I once saw a martial arts contest judged by three Shaolin monks. The monks scored entrants on their technique, using a scale of one to ten.
No scale of one to ten is ever one to ten, because judges don’t like to give out ones, and these monks weren’t giving out tens. So it was something like 6 to 9 that day, and sixes grew rarer as the hours crawled along. Partway through the contest, the monks started adding decimal places to the scores (they were just writing with markers on cards). By the end of what was, to be fair, an interminable program, the scores were all, and I mean, all, nine point something, generally between 9.6 and 9.9. This means if you wanted to compare contestants from the beginning of the event to contestants from the end (which, because of the way it was set up, you wouldn’t), the fairest way would be to take the latter’s scores, subtract nine and multiply by ten.
What had happened here? For some reason, gradually through the course of one long Sunday, scores had inflated. It happened relatively quickly, and it happened apparently without anyone planning it out.
(Probably I should mention that it was not the case the beginners went at the start of the day, and experts at the end or something like that. Whatever caused the inflation, it wasn’t just people getting better.)
I think about that day a lot, even though, or perhaps because, I don’t understand it. Had these monks never judged a similar performance before? Did they know each other? Somehow monk-based social pressure I’m obviously not privy to caused rapid grade inflation. If I had had to guess, I would have said that Shaolin monks above all people would have been immune to this kind of pressure, but nope, they were the ones doing it.
This is not a unique phenomenon — there’s a reason we even have the term grade inflation — but I don’t think it usually happens in six or seven hours.
I’m not an economist, and I’m not claiming I understand inflation. I get it, I get it: no one likes inflation, but it is somehow necessary for the economy.
Recently I read Elias Canetti’s theory that the notorious German hyperinflation of the 1920s made the Holocaust possible; not in the usually cited collapse-of-the-Weimar-economy way, bit rather by inuring the German people to the concept of enormous numbers. Killing millions of people doesn’t sound like so many if billions of deutschmarks will buy a loaf of bread.
This sounds far fetched to me but I mention it because economists seem to have a tendency to pooh pooh complaints about inflation, as though inflation had no unintended consequences. “You don’t like inflation? I guess you don’t like having a modern economy and would rather live in a mud hut and die of dysentery” is not literally, but is essentially, what one economist said to me when I suggested that there may be larger problems caused by the fact that no one ever really knows how much money is worth or how much staples “should” cost. Maybe that economist’s smug little face would be less smug if he thought his precious inflation had caused the holocaust.
Anyway, I’m about to blame Trump on inflation.
Not Weimar-style inflation, Shaolin-style inflation.
You may have noticed that all your friends have turned into psychotic hate machines, and the only thing that prevents you and them from screaming insults at one another is that you’re all in the same demographic. I’m talking about your friends on social media of course.
If you haven’t noticed this UNFRIEND ME NOW!
You may have noticed (if you are American) that your presidential campaign had been hijacked by a psychotic hate machine, and that in response “the other half” of the country spends its time spewing psychotic hate back at it. If you say that some of this hate, one side’s hate, is not psychotic but is justified — well, I agree with you, and we are in the same demographic, and what is up with that spray on tan am I right? But perhaps, as you read your nth post flattering your preconceptions and saying: “Anyone who votes for that candidate is literally subhuman,” you may wonder about the amount of hate you are consuming on a daily basis.
(If you are not American then mutatis mutandis Brexit or something else from your chosen country.)
This level of hate had always been available to you, if you were a Bircher or a Maoist or read their literature. But, like flat earth theories and the pictures of girls stomping on mice, it used to be somewhat difficult to find. Now it’s everywhere, such that people I think of as being rational or civil think nothing of saying, “Agree with me or we cannot be friends and also you are evil [and should die (optional)]” about topic after topic. Like a Bircher. Like a Maoist.
Obviously I think we have always been engaged in (to use Coleridge’s phrase) “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity”; or, to put a kinder face on it, we have always been looking for ways to exercise power over our neighbors. But it’s clear that America, at least, has gotten meaner and angrier and more hateful about it. The unprecedented hate the swelled up around GWB hardly prepared us for the unprecedented hate that swelled up around Obama, which could not have possibly prepared anyone for the possibility of a race-baiting date rapist running for president. It’s probably inflammatory for me to call that coked-up huckster a race-baiting date rapist, but if you don’t like it UNFRIEND ME NOW! THIS IS HOW POLITICS WORKS THESE DAYS! YOU ARE ALL TERRIBLE PEOPLE UNLESS YOU AGREE WITH ME ALWAYS FOR REAL THIS TIME!
I’m taking it on faith that you observed the change. I assume, if someone asked you what happened, you’d say that suddenly everyone who disagreed with you was a nazi-loving scumbag, and you had no choice but to fight back with righteous wrath “just to keep from being thrown to the wolves.”
Let me suggest that this explanation, the “it’s because of something they did” explanation, in always implausible. Let me suggest instead that the answer is the rise of social media. And of course Shaolin inflation.
Here’s how it worked in the old days. You were going to vote for Carter. Your moron friend wanted to vote for Ford. Probably when you got together at a discotheque or a key party you argued about this difference of opinion; the argument may have gotten heated. Then you went off to buy a mood ring and you met another Ford supporter! So you started again and you argued again.
The keywords are you started again.
Social media never lets you start again. Every argument you pose sits in twitter forever, every meme you share is one wayback machine ride away (not literally, as of 2011, but you get what I mean).
More importantly, your argument gets added to everyone else’s arguments. All you Carter boosters are now engaged in one long joint production, tag teaming in to zing Ford. “It was my understanding there would be no math,” says the animated gif you keep tumbling. And if your friends want to share a better gif, they need to up the ante.
This is of course in part a problem of demographic signaling, where you have to outdo the anchor posed by your friends just to prove you belong. If you want to show the world you are more progressive, or patriotic, than Johnny, then you’d better take Johnny’s last post and kick it up a notch for yours.But in part it’s pure Shaolin inflation; the inevitable result of a conversation that has gone on too long, twenty-four hours a day, day in and day out, tag teaming to keep the filibuster going.
The end result is the same: Some kind of social pressure leads you to post “x is bad” one day and “x is evil” the next day and “I literally cannot fathom how any decent human being could x” shortly after. The anger inflates and the hate inflates.
The anger inflates and the hate inflates. Yoda could tell us what comes next, if we weren’t already living it.