On 7 December 2014, the Midwest FurFest hotel was evacuated after an apparently intentional chemical attack. No culprit has been identified to date, but many furs reasonably assume that the attack was motivated by anti-furry hate.
We at [adjective][species], endlessly furry-positive as we are, have been the subject of quite a few impotent and easily ignorable threats since we started back in 2012. Some of them have even suggested that furries should be targeted by chemical attacks, such as in this Encyclopaedia Dramatica thread (from January 2014):
It is, of course, incredibly unlikely that there is any connection between Encyclopaedia Dramatica‘s teenage rage and the MWFF attack 11 months later. Hate is common; attacks are rare.
Internet hate, on its own, does little harm. And while it’s fair to say that perpetrators of violence are more likely to engage in hateful speech on the internet, the corollary is not true, at least not significantly. It is not fair to assume that hateful people are more likely to be responsible for a physical attack.
This reasoning is the same as the suggestion that video game violence leads to real-world violence. While violent people are more likely to enjoy violent video games, it’s wrong to suggest players of violent games are any more likely to be violent than the general population. Similarly expressions of hate cannot be assumed to lead to hateful acts.
There is a loose connection though, and it’s an important one. Expressions of hate, especially when there are many of them, create an environment that normalizes hatred. It is in this environment that real-world threats develop.
So while our teenage peanut’s intolerant ejaculation counts for nothing on its own, in combination with dozens of similar discharges it creates the impression of a genuine anti-furry community. This facade of community encourages the small fringe of people who may actually do physical harm, making them feel their acts are justifiable and righteous. Our hypothetical MWFF attacker(s) would undoubtedly lurk or contribute in such circles.
This doesn’t mean that people who perpetuate hate are responsible for the actions of a tiny majority. However they are, unwittingly, contributing – a contribution that would be easy to condemn if hate weren’t so easy and seductive.
Hate creates a sense of belonging, an illusion of fellowship. A community can coalesce over any shared interest, even something as intangible as shared hatred for some ‘other’. While hate-driven groups vary wildly (and can even be objectively right or wrong – you might consider both of the extreme ends of the vaccination ‘debate’ to be largely driven by hatred), they always have a few things in common, such as:
- Members of the group feel that they are in the right, or at least righteous.
- The group is self-reinforcing, which means that they look internally for confirmation of their thoughts and actions, rather than externally. This is sometimes referred to as an “echo chamber”, a phenomenon that occurs when you surround yourself with people who already agree with you.
- The group is primarily defined by what it is “against”.
- The focus of the hatred is thought of as a monolithic entity with a common goal, rather than a collection of individuals.
These features mean that those who disagree with the hate group will tend to be belittled and immediately discarded. Anyone who has come across hatred online will know that there is no value in trying to reason with the group.
Hate-driven groups fail when they are exposed to individuals from the target group. This destroys the collective group delusion that there is a monolithic “enemy” that must be fought.
One example of this phenomenon is the decline in homophobia in the United States. It’s a good example because there has been a pitched battle in recent years over whether same-sex couples should be denied the right to get married, and there it’s lots of data on the topic. (An objection to same-sex marriage doesn’t always equal homophobia, but it’s a close-enough correlation for my purposes.)
There has been a big shift in public opinion away from denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples, a change which has created an environment where more gay people can be open about their sexuality. The correlation is no coincidence: of those people who have changed their mind about same-sex marriage, more than half have done so because of “cohort replacement”, which is researcher-speak for “I didn’t know any gay people before, and now I do”.
What’s striking about this result is that there is little indication that people have been swayed by reasoned argument. Hate-driven ideology doesn’t tend to change in the face of facts.
Counterintuitively, there is evidence that the opposite occurs: opinions tend to become entrenched and more extreme in the face of reasonable counter-argument. Research has consistently shown that when someone has a strong – but demonstrably false – belief, attempts by others to correct that fact tend to fail, and may in fact increase the confidence in the false belief.
One study on the topic looked at political beliefs. It showed that people on either end of the ideological spectrum—conservatives and liberals—would change their mind about a falsely-held belief only if the change supported their pre-existing views. Conservatives retained the belief that WMDs had been found in Iraq (they have not), and liberals retained the belief that President Bush had banned stem-sell research (he had not). Only these groups, those with an extreme ideological position facing facts contrary to their position, would fail to be corrected.
Political ideology is very different from a hate group, but the lesson is the same: there is no value in attempting to directly correct an apparently false or misguided belief. On balance, such attempts are probably counterproductive. There is no point attempting to reason with an anti-furry.
Worse, attacking or attempting to correct hate-driven groups can easily lead to the creation of new hate-driven groups. It’s easy, and reasonable, to become angered by hate, and counter-hatred hate groups can show all the internal camaraderie, righteousness, and outwards negativity of the targeted group. Predictably, all such groups do is create conflict and entrenchment of everyone’s pre-existing opinion.
I used a political example earlier because I know that there will be several readers who fall to the relative extremes of either side of the political spectrum. The rest of us will probably be able to think of a friend who are so inclined. And you can bet that many of the conservative readers will insist that WMDs were indeed found in Iraq, and that many of the liberals will insist that Bush did indeed ban stem cell research, even though both positions are provably wrong. (Perhaps members of each group will say something like “even if it’s not technically true, it’s still essentially true”.)
I make this point because hate isn’t about true and false. It doesn’t matter if your argument is correct: your facts are unlikely to make a difference.
But you can make a difference by following the example of rapid change in American attitudes towards same-sex marriage. Exposure to positive counter-examples does lead to positive change.
I would suggest: look at the way you spend your social time. Some of that time will be positive, some will be neutral, some will be negative. If you hold a strong, personally-important opinion, consider ways you can reduce the time you spend negatively, and increase the time you spend positively.
As individuals, we all have a small responsibility towards society, and we can choose to make our impression a negative or positive one.
Hating something is easy. Hate is juvenile. Hate is natural. We all feel it to some extent. It’s a product of our evolution as social beings, of members of a race collected in tribes or villages. We are driven to distrust, fear, and hate the amorphous “others”, a Darwinian survival strategy we have encoded into our DNA and social structures. But in our modern interconnected world, it’s a destructive strategy of parochialism, hate, and bullying. You can see it in action in any high school.
Liking something is difficult. You may attract haters. If you are vocal about liking furry, you may attract anti-furries. But for every vocal hater there will be people in the background, silently listening and thinking and learning and appreciating.
Simply being positive and visible, when and where you can, makes you an ambassador for your beliefs. And every idea needs positive ambassadors – the most visible ambassadors, especially in fringe communities, are rarely the best. Just look at furry.