One of my favourite quotes from The Simpsons, and I have many, comes from when the dastardly Mr Burns whips up a mob to reclaim his teddy bear from young Maggie Simpson. Maggie weeps when the bear is seized from her grasp and the citizens of Springfield are moved enough to give it back. “We’ve given the word “mob” a bad name,” says one man.
Mobs, of course, are nothing new. Ritual denunciation, vigilante justice and mass hysteria has characterised everywhere from the Deep South to Stalin’s Russia. Happily, Western societies do not have lynch mobs any more. What they do have is shame mobs. Isolated tweets or clips of audio and video can stir up widespread, international outrage against people who breach, or seem to breach, our standards of propriety, and the targets of popular wrath face emotional and material consequences. Justine Sacco lost her job and sank into depression after tens of thousands of people denounced a joke she made online, prompting the British journalist John Ronson to write So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. Ronson wrote:
Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers — as she milled about Heathrow, hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see.
I do not believe that public shaming is wrong per se. It can identify wrongdoers and provide a useful deterrent effect. Quillette‘s own Andy Ngo has in effect encouraged “public shaming” by releasing videos of activists who have threatened and abused him, but these people deserved to have their wrongdoing exposed and deserved to face some consequences for doing wrong.
If we are going to publically shame someone, however, two things must be kept in mind: the need to provide the full context by which to judge them and the need to seek proportion in our response. It is so difficult to meet these criteria that we must extreme care before exposing people to popular wrath. It is impossible to know how proportionate the response will be as once text, video and audio is released across the web we cannot control other people’s responses. While we do know the full context if we are initiating the shaming, meanwhile, it is difficult to know if we have fully grasped it when we are deciding whether or not to participate.
The weekend has offered another case study. As well as exhibiting our righteousness as we condemn real or alleged offenders against decency or justice, we can emphasise the malign nature of our opponents. Progressives smelled blood, then, as a video was released of young Catholic prep school students, some of whom were wearing MAGA hats, appearing to mock an old Native American man, and a veteran no less, as he beat a drum and chanted.
The backlash was fierce. One young man appeared to be smirking in the old man’s face, and he was singled out for vitriol. “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” asked the progressive commentator Reza Aslan of a boy who cannot have been more than sixteen years old. “This image will define his life,” said the screenwriter Michael Green, “No one need forgive him.” Progressives often believe, and sometimes with justice, that the state offers violent criminals too little chance for redemption but a young smiling inappropriately was, it seems, a mortal sin.
“Names please,” posted alleged comedian Kathy Griffin, “And stories from people who can identify them and vouch for their identity.” Ms Griffin played the victim when she faced public backlash for joking about murdering the President when she was a rich adult but being irreverent to an old man as a child? Screw those kids. The school, its officials, the students, and, predictably, young men who had not even been there had their names dragged through the mud.
There was a palpable hysteria in some of the responses. “I fucking hate that smirk,” tweeted the editor Alex Cranz, “It says “I’m richer, I’m white, and I’m a guy.”” It was clear that progressives were not just outraged about the boy. He was an avatar of everything they hated. Donald Trump. A high school jock. Straight, white, male privilege.
Most reasonable people, I hope, could agree that the people I have quoted were overreacting. But most of us who watched the video, including me, did come away thinking the kids had deserved criticism. They were being offensive and obnoxious.
Or were they?
The story, as is so often the case, became less clear. A new video was released, providing more context. The Native American man was not surrounded by the boys but approached their group and wandered into the middle of it. The young man did not confront him but was confronted, and his smile seems to have been more embarrassed than smug. I do not know the kid, or what he thinks, or how he behaves, but nothing could change the fact that grown adults insisted he deserved lifelong shame if not violence for a smile that a few seconds of video proved was a young man’s innocent response to a strange situation.
More details have cast the boys in an even less shameful light. One of the Native Americans was swearing at the students and crying “go back to Europe”. One of the boy’s mothers had been derided for claiming that “black Muslims” had abused the students but extended videos show that members of the cultlike Black Hebrews group were standing nearby ranting about white people and “faggots”.
I should be clear that I am not trying to reverse the situation and demonise the Native Americans. It was a heated scene, between their group, and the Catholic boys, and the Black Hebrews, and there is no evidence that they were trying to provoke the students or get them in trouble. If anyone is at fault, beyond the ranting cultists, it might have been the boy’s chaperones for not taking them elsewhere.
Did some boys act inappropriately? Yes. One’s response to an old man should not be scream and laugh even if he is acting peculiarly. Yet my words about proportion are relevant here. This behaviour is cause for a responsible adult to have a stern word about being respectful in a public place. This behaviour is not cause for tens of thousands of strangers to insult, threaten and doxx children.
What could have been an unpleasant local situation with blame on all sides was blown up into a firestorm of international outrage that will, I’m sure, leave at least some of the teenagers with lasting emotional damage, and could easily, if the rebuttal had not been so swift, have endangered their future careers and relationships. All so adults, many of them rich and successful, could express their inchoate outrage for about as long as it takes to tweet. Now that is a cause for shame that should stick with them. We should make sure it does.
It is sad to see how people who should have at least given the boys a fair hearing threw them under the bus. “These actions are not Christian, not Catholic and not acceptable,” said James Martin of America magazine. Robert George, a Catholic professor at Princeton, echoed Martin’s words, though he has since apologised. The mayor of the town in which their school is based issued unqualified praise for a “tidal wave of condemnation”. The Diocese of the school was swift to clarify that it would consider expulsion. Almost no one who might have defended the boys from an avalanche of abuse challenged the case against them. What message does this send to young men? “You are on your own.” Nothing good will come of that.
Cases like this will emerge again. Text, images and audio will make people look as if their guilt could not be possibly, possibly be in doubt. The temptation to express our outrage, sincere or otherwise, will rise from our hearts and spread outward towards our fingertips. We should question it. A day can make a lot of difference.