“When we tried to fight evil, we found ourselves becoming evil.”

Take some time to read Tom Downey's artile China's Cyberposse in the New York Times Magazine.

The article is about the rise of human-flesh search engines—renrou sousuo yinqing—in China. Human-flesh search engines are crowed-sourced (think Wikipedia) forms of Internet vigilantism:

Human-flesh search engines—renrou sousuo yinqing—have become a Chinese phenomenon: they are a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath. The goal is to get the targets of a search fired from their jobs, shamed in front of their neighbors, run out of town. It’s crowd-sourced detective work, pursued online — with offline results.
According to Downey, a key moment in human-flesh search occurred in 2006 when the Chinese Internet community--Netizens (Internet citizens)--began to work together to locate a women would posting an Internet video showing her stomping a kitten to death with stiletto heels. From there human-flesh search has continued:
At the Beijing headquarters of Mop, Ben Du, the site’s head of interactive communities, told me that the Chinese term for human-flesh search engine has been around since 2001, when it was used to describe a search that was human-powered rather than computer-driven. Mop had a forum called human-flesh search engine, where users could pose questions about entertainment trivia that other users would answer: a type of crowd-sourcing. The kitten-killer case and subsequent hunts changed all that. Some Netizens, including Du, argue that the term continues to mean a cooperative, crowd-sourced investigation. “It’s just Netizens helping each other and sharing information,” he told me. But the Chinese public’s primary understanding of the term is no longer so benign. The popular meaning is now not just a search by humans but also a search for humans, initially performed online but intended to cause real-world consequences. Searches have been directed against all kinds of people, including cheating spouses, corrupt government officials, amateur pornography makers, Chinese citizens who are perceived as unpatriotic, journalists who urge a moderate stance on Tibet and rich people who try to game the Chinese system. Human-flesh searches highlight what people are willing to fight for: the political issues, polarizing events and contested moral standards that are the fault lines of contemporary China.
As a psychologist, here is what interests and worries me about all this. We all know how the Internet distances us from the better angels of our nature. Humans are built for face-to-face interactions. In each other's presence there are enormous social psychological mechanisms that keep us civil and sober. But the Internet dislocates us from those mechanisms. Thus, online interactions are much more crude, unreasonable and intemperate compared to face-to-face interactions.

Given this, I have some concerns about human-flesh search. Human-flesh search disconnects our instinct for revenge (what psychologists call moralistic aggression) from the social forces that inhibit its expression. Humans have a natural eye-for-an-eye response in the face of injustice or harm. This is all to the good. However, the lust for revenge tends to be counterbalanced by social pressures. These pressures help control and corral the dark impulses of moralistic aggression. We all know that if vigilantism and "getting back" at people became the social norm society would disintegrate. Thus, we try to funnel aggression through more rational and sober mechanisms, like the justice system or a bureaucratic hierarchy of complaint. But human-flesh search is radically disconnected from these counterbalancing social forces and our mechanisms of redress. First, as we noted above, the anonymity of the Web tends to throw gas on our darker impulses. Second, the crowd-sourcing aspect of human-flesh search separates our participation in the human-search (e.g., maybe I locate where the person lives and post that on the Internet) from the final consequences of the search (i.e., what the neighbors or employers do to that person after I post the address). That is, I might sate my lust for revenge by posting the address but fail to appreciate how I've contributed to the final acts of flesh and blood revenge. These could get out of hand. And I'd be partly culpable. Worse, I might never know what happened. I just posted the address and went on with my life.

In short, what happens when revenge becomes anonymous and crowd-sourced? These dark forces start to get out of control. And you end up with the assessment of a man at the end of Downey's article who was trying to use human-flesh search against those using human-flesh search. He suddenly realized what all this reciprocal revenge was doing to his soul: “When we tried to fight evil, we found ourselves becoming evil.”

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4 thoughts on ““When we tried to fight evil, we found ourselves becoming evil.””

  1. This is a real world problem when we want to protect the citizen's right and liberty, but have also the responsibility to protect security interests for all.

    Tolerance is not a value in some religious cultures, as it subverts the very meaning of their values.

    Is there any solution, or are we alway going to be prone to the evil surmisings, in the world?

    It seems the more I have sought to understand and clarify my values, the more I am convinced that we cannot ascertain to ultimates...whether politically, socially or ethically.

    I am not dismissing our attempt to reach for the ultimates...but just wondering if our Representative government's principles are not ultimate in universal governance, as it allows the individual within the domain of his growth/development to be "free". And that is an ultimate value, I think.

  2. Richard,

    This behavioral phenomenon is precisely what Rene Girard speaks to: mimetic violence. We become what we imitate or pursue.


  3. Who said that for evil to prevail, let good men do nothing? That person obviously did not believe that we become evil as we fight evil. We just don't agree as to what evil is...

  4. Edmund Burke stated, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” and “All that's necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.” The understanding of evil cannot be defined in the same breath with the word tolerance. As well, evil cannot be defined in terms of ultimates apsrt from an ultimate truth. Man does not have the capacity to reach a level of ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is found extrinsically, it comes from God. There is a saying by Neitzche that if you look long enough into the abyss the abyss will look back into you. That is the prevailing failure of man to attain to ultimate truth apart from God. We must look higher and although evil will never be defeated in this world, looking to God will empower the 'good' men in the world to fight that evil

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