True Confessions Of A Pitchfork-Wielding Peasant From An Internet Lynch Mob

Normally speaking, social media public shamings are fairly anonymous affairs.  If you were filming a crowd of angry peasants with torches and pitchforks firmly in hand, most of the peasants involved would be somewhat anonymous.  It would not do for a peasant to become too obvious, as the lowly peasant is only fearsome as part of a large group.  Alone, the peasant is someone who would not attract any notice at all, even as a background character.  If such a peasant were an extra in a movie feeding cows with hay or tending to animals or watering and harvesting crops, no one would even notice.  But give a peasant a place in a mob of angry and dangerous people, and all of the sudden the peasant, or at least the mass of peasants, is something very important and something very much to be feared if one has riled or angered that crowd.

It should go without saying that I have deeply ambivalent feelings when it comes to the contemporary rage for public shaming [1].  On the one hand, there are occasions where it is worthwhile for the high and mighty to be forced by popular discontent to behave decently as they ought to.  But although that can be a satisfying thought, it is a dangerous thing to promote and a bad habit to celebrate.  After all, there are some dynamics of the internet lynch mob that are very unsettling.  There is the anonymity and overstated fierceness of the attacks.  There is the bloodlust, the uncharitable lack of interest in the truth or the dignity of the person being shamed, and the lack of accountability on the part of those who are engaging in the attacks.  Nor is there anything that can be done to get the attacks to stop, save for letting the mob run itself out or engaging in Martin Lutheresque calls to destroy the hordes of ravaging pitchforks as happened in the Peasant Rebellion of the early 16th century in Germany.

What does it take for the horrors of contemporary outrage culture to become something more humane?  For one, I think that we would do well never to forget that someone we are ridiculing or bashing online is a human being like we are, with a certain amount of dignity and prickliness that we have, and the capacity to be hurt.  I do not think that so many of us are sadists that would deliberate hurt someone we knew to be someone like ourselves.  To be sure, we often forget that other people are actually people, but rather we think of them as some kind of label.  We think of them as a criminal or an evildoer, think of them only for some identity politics in which we differ from them, and we become less human ourselves as a result of our dehumanization of someone else.  When we fancy people to be of no more worth than cockroaches or fire ants, it is hard to avoid becoming rather monstrous ourselves, regardless of how little we think about it or pay attention to what is happening to ourselves.

One thing that is important to be aware of, particularly in the contemporary age, is that we could just as easily be on the other side.  This is something that is easy to forget when we are spilling hate online, that we could receive just as we have given out, enjoying it a lot less.  No matter how insignificant we may fancy ourselves, when viewed in the context of an outrage, we will appear to be very large.  Do we work for large companies, do we have identities that could be viewed as privileged by some segment of the population, have we made enemies through our fierce discourse?  All of those are likely to be true for anyone who exists.  If we are on social media at all we are privileged in some fashion and likely to draw envy from someone else in some fashion, regardless of how little we will see ourselves as being a worthy subject of hostility on such grounds.  Even more than recognizing the humanity of others, recognizing our own vulnerability to spite and abuse will curb our own tendency to abuse others.  The less we dish out harshness, the less likely other people will think themselves righteous in dishing it out to us.

What should that tell us?  For one, it should tell us that we would do best to drop the feeling of righteous indignation when we tear into others.  If we relish the thought of fighting off millions of piranhas as we are being eaten alive in a South American river, then being edgy and harsh will well suit us.  Most of us, though, are people of more sensitive material and do not relish such treatment.  One of the factors that leads us to be so hard on others is the fact that we do not recognize that we could easily be in that place.  Perhaps we are individually kind to those we think worth it, but when we are dealing with a case of outrage, our belief is precisely that the other people involved do not deserve any milk of human kindness, or any sort of benefit of the doubt, or anything good whatsoever.  It is only when we find ourselves on the other side of the outrage that we realize the distortions and misunderstandings and misinterpretations that lead others to think that we are beneath humanity, but by then it is usually too late.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to True Confessions Of A Pitchfork-Wielding Peasant From An Internet Lynch Mob

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Gangster Blues | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Slow To Outrage | Edge Induced Cohesion

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