Explaining the Anger That Consumes Debate on the Web

From Scientific American, on "taboo trade-offs":


What truly distinguishes sacred values from secular ones is how people behave when asked to compromise them. When people are asked to trade their sacred values for values considered to be secular--what psychologist Philip Tetlock refers to as a "taboo tradeoff"--they exhibit moral outrage, express anger and disgust, become increasingly inflexible in negotiations, and display an insensitivity to a strict cost-benefit analysis of the exchange. What's more, when people receive monetary offers for relinquishing a sacred value, they display a particularly striking irrationality. Not only are people unwilling to compromise sacred values for money--contrary to classic economic theory's assumption that financial incentives motivate behavior--but the inclusion of money in an offer produces a backfire effect such that people become even less likely to give up their sacred values compared to when an offer does not include money. People consider trading sacred values for money so morally reprehensible that they recoil at such proposals.

For me, this resonates with my growing disgust at the level of anger in the blogosphere. I don't mean irritation, pointed jibes, or even spirited discussion; I mean an aggressive revelling in rage. I notice it much more on left wing sites, but that's because I basically refuse to read angry right-wing sites, so I don't know what's going on there.


My disgust crytallized in the affair of Todd Henderson.  Not merely the number of people who felt compelled--indeed, incentivized--to dump all over a guy who engaged in the time-honored practice of complaining about high taxes.  Rather, it was the way that posts about Henderson were linked.  "X delivers a smackdown . . . "  "Y straps a rocket to his ass and sends him into orbit . . . " and so forth.  Whatever the authors of those posts had intended, what their commenters and readers seemed to glory in was not the argument, but the opportunity to vent some rage at people with whom they vehemently disagreed.  

It's one thing to be angry; it's another when anger is the main force that binds a group together.  Call me a vaporing language nanny, but I thought it was pretty creepy when Jon Chait described another liberal journalist, Michael Kinsley, another journalist, as "curb stomping" economist Greg Mankiw for, yes, daring to suggest that higher marginal tax rates might have incentive effects.  Woo-hoo!  

But why stop with curb-stomping?  Wouldn't it be fun to pile ten-thousand gleaming skulls of supply-siders outside the Heritage Offices?  We could mount Art Laffer's head on a rotating musical pike that plays The Stars and Stripes Forever!  Then, in the most hilarious surprise ending of all, the mob could turn on Jon Chait, douse him with gasoline and set him on fire, and then sack the offices of the New Republic!

Somehow, that's not actually funny.  Neither is curb stomping, as Ezra Klein pointed out.

I'll reiterate that this is not a "left wing blogs are angry and evil" post; I have no opinion about which side is worse, and I've never seen such arguments offer much in the way of convincing empirical data, beyond the evidence that whoever is making them really, really hates the other side.  The example is an illustration, not a political indictment.  I sense it going on on all sides of me, and it bothers me. A lot.

But perhaps it is explicable in an era when the federal budget is finally close to riding off the rails.  With Social Security and Medicare nudging into deficit, and the government's share of GDP already pretty high, we're fighting over a lot of taboo trade-offs, in a context where we can't help but bring money into it.  The result is the rage of people who cannot bear to see their sacred ideals profaned--and worse, to see the profaners walking around apparently happy.  Only a primal scream of outrage will do.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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