No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on “the right side of history,” or on the right side of a battle between “good and evil,” is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the “good.”
Andrew Sullivan isn’t one of the columnists I read regularly, but I spotted the quotation above, from one of his recent posts, on an unrelated page and was impressed by its clarity. Sullivan was engaging in the newest reckoning—the public reappraisal of the Clintons in the wake of the conversation about sexual harassment and assault—and the whole article is worth a read, but his thesis has far broader implications.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time, lately, thinking about identity—what do we believe about ourselves? How do we construct that belief? How is our behavior related to who we are—is it a consequence or creator of identity? And which is worse—good behavior coupled with wrong belief, or wrong behavior coupled with good belief?
Ideally, we would all have good beliefs and also act justly. But life isn’t ideal.
At one corner of our graph—bad belief and bad behavior—we would certainly find Neo-Nazis. They make up just a tiny percentage of the population, but they’ve been noisier recently and called attention to themselves. In the wake of the right-wing protests in Charlottesville last August, which were mainly led by Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist groups, individuals on social media scrutinized photographs of the events and began publicly naming people they had identified as having been there. Twitter groups like @YesYoureRacist would link to those identified individuals’ social media pages, expose their addresses, and their work information. Under pressure, at least four people lost their jobs. Terrance Hightower was fired from Mojo Burrito in Chattanooga, Tenn. Ryan Roy was fired from Uno Pizzeria and Grill in South Burlington, Vt. Nigel Krofta was fired from his welding job at Limehouse & Sons Inc. in Ladson, S.C. And Cole White resigned from Top Dog, which sells hot dogs, in Berkeley, CA.
One man, Pete Tefft of Fargo, North Dakota, lost his family. When his father, and other members of his family, saw pictures of him at the extremist rally, they publicly disowned him. The statement released by his father, read in part:
We have been silent up until now, but now we see that this was a mistake. It was the silence of good people that allowed the Nazis to flourish the first time around, and it is the silence of good people that is allowing them to flourish now.
Peter Tefft, my son, is not welcome at our family gatherings any longer. I pray my prodigal son will renounce his hateful beliefs and return home. Then and only then will I lay out the feast.
And one man, Kyle Quinn, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, was falsely identified among the neo-Nazis and was harassed so badly that he and his family fled their home for their own safety. This was an accident, obviously, on the part of the Twitter group that had named him. A painfully foreseeable accident.
Anger is human. And, left to their own devices, a group of people, fueled by collective anger, and perceiving themselves to be on the side of right, will create a mob. It’s human history. It’s American history. Not only the horrific lynching mobs of the Jim Crow South, but also the mobs who rioted against the British Stamp Act and tortured those they perceived to be British loyalists. The mobs of settlers who massacred Indians at Dressing Point, Texas or Oak Run, California. And also the mob of Shawnee Indians who massacred twenty-four settlers, fifteen of whom were children, at Pigeon Roost, Indiana. Mobs who rioted in the name of preserving slavery. Mobs who killed in the name of abolition. Should we differentiate between those mobs who fought for just causes and those who terrorized in the name of injustice? Yes, we should. But to differentiate isn’t to excuse.
During the 2016 election, we saw mob mentality in the jeers and thrown punches of Trump supporters against protestors. Then, in San Jose, California, we saw an Anti-Trump mob attack his supporters as they left a rally, shoving them, throwing eggs at them, and surrounding and shaking cars filled with terrified people. We’ve seen outbreaks of violence at protests in Berkeley and Portland. These were frightening, certainly, for the targets and for any innocent bystander who might have found himself in the mix. But, thankfully, these cases are also rare in modern times. Most of us will never directly face a violent mob. Instead, we face something more peculiar—amorphous, slippery and dangerously effective. The mobs we face daily, whose actions aren’t directly violent, but whose effect can be as disorienting as any rock thrown across a barricade, operate at a distance. Now we face the internet mob, who punishes not with violence but with shame.
The textbook case of internet mob justice, which I’m certain future generations will study—either as a breakthrough moment of a then-institutionalized practice or else as a singular example of a regrettable historical fad—is that of Justine Sacco. In 2013, she was the Senior Director of Corporate Communications at IAC, an internet media company. She wasn’t a public figure by any means. Her twitter page, which was regrettably public, boasted only 170 followers. But, while boarding a flight to visit family in South Africa, she typed out a joke. Meant to be sarcastic, even ironic, it read:
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
The internet didn’t find it funny.
By the time she landed in Cape Town, 11 hours later, her name was synonymous with racism and privilege. Her face was everywhere. She had been fired from her job. She was vilified, from one end of the earth to the other. Unable to continue her trip—workers at the hotels she’d booked threatened to strike if she were allowed to stay—Justine returned home and locked herself away. She had been successfully shamed.
The man who instigated her shaming—Sam Biddle, then a writer for ValleyWag, which covered Silicon Valley news for the now-defunct Gawker—later met with Sacco for drinks and apologized to her in person for destroying her reputation. A year later, after he had written a similarly misinterpreted “ironic” tweet about Right-wing “Gamergaters,” and faced a familiar onslaught of public fury and calls for his firing, Biddle wrote a public article apologizing officially to her. Having experienced the devastation of a public shaming, he now understood what he had unleashed.
In a world that largely operates outside of our control, it’s understandable that vigilantism has its appeal. So much bad behavior—racism, corruption, cruelty and manipulation—falls within the bounds of what’s legal and, thus, unpunishable. It’s endlessly frustrating to see people act badly and then get away scot-free, or worse, be rewarded for their malfeasance. It’s natural to get angry.
In his apology to Justine Sacco, Biddle likened the satisfaction of joining in an internet mob to that of hitting a Pinata. “Smashing a pinata,” he wrote, “isn’t just for the candy—it feels great to swing your arms and feel a thud.” And that is what social media, with all its poorly worded jokes and open prejudices, provides: a plethora of pinatas just waiting to be smashed.
These pinatas aren’t papier mache—the online blows can have devastating consequences on the real life of the person targeted—but the reward for your bludgeoning is the same. Nothing. A pile of unsatisfying junk. Because the targets of these online shaming campaigns are somehow never the same people who are truly responsible for the societal ills they represent. Biddle realized, after meeting Justine Sacco, that she wasn’t actually a racist at all and that her joke was targeted at the sort of person who would say such a ridiculous thing about AIDS and Africa.
But, even if she had been silly enough to believe what she’d written, what would it matter? She had no role in the political, medical, or societal missteps that had ravaged Africa with the AIDS virus, or had misled so many white westerners into believing AIDS was an “African” thing they needn’t worry about. She wasn’t in any position of great social power—remember, she only had 170 followers. She was an entirely pointless target. And if the goal is to root out every racist, in some effort to change our society, then social shaming is even more counterproductive. Had Justine believed what she’d written, how would ruining her professional and personal life change her mind?
The same could be said of the Neo-Nazis targeted after Charlottesville. Sure, we can all agree that Neo-Nazis aren’t great people. They have horrific beliefs and, if they acted on those beliefs, they could cause quite a bit of harm. And yet, reading about the jobs these young men lost—at a pizza joint, as a welder, as a taco maker—I have to wonder why these targets are the ones who were vilified. What harm were they doing while making pizzas that they had to be hounded from that job? What satisfaction is there in keeping a white supremacist from handing you your taco? These young men weren’t responsible for the crime laws that have unfairly targeted Blacks or the systematic undervaluing of women’s labor. They have no real impact on the structures of racism that undergird our society. So what is the joy in getting them fired? The pleasure, I suppose, of the thud hitting home. The arrow striking a target—any target—and sinking in.
And the young men, who had been drawn to Charlottesville by an intoxicating paranoia of persecution–the belief that their low-wage job, their powerlessness and poverty, were a product not of their own choices but of a societal conspiracy against their race and their sex—what will happen to them now? Surely its obvious that, to the already paranoid, this public shaming will only serve to confirm their beliefs. The world is truly out to get them. And now, without a job, they will have more time to sit in their parents’ basement listing the world’s transgressions against them and fantasizing their means of retribution. Public vilification is not how you change the mind of a White Supremacist. It’s how you breed a terrorist.
Like all mobs, the internet mob is counterproductive. It doesn’t change beliefs, it entrenches them. And the targets it chooses are always those who are convenient. Like the rioter, protesting police violence, who throws a brick through the window of an Autozone. The anger is real. It’s often justified. But the true target of that anger is too amorphous, or inaccessible, to attack. So instead he lashes out without purpose, without any positive effect on the scales of injustice.
In the wake of different violent protests, I have seen one meme pop up over and over again of Martin Luther King, Jr. justifying riots as the “language of the unheard.” King did say that, in a speech at Grosse Point High School in the Spring of 1968, but it’s instructive to read the rest of his speech. While he understands the anger of riots, and believes society must address the injustices that become a springboard for rioting, he definitively argues against their effectiveness. Only a few sentences before his meme-able quote, he says, “I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving their guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results.”
It is too easy to decide that, armed with the right beliefs—opposition to racism or injustice—one can only commit righteous acts. That all behavior that desires to help a righteous cause is, thus, good behavior. But it isn’t so easy. Too many times we do what feels good, and what comes easily, and then couch that behavior in humanitarian rationalizations. But we should have learned in childhood that what feels good, what looks good, what tastes good, is often not truly good. And each person believing firmly in the righteousness of her own beliefs has not yet diminished the pile of our communal sins.
Andrew Sullivan, in the column referenced at the beginning of this article, pulls a quotation from Solzhenitsyn:
“the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”
The human heart is weak, is selfish, is other times generous and brave. A human heart can be turned toward good. Can be saved. Can be opened.
But not with a fist.
Tonya Stiles is Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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