Our haters are moral infants . . . or at least moral children

There’s a fascinating fact about infants: in the earliest days of their life, they see everything in stark, high-contrast black & white, and maybe a few sharp colors. This is because their eyes haven’t fully developed yet, so they cannot pick out nuances like subtle color shifts and complex patterns. As their eyes get stronger, providing they have healthy vision, they will start to see the visual complexity all around them.

Another interesting fact is that the most primitive human cultures only have words for black/dark and white/bright. Brent Berlin and Paul Kay studied many cultures and their relation to color terminology in their seminal anthropological work Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, and they found that there is a predictable evolution of color terms from most basic to most complex. These correspond to the complexity of a culture’s language, which in turn corresponds to the complexity and advancement of a culture itself. As already stated, the most primitive languages (what Berlin and Kay call Stage I languages) only have words for white and black, or more accurately, bright and dark. Stage II languages recognize red, the color that contrasts most sharply against white and black. Stage III languages recognize either green or yellow as well as black, white and red. And so on, up to Stage VII, which has names for secondary and tertiary colors.

These two things may seem only vaguely related, but when you give it some thought, one can see a pattern which I think can be extrapolated out and applied to moral thinking. Now, before I go on, let me be clear that what I’m proposing here isn’t science; it’s philosophy, a way of looking at the world, so don’t assume I am making any scientific statements. But it seems to me that there is something similar going on with respect to morality. The most primitive cultures have very harsh black & white notions of wrong and right, which is why their punishments for moral infractions are often cruel and horrendous to those of us in more advanced civilizations. In cultures where, say, theft is punished with amputation of a hand, such a punishment is not viewed as cruel because theft itself is not viewed as a minor matter. It is a huge moral transgression, particularly in cultures that are very poor and the loss of something valuable can mean life or death.

Likewise, young children, who are, for all intents and purposes, the primitive form of individuals, often have very sharp and concrete notions about what is fair and unfair. When a perceived unfairness has been visited upon them, they can feel deeply hurt, and given real power, they would likely be quite cruel in meting out justice as they saw it. (Ever read Lord of the Flies?) It is only with time that they begin to understand the concepts of negotiation, compromise and moral shades of gray, those factors of life that civilize us all. But what is it that can undo all of that if we give in to it? Fear. Terror can quickly regress us back to our animalistic state of fight-or-flight. But a notch or two above that, when fear is more of a vague mood floating over us like a specter, we tend to be atavistically reduced to a more primitive social condition. In this state, lest we guard against it, we often become severe and simplistic in our thinking. Paranoia and dread can make monsters of us, and as we know, the monsters are due on Maple Street.

To put it another way, fear can make children of us. Children, those primitive individuals whom I adore. Perhaps it’s why I have such a fascination with my opponents and am willing to overlook so much of their nonsense. Most of them really do remind me of kids sometimes. Kids love easily, but they also are easily frightened and easily wrathful. And they have very simplistic notions of right and wrong, which is sometimes charming and sometimes frustrating to deal with. While in this state, they cannot be reasoned with and they hate you with a passion. Of course, being kids, they usually get over it quickly and love you again. Kids have shallow emotions. They have not yet learned to understand what causes someone to do something that displeases the child, like forbidding him or her an extra helping of ice cream. They don’t understand that it’s for their own good. This bit of wisdom comes with perspective.

Most of our haters also lack perspective on this topic. They are blinded by their own emotions, unable to see beyond the filter they’ve been presented with over and over again by media and authorities that have long had a woeful lack of decent information about pedophiles. It is so powerful that even when someone simply wants to understand us better, they are often attacked by the haters, made to feel like they are baby rapist sympathizers. Here’s a great example from Twitter. A woman who calls herself TheMomandant was respectful and curious, and she was attacked for it. As she put it:

TheMomandant 1

This is how the moral panic flourishes. Any time there is an overwhelming pathological need to shut down any dissent at all about an issue, no matter how modest, civilization is breaking down at that point. This is fear controlling the debate, which is very dangerous. This is how fascism arises.

Which brings me to my final point. There are a handful of people who really do know better but react much the same way regardless, and these people tend to have a pulpit. They are not reacting from fear; they are manipulating it. I have considerably less patience with this type. They are deliberately working the zeitgeist, drumming up the moral panic because it serves their own ends. They are seeking to either maintain or gain power. These guys are our real enemies, and they know who they are. For everyone else, though, there is hope. They can morally progress. They can grow up and stop seeing this issue through a simplistic, childish moral filter. I hope they will set aside their prejudices and join the discussion calmly and rationally, because then they will see that we virpeds are actually on their side and want the same thing they do: safe, happy children.

2 thoughts on “Our haters are moral infants . . . or at least moral children

  1. Again,great piece,and it confirms things that I have always thought.Now,we need to get to grips as to why some people “stall” at that early phase,and how can we help them move on….I have struggled with this conundrum all my life. Have you read “zero degrees of Empathy” Simon Baron-Cohen ?


    1. Thanks! I have not read that book, no. Is the author related to actor/comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen? Never mind, I looked it up. He is! A cousin, apparently. Part of his work covers theory of mind, which is something that also fascinates me. I’ll look into the book. Thanks for the recommendation!


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