“The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.”
It’s almost ironic for a writer at a digital journal to say this, but I’ve been tempted to avoid my own Facebook page. Lately, my feed has been flooded with stories that are perplexing, rage-inducing and tragic.
On May 28, a child fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, leading to zoo officials shooting the ape, Harambe. There’s now a petition circulating online with over 328,000 signatures, asking for the state to separate the mother from her child due to negligence.
On June 11, 49 people were murdered in a gay nightclub in Orlando by a gunman. It’s scarcely 4 days after the shooting as I’m typing this, and bigots have already started to make disgustingly homophobic comments about the incident.
It’s no wonder that one of the most repeated pieces of advice given regarding the internet is ‘don’t read the comments’.
As emotionally charged as these stories are, I’ve not been tempted to avoid social media because of the stories in themselves. After all, the purpose of news outlets (and bloggers, and online editorial platforms) is to inform their audience members.
What’s really disheartening to me is to see the way we – as an audience – have reacted to these stories.
I believe in freedom of speech, which sounds like a commonsense value to stand for, but which is a stance that comes with its own set of moral conundrums.
As Neil Gaiman so eloquently puts it: “If you accept – and I do – that freedom of speech is important, then you are going to have to defend the indefensible. That means you are going to be defending the right of people to read, or to write, or to say, what you don’t say or like or want said.”
In a quote often misattributed to Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Halls said “I disapprove of what you say… but I defend to the death your right to say it”.
These are beautiful sentiments, often quoted by those of us on the political left. They imply that words are important, that there is room for both disagreement and consensus, and that freedom of speech is not just a right, but a responsibility.
So, my one question is this: When exactly did this line mutate into “I disapprove of what you say… so up yours you misogynist-racist-bigot imma reveal your personal details online and scream at your company on their social media feed until they fire you’?
My belief system skews towards values that tend to be categorised as liberal: I believe in freedom of expression, the innate good in individuals and the freedom to love whomever you damn well choose. I believe that equality is not about treating everybody the same, but giving everyone the equal opportunity to succeed. Evolution seems pretty damn empirical to me; I think that Karl Marx’s writings were deeply humanist, for all their flaws.
So, from a certain (fundamentalist religious) perspective: I’m a godless, philandering, Darwinist, commie heathen who doesn’t believe in original sin, and is therefore destined to burn eternally in the fires of hell.
That’s definitely one way of looking at it.
I’m not immune to feeling anger when reading about hate speech and senseless violence. When I see bigots slurring individuals of different sexuality and gender under the facade of religious morals, I feel outraged. How is it a sin to love, and not a sin to hate?
But here’s what’s disheartening: Instead of seeing debate when I stumble into the comments section of a particularly controversial article, I’ll see hateful words, personal insults, online harassment and cases of doxing. This vitriol happens on both sides; it doesn’t really matter if you’re liberal or conservative, as long as you see the opposition as subhuman because of their beliefs.
As a liberal, this confuses me. How is a censorious, dox-happy mob congruent with liberal values? When did ‘he/she deserves it’, or ‘ but they’re doing it too!’ become a reasonable defense for indefensible behaviour?
During my mandatory national service, I was conscripted into the police force. My close friends found the situation ironic, considering my penchant for hedonism, rule-breaking and dubious substances.
One thing I did take away from my short stint in law enforcement was the definition of guilt from a legal perspective: To ascertain whether someone is truly guilty of a crime is not a simple matter of judging his or her actions, but to understand whether the person possessed both mens rea (a guilty mind) and actus reus (the act of committing the crime).
We all know the phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty”. The nuances of the phrase can be found in the Latin ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat: ‘the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on the one who denies’.
That nuance is lost when it comes to the way we’ve been meting out punishment online.
Here’s the thing about mob justice: It’s not about freedom of speech. It’s about harnessing the most toxic elements of harassment to win at all costs.
When we rally an online mob to our world view, we are not fighting for freedom of speech, or equal rights. We are insisting on freedom for our speech, using the bluntest of tools; we are not employing rationality, or logic, but counting on having the brute force of numbers to punish a perpetrator.
By employing mob justice, we buy into an ‘us against them’ mentality, create enclaves, and discount the individuals who may not believe the exact nuances of what we believe, but with whom we may share common ground.
You can dox a bigot for hate speech and drum up support against him online, demanding that the company he works for fire him, but that will only reinforce his hatred for what you stand for.
You can sign a petition insisting that a mother be separated from her child, but if your only argument is that you have x number of people on your side, that makes it perfectly valid for someone else to sign a petition to take you away your child in the future, without them having the full facts of the matter.
The problem with mob justice is that it’s a weapon that cuts both ways. The French Revolution of 1789- which began on the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity – ended with The Terror, when the radical-left Montagnards took over, and guillotines started becoming the star attraction.
It’s not a perfect correlation, but you can probably see where I’m going with that particular analogy: Dogmatic, unquestioning fealty to any idea – even to noble pursuits like freedom and equality – will only lead to the warping of those values.
Legal systems are imperfect systems, and I’m not so naive as to believe that they serve all citizens equally. But unless you believe in creating an anarcho-collectivist society, it’s what we have to work with: Institutions that we try to perfect together, one step at a time.
Demonstrations, protests and petitions are a crucial tool for giving voices to the voiceless, but they should be about deconstructing institutions and repealing laws that perpetuate misinformation and inequality, not about witch-hunting the individuals who work within those institutions. Selective attention to what trends next on our news feeds is not the law, let alone justice.
On an idealised level, I love what the internet stands for. I believe that it symbolises a space where we can build solidarity across national and cultural boundaries. It can be a medium to help us to understand vastly different perspectives, to bridge cultural gaps, to build consensus and understanding.
But right now, it’s an echo chamber, ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.
The funny thing about mobs is that they’re not just mindless collectives. They’re made up of individuals. Flawed individuals, yes, but individuals who feel, and think and hell, can occasionally reason at times. Individuals like you and I.
If you disagree with anything I’ve said, well… let’s sit down together.
I’d love to talk with you about it.