April 30, 2016

Source: Bigstock

What is significant about the comments above is not that they correspond to the thoughts or emotions of those who wrote them, but that those who wrote them thought that they were suitable for public, albeit untraceable, expression. No doubt many of us have had similar thoughts on occasion and, except for thoroughgoing pacifists who think that it is wrong ever to resist evil under any circumstances, most of us believe that, regrettably, it is sometimes necessary and justified to kill, doing so being the lesser evil. But there is an unmistakable sadistic glee in the comments that goes far beyond mere disgust at what ISIS did, or allegedly did, in this case.

In another comment, ISIS are called vermin to be eradicated as such, though there is by now good reason to fear resort to such metaphors, the dehumanization of people being one of the mechanisms by which atrocities are both committed and accepted. We should fear our own worst thoughts and refrain from giving them expression, for far from assuaging such thoughts, expression of them only goes to make them more frequent and more extreme. By means of such thoughts and such expressions, we become more like (a little more like) those who are supposedly the occasion of them, who have also persuaded themselves that there exist human vermin in the world to be eradicated.

This is a call to decency and self-control, not to political correctness. Political correctness is the means by which we try to control others; decency is the means by which we try to control ourselves. There is no doubt which is the easier to undertake, and the more pleasurable and gratifying. There is a considerable element of sadism in political correctness.

Of course, the sadistic commentators whom I have quoted are a self-selected group and are vanishingly few by comparison with the whole population of the countries in which they live. We don”€™t know what or how their compatriots think and feel, whether the commentators are representative of a large proportion of the population or at the tail end of a normal distribution of thought and emotion; a distribution that can be shifted, however. And if character is in part formed by habit, as surely it must be, and if the repeated expression of vile thoughts makes us more likely to act upon them, then failure to control our expressions causes our character to deteriorate and makes us at least more likely to condone, if not to commit, vileness.


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