Blame it on my (loosely) Catholic upbringing, but I grew up thinking that bad behavior was additive. That is, if you do a bad thing, then do it again, that’s twice as bad as if you’d just done it once. This was supported by my simple understanding of confession and penance, and held up by my equal simple understanding of law enforcement and criminal sentencing. Sure, there was a certain amount of nuance – theft seemed to be judged more on total value than the number of things, for example – but that was the basic model. What’s more, as the more well behaved of my siblings, it seemed like a very fair arrangement to me.
That sense of fairness haunted me well into adulthood without my giving it much thought. I would see people do something that seemed very clearly bad in my eyes, and have other people shrug it off. That was ok, people have different tolerances, but what got me was that they would do it again, or do something comparably bad, and the excited little kid in my brain would want to hump up on top of something and point and say “SEE! SEE! That’s TWICE as bad! Aren’t you appalled?”
But the thing is, people weren’t. The people who were bothered the first time were bothered again, and the people who weren’t bothered the first time just shrugged it off. That just seemed wrong and, perhaps more importantly, unfair. This niggled at the edge of my mind for a long time without ever really crystallizing – it just didn’t come up enough to really merit more than annoyance.
Then the internet came along, and I was deluged by examples of this on a daily basis. This proved the basis for many important moral lessons, but it also laid out the additive fallacy in the starkest of terms. Go to blogs and forums where people are complete jerks and you will quickly discover that they always have a body of people willing to defend them, no matter how obviously rude, insulting or destructive their behavior. Sometimes there’s a clear explanation, like a fierce free speech advocate or just a bigger jerk, but usually it seemed to just be a function of community. Paradoxically it seemed the more often the person was a jerk, the more tolerant their community was of it.
Occasionally, the bad actor might strain tolerance, usually if he’s really machine-gunning the hate, but most often the only way things could change would be if the bad actor took things to the next level, to make his behavior drastically worse, such as by starting to include racist comments in what had heretofore been merely misogynistic remarks. But otherwise? No problem.
It really hurt my heart to acknowledge that if bad behavior is additive, then it suffers from drastic diminishing returns – repeat actions only move the needle up fractionally, and only for as long as memory lasts. If people are willing to be tolerant of the first bad action, then they will probably be tolerant of each subsequent bad action. In fact, these supporters will become so inured to it that when someone else raises it as an issue, the supporter will sincerely wonder why this person is overreacting so strongly.
This is, to be frank, a kind of crappy moral conclusion to reach. At best it suggests a zero tolerance policy of assholes, and while that seems satisfying on paper, it overlooks the simple fact that everyone has the occasional bad day. And, if I’m completely honest with myself, I have to acknowledged that there are a few assholes that I also tolerate in this fashion.
It’s good to be aware of that. Yeah yeah, pop philosophy, blah blah blah. Not very satisfying, but the alternative is that little part of me that still really and truly wants things to be fair, and I;m pretty sure I don’t want to let him out of the box.
1 – In retrospect, I would probably have seen it sooner if I listened to more talk radio.