"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Spite Is Good For You

Natalie Angier has written about spite in an article in the New York Times in which she summarizes the latest academic research.  Spite has been given less attention than it should because it flies under the moral radar.   God did not chisel spite into Moses’ tablets along with apostasy, adultery, and disrespect, nor did the early Church include it, along with wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony in The Seven Deadly Sins. In fact spite seems petty and silly when compared with covetousness, betrayal, and murder.

What is spite, exactly?  Researchers at Washington State University devised a study to determine how important spite was to college students and came up with a series of illustrative questions:

A total of 946 college students and 297 adults were asked to rate how firmly they agreed with sentiments like “If my neighbor complained about the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse just to annoy him or her” or “If I opposed the election of an official, I would happily see the person fail even if that failure hurt my community” or “I would be willing to take a punch if it meant someone I did not like would receive two punches.”

In short, there is little to be gained by spite – as opposed to adultery with a beautiful, available, and passionate neighbor – and its only reward is to make someone pay for a real or imagined slight and then to gloat over it, even if you yourself are harmed.  Here is the best example of spite from an Eastern European folk tale: “A genie offers to grant a man’s wish as long as his hated neighbor gets double the prize; the man says, ‘Put out one of my eyes’.”

In my leafy, upper-middle class neighborhood of Washington, there is a lot of spite. Residents are all reserved, well-educated, and respectful of others, and would never even shout let alone resort to physical violence.  In fact, the code of silence is so rigid, that even direct confrontation is frowned upon.  This may be because a certain timidity goes along with the conciliatory worldview of the many ‘progressives’ living here; or perhaps they fear violent reprisal (even lawyers go berserk in the pressure cooker environment of our city).  Whatever the reason, messages are sent by stealth.

An older man who lived down the street from me always parked his car right up to the property line of his neighbor, forcing the neighbor to parallel park and block his own walkway.  There was plenty of room in front of the man’s house, but for some unexplained reason he had to align his Ford exactly on the northwest boundary line.  When the neighbor politely asked the man to please move his car up five feet or so, the man refused, saying that he would then have to park in the fall line of the old tree on his front yard.  The tree had been pruned down to half its original size, and the remaining trunk was thick and solid and far too short to come down anywhere near the curb.

The neighbor’s blood began to boil and, true to neighborhood convention, began to think up a spiteful response.  When the man was not at home, the neighbor parked his car two feet into the inviolate space.  In return, when the man returned, he jammed the back bumper of his car tight against the neighbor’s front grille.  Each day this spiteful pas de deux continued, and the neighbor found new and ingenious ways to irritate the man.  He blocked his path, parked backwards under the suspect tree, piled leaves under the man’s front wheels so that in the heavy rain the water would back up and puddle by the driver’s door.

When these spiteful episodes begin, there is no way to stop them. Soon macho pride and losing face kick in, and neither party will back down.  So, over the next few months the contest escalated.  Air was let out of tires, first so little that it was hard to notice, then enough to half flatten them. At first the neighbors continued the short pleasantries common in the neighborhood, both hoping that perhaps by keeping up an air of civility one or the other would retreat.  As time went on, however, the small talk stopped and they tried to avoid each other.  The neighbor started peering out from behind his curtains before leaving the house to avoid contact with the man.  One day the neighbor found his car totally blocked in by two cars – the man had used his wife’s garaged Prius as rear guard – and he finally lost it.  That night at 3am he slashed all the tires on both cars, and waited impatiently for morning to watch the man’s reaction.

The police came, and since there was no proof on which to arrest the neighbor, they talked sternly and decisively to both of them, threatening to throw them both in jail if they had to return.  The cops had seen this kind of thing many times before.  It seemed to happen far more often in these wealthy white neighborhoods.  In the Southeast ghettoes where they lived, one or both of the neighbors would have been shot long ago.

I have heard stories of a man who was so pissed at finding his wife’s dirty coffee cups all around the house that he coated them with a thin film of honey and brought in ants from the alley to feast and get stuck. Other men reportedly left their underpants hanging on the doorknob of the bathroom, brown stains up, for their wives to find in the morning.  Or deliberately leave the seat up, or a load in the toilet, or boogers on the ceiling.

Researchers at Tufts and Northeastern claim that they have found a silver lining in all this nonsense:

Although [research] groups of excessively spiteful or selfish players quickly collapsed, and rigidly fair-minded societies were readily destabilized by influxes of selfish exploiters, the flexible sharers not only proved able to coexist with the spiteful types, but the presence of spitefuls had the salubrious effect of enhancing the rate of fair exchanges among the genials. By the looks of it, [one researcher] said, “fairness is acting as a defense against spite.”

I don’t buy this, and cannot imagine the car-neighbor-spite scenario turning out any differently than it did. A fair man would have sized up his own curb length, his needs for accessibility and those of his neighbor and parked well away from the property line. But the man had a few screws loose – or rather had them too tightly fixed into his brain pan - so that he became morbidly obsessive about the northwest corner of his property line. 

He reminded me of a crazy woman in Morningside Heights who used to walk in precise rectangles between 114th and 115th Streets.  She made her turns with military precision, snapping her head around sharply before proceeding up the other side of the sidewalk. She did this over and over again.  Everyone knew her and gave her wide berth.  She was completely loco and no threat whatsoever, so everyone gave her wide berth.   The car man was just as nuts, but since he had no sense of fairness, he evinced no respect or consideration from his neighbors.

The shootouts in the cops’ Anacostia neighborhood notwithstanding, spite seems to be an endemic by-product of urban living.  Although the researchers did not include a gender angle in their studies, I suspect that men are more spiteful than women.  We can’t help pissing on our territory and daring anyone to cross the spoor line. Posturing, puffing, and putting on a frightful show is no different from male birds.

If it weren’t for our wives and girlfriends, the pissing matches, car-spites, and police visits would be even more common then they are.  There isn’t a man among us who wouldn’t prefer to ring the doorbell of crazy car-spite man and say, “Move your fucking car, you asshole, or I’ll move it for you”.  It would feel so good. This is what some researchers call Ghetto Envy.  As much as the ‘progressives’ in my neighborhood shake their head disconsolately at the poverty and dysfunction of Anacostia, they wish they had the balls to say, “Outta my way, muthafucka”, pull a .38, flash a few gold teeth in a threatening smile and watch the macho imposter back down.

The spite research proves once again that tenure is a very bad thing.  If these academics had to worry about their jobs, they would be working on something productive rather than diddle with the likes of my car-spite man. 

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