Selective social policing

Suppose you really want to punish people who were born on a Tuesday, because you have an irrational loathing of them. Happily you rule the country. But sadly, you only rule it because the voting populace thinks you are kind and just and not at all vindictive and arbitrary. What do you do? One well known solution is to ban stealing IP or jaywalking and then only have the police resources to deal with, er, about a seventh of cases.

I don’t know how often selective policing happens with actual police forces, but my impression is that it is not the main thing going on there. However I sometimes wonder if it is often the main thing going on in amateur social policing. By amateur social policing, I mean for instance a group deciding that Bob is too much of a leach, and shouldn’t be invited to things. Or smaller status fines distributed via private judgmental gossip, such as ‘Eh, I don’t really like Mary. She is always trying to draw attention to herself.’ or ’I can’t believe I dated him. He makes every conflict into an opportunity to talk at length about his own stupid insecurities, and it’s so boring.’

I claim that in many cases if each person enjoyed having Bob around, his apparently being a leach wouldn’t seem like an urgent priority to avoid. And if the speaker got on with Mary, her sometimes attention-seeking behavior wouldn’t be a deal breaker. He might instead feel a little unhappy about the situation on her behalf, and wonder in a friendly way how to stop her embarrassing herself again. And if a woman said she had found a fantastic partner who was a serious candidate as soulmate, and her friend said that she actually knows him, and must warn her: if they ever get in a  conflict, he will talk too much about his insecurities(!), this would seem like a laughably meek warning. Yet it feels like a fine complaint at the end.

I suspect often in such cases, real invisible reasons behind the scenes drive demand for criticism, and then any of the numerous blatantly obvious flaws that a given person has are brought up to satisfy the need.

I sort of believed something like this abstractly—that there are often different standards for different people, for reasons that most people would find unfair. Which at least means policing depends on the apparent crime and also some less legitimate factor. But lately I have wondered if it is almost entirely the latter.

If I am judgmental of someone, there is often a plausible story where I don’t like them for some reason I don’t endorse, and then chose one of their zillion flaws to complain about, because they are at least actually at fault for those. Whereas for people I do like, I’m ok with all zillion flaws, which are after all pretty inconsequential next to the joy I get from whatever nebulous factors actually make me like them. For instance, if I find myself thinking that a person’s personal habits are awful and their intellectual contributions are that magical combination of obvious and completely wrong, I think there is a good chance that something else is up—perhaps they were disrespectful to me once, or someone I was romantically interested in liked them and not me, or they have never smiled at me, or something actually important like that.

It’s not that the flaws aren’t flaws, or that I don’t genuinely disapprove of the flaws. It’s just that my interest in noting them varies a lot based on other factors. Similarly, it’s not that jaywalking isn’t a problem or doesn’t seem like one to those in charge—it’s just that interest in doing something about it is strongly determined by something else.

In law this kind of thing seems problematic. I’m not sure what to think about it in social contexts. Distribution of smiles and party invitations should arguably be allowed to depend on all kinds of unimportant factors that the distributer cares about. Such as prettiness of nose, or probable unattractiveness to crush also present at party. So the first-order effect of the indirection in social cases is to let the social-benefit distributor avoid discussing their silly-but-legitimate reasons, while in the legal case it is often to actually allow punishments to depend silly-and-illegitimate reasons.

One reason I suspect this is that I think people often talk as if they would have thought someone was great, but then they learned that the person has a flaw. Truly shocking news! When I think in the abstract most people would correctly answer a multiple choice question about whether their friends have: a) zero flaws, b) a small number of flaws, or c) too many flaws to count. However I can’t actually remember cases of this, so maybe I made it up.

2 responses to “Selective social policing

  1. Another possibility is that different character flaws are complements to each other. So it might really be that “being a leach” causes more harm if you’re also otherwise awful to be around.

  2. As people develop a greater amount of social theory, the amount of freedom for selective enforcement increases a lot. This is a failure mode for signaling explanations and microaggressions.


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