Last night I read a Kindle Single - an essay packaged in ebook form for 99 cents - called Trial By Fury: Internet Savagery and the Amanda Knox Case. The author is bestselling novelist Douglas Preston. His topic is the storm of invective raging across the Internet in response to the trial of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito for the murder of Meredith Kercher in Italy.
I have to admit that I have only a superficial knowledge of the murder case. I've read very little about it - a few online articles and part of one book, Murder in Italy, which I didn't finish. My impression is that the authorities seized on Knox and Sollecito too quickly, before the evidence had been properly examined; later, when a clearly guilty suspect came to light (his bloody handprint was found underneath the corpse), the authorities chose to double down in their case against Knox and Sollecito rather than admit error. On the other hand, Knox herself does not come off as a particularly sympathetic figure; her behavior after the discovery of her roommate's corpse was decidedly odd and arguably rather cold and unfeeling, she's had trouble keeping her story straight, and worst of all, she pointed the finger of accusation at her employer in order to take the heat off herself. The employer was later found to have an airtight alibi, but not before his reputation and his business had been ruined.
I'm less interested in the facts of the Knox case than in the furor surrounding it. As Preston points out, the case has given rise to some wild displays of temper on the part of Knox's critics, some of whom have defamed her in the crudest language, have called for her torture, rape, and murder, and have lambasted her family, her legal team, and anyone who expressed support for her. In some cases individual critics have keyboarded hundreds of thousands of words - the equivalent of a Tolstoy epic or more - in analyzing very detail of the case while excoriating Knox and her defenders. Preston himself has been the target of such abuse (and continues to be, now that his Kindle Single has been released).
To explain this craziness, Preston turns to evolutionary psychology, advancing a theory that the demonizing and punishment of those who violate social norms is hard-wired into some percentage of the population as an evolutionary strategy. In the Internet, he says, we see these hard-wired biological drives running amok.
It's an interesting essay and a provocative argument. But I don't think I buy it. Here's why.
First, while Preston naturally focuses on the vehemence of Knox's critics, the fact is that some of her defenders are guilty of the same wild overstatement, crude personal attacks on their enemies, and obsessiveness. Here's an example. The prosecutor in the Knox case is Giuliano Mignini. A quick Google search for his name plus the word "scum" yielded these quotes:
bonehead dimwit Giuliano Mignini, he is a power hungry moron who needs to be stopped
outrageous and psychotic man
this corrupt greasy wap should be exterminated
mignini is a terrible evil cruel fat greasy perugian he must be stopped
nasty cruel catholic idiot
giulano mignini must die now the nasty s--t
This fat idiot needs to learn italian in prison for the rest of his cruddy pathetic italian scum bag life.
fat perv. liquidize him into plant food and grow some pretty flowers. I'm not kidding.. PERV.
In fact, all of these gems come from the same webpage - a blog post and the comments that followed. And this page is hardly unique.
If a hard-wired drive to penalize violators of social norms explains the vindictiveness of the Knox critics, how do we explain the vindictiveness of her defenders? Perhaps we could argue that her defenders see Mignini as having violated social norms by his overzealous prosecutorial tactics. But this leaves too many other, similar outpourings of outrage unexplained. The Internet is stuffed to the gills with angry debates on every conceivable controversy, from healthcare reform to which stocks to buy, from movie reviews to the best way to refinish your kitchen cabinets. I've been told there are even heated discussions about such an innocuous topic as evidence for paranormal phenomena and life after death!
Moreover, such disputes are hardly limited to the online world. People get into conflicts - sometimes violent conflicts - over trivialities out there in the real world every day. God forbid you should insult the local sports team. You could start a riot.
It seems to me that people's propensity for extreme behavior in defense of certain points of view has less to do with penalizing those who disrupt society than with our old friend, the ego. Basically, we identify ourselves with our thoughts and opinions. An attack on our opinion then becomes an attack on our very self. And who would not strike back at an attack on one's own person (or even lash out preemptively to prevent such an attack)?
The degree of our vehemence - the degree to which we lose control - varies in direct proportion to the degree of our self-identification with our thoughts. Some people have a greater ability to distance themselves from their own opinions and to maintain a certain perspective. In most cases, we find it easier to maintain perspective in some areas than on others. I have found, for instance, that I'm not good at maintaining my distance on my political opinions, which is why I seldom talk about them anymore. We all have "buttons" that can be pushed.
Although I'm skeptical of evolutionary psychology, which strikes me as consisting largely of just-so stories (see David Stove's witty critique Darwinian Fairytales), there is a way in which our tendency to identify with our opinions may be grounded in evolution. An obvious survival advantage is found in our willingness to defend ourselves against predators. This instinct of self-defense very naturally extends to defending family members, and even to defending unrelated members of the pack or tribe. It also extends to defending territory - we protect our turf against invaders, seek to repel attacks, and view an incursion on our territory as a direct assault on our own person. (Think of the homeowner who says that a burglary made him feel "violated.")
From here it is only a small step to regarding our intellectual territory in just the same protective and defensive manner. Our mental "turf" - the metaphorical territory we inhabit in our inner life - is perceived as being essential to our personal survival, just as our physical territory is. When our inner territory is threatened, we muster the same responses we would mount against a threat to our physical turf: we form an organized opposition, whip ourselves up into a state of fury, and hurl ourselves at the enemy, seeking to inflict maximum damage by any means necessary.
In short, our ego identifies with our intellectual positions, which are further conflated with our physical safety and security. An attack on those positions can pack a devastating one-two punch: our ego is threatened, and our very survival seems to be at stake. We respond accordingly.
It doesn't matter that our responses are so often grossly disproportionate and irrational. An insult to your favorite sports team is not an existential threat - but it may feel that way, if your ego is sufficiently bound up in the team. The fate of Amanda Knox is not actually of vital personal importance to people who've never met her and have no connection with her, but if your sense of self is closely tied to your opinion of Knox, then her fate will feel vitally important - important enough to justify churning out hundreds of thousands of words, important enough to unleash a firestorm of invective on those who hold a different opinion.
I think this is the simpler, more comprehensive explanation for the furor surrounding Amanda Knox and an endless miscellany of other controversies, both online and in the real world. It may even explain the Knox case itself. The authorities had put their egos on the line by publicly announcing that Knox and Sollecito were guilty; they could not back down without losing face. In pressing forward with the prosecution even after an undeniably guilty culprit had been apprehended, they were defending their own mental turf and protecting their own threatened egos - just as we all do, to one degree or another.