... and all he hears is some indistinct buzzing noises.

2003-11-03 23:45

One of the problems you occasionally face is trying to communicate with people who simply don’t have the framework to understand what you’re doing. For instance, some of the junk faxers I’ve talked to have been, so far as I can tell, incapable of comprehending the motive “I think this behavior is wrong, and want to make people stop doing it”. If it’s not profitable, it doesn’t make sense. You talk about damages, they understand. You talk about giving money to charity, and all they hear is indistinct buzzing noises. The words simply can’t make sense. A couple of these people have made it quite clear that they’ve “seen through” my claims that I think junk faxing is wrong. They don’t buy it, not for a minute, because that’s not how people are.

One of my friends had a similar experience. She was talking to other students in college, and was trying to explain that she was studying molecular biology because it was interesting, not because of a specific planned career path. In fact, a lot of people who pick up a couple of college classes run into this; many people are in college to Advance A Career, and simply don’t see any other explanation. They want to know what you’re getting out of it, and “education” isn’t an answer that makes sense.

The most depressingly common form of this, however, remains morals and ethics. Another friend of mine got tagged for speeding a while back. She mentioned this in a social setting, and someone told her to contest the ticket. Her response was, to my mind, perfectly obvious; “But why? I was speeding.” The other party went on to explain all of the ways in which one can get out of speeding tickets, but seemed totally incapable of understanding the premise; if you do something for which there is a fine, and get tagged, you pay your fine, you don’t whine about it.

The idea that we should be responsible for our actions, and accept their consequences, seems to be wildly unpopular these days. And yet, the people dismissing this idea as naive, or foolish, don’t seem to be able to comprehend why they might be looked down on, or distrusted. One early spammer explained that he was spamming, fully aware of the harmful effects it had, because it was allowing him to buy stuff for his family. That’s his moral system; he takes care of his family. (You still out there, NUK?) You know what? If a paper wasp can fully comprehend and implement your moral system, you have problems. Problems which cannot be addressed without admitting, up front, that this moral system is simply deficient. It’s not really a moral system, just a set of rationalizations and excuses.

I think this is the hidden downside of attempting to legislate morality. The more you have laws governing morality, the more likely people are to think that anything they can get away with, legally, is therefore also moral. It isn’t so. Laws are the baseline; the bare minimum. What is illegal is not everything wrong, but only those things so egregious and destructive that we need to enforce a ban on them, and not even all of those.

What’s really terrifying is that this is in America. The richest country in the world, by most accounts. We have technology. Our definition of the “poverty line” allows for color television. Very, very, few people starve around here. The people who are the most vocal in condemning “old-fashioned” models of ethics or morals are not the ones who are starving. They’re the ones who want to pay for a second brand-new SUV.

These people are mentally unwell, by any reasonable standard. When you meet them, try to be compassionate; they simply don’t know any better, and they’re too stubborn to learn. This doesn’t excuse their behavior; it just explains it. There’s not much point in trying to explain what they’re doing wrong. They have built a worldview in which terms like “morals” are just buzzing sounds, to be disregarded while one focuses on meeting a sales quota. Their lives are more empty than most of us can imagine. Don’t hate them. Pity them.

Peter Seebach



  1. Excellent post. Your concept on attempts to legislate morality actually reworking the moral definitions help by society is correct.

    King of Fools · 2003-11-05 15:07 · #