I’m using the card not to tear down my opponent, but rather to point out that neither my debate partner nor Hitler is truly my opponent? My editors shook their heads. Frankly, nobody will care, Amanda. Please, take it out.

They won. I took him out of the book.

It is painful to imagine the ingredients – familial, cultural, environmental and mental – that can lead a person to commit actions so atrocious and so unconscionable that we cannot speak of them. But I think it is necessary. As the world grows more extreme, more violent and more polarised, as we wrap ourselves into ever tighter filter bubbles of news and opinion, as we find it easier and easier to divide the world into black, white, us and them – as these things happen, this exercise in imagination becomes increasingly essential. Not just for the artists, the poets, the musicians and the playwrights. For everyone.

On 13 May, the jury in Boston began deliberating over Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt and fate. I found myself thinking not about the rights and wrongs of the death penalty but trying to imagine how it would feel to spend days, months, years in isolation, hearing the screams and wails of the guy in the next cell who mutilates himself with razor blades and swallows nail clippers. Trying to imagine how it would feel to be strapped to a gurney as a fellow human being inserts a death needle into both of my arms. I found myself imagining what it must be like to take the witness stand to explain how I looked down to see my own bloody legs lying on the sidewalk ­beside me. And I imagined how it would feel to be on a jury, having to drive home every night after court, my head hitting my pillow knowing that I must, along with 11 others, cast a vote for someone to live or to die. I can’t imagine I was alone in imagining these things.

The Martin Luther King biographer Taylor Branch recently shared a heart-rending piece of history: the last words uttered by one of the three civil rights activists killed by armed Klansmen during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, as they made a road trip to get folks to register to vote. In the moment before he was shot on a dark Southern highway, he said to the Klansman: “Sir, I know just how you feel.”

Then, bam. Dead. Given that his two friends were also shot and killed, you may wonder how we know. We know because the Klansmen who confessed to the murders shared that phrase in their testimonies. Those seven words apparently haunted them.

Frans de Waal, the Dutch primatologist, says: “Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

Here’s the thing: I did not and cannot know exactly how that teenage bomber felt. But I will dare to imagine. I must. I believe we all must. I believe it is only through the flexing of that small, frail, imaginary muscle of empathy that we will build the strength to erect a new human architecture on this fragile, fragile planet – a stronger one, one of connectedness and understanding.

Sir, I know just how you feel.

Wishful thinking. But perhaps. One day.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge