Looking through my posts on this site, I’m greeted with a half dozen unpublished articles I’ve been meaning to do something with for quite some time. Many of them have since slipped through the cracks, and because they addressed current events at the time they were written, they’re no longer relevant. Yet, I’m reluctant to delete them simply on the merit that they might one day be of interest to me. Really, though, it’s little more than the sentimental value of re-examining opinions of mine that were recorded at some point in the past, and to view how much (or how little) they’ve changed. Unpublished posts are a snapshot in time gazing back through the looking glass to an earlier day when things weren’t quite the way they are now.
Simultaneously, I’m greeted with fear. Fear that opinions expressed in the past might negatively affect my future: We’ve seen the dangers of Internet vigilantes and what they can do to one’s career (remember Brendan Eich?), and there’s little recourse once you’re in the crosshairs. Yet another part of me finds it strangely humorous. On the one hand, we’re reminded by the vigilantes that “rights are not without consequences,” and while everyone is free to express themselves, we must be aware that our freedom of speech is subject to sanctions imposed upon us for expressing our opinions; yet on the other hand, these are the same people who have long lauded punishment directed to the borderline-lawless behavior of groups like Occupy Wallstreet. These are, on occasion, the same individuals who feel that defecating on a squad car and setting a small business on fire are legitimate means of sticking it to the man.
It’s puzzling to me, because it reminds me one of the most important books (second only to 1984) I’ve ever read when I was a child–one I’ve been reluctant to re-read because it’s been taken by some as a sort of instruction manual by idealists who’ve likely never understood it. Whenever a group fueled by vitriol against another gains a certain amount of influence–and believes themselves to be the majority opinion holders–the rights of those against whom they are poised diminish. We’ve seen this directed most obviously toward those who are opposed to gay marriage in some (or all) form(s), but it also exists elsewhere as illustrated by the SCOTUS decision in Hobby Lobby and probably a dozen other exhibits.
I remember when the Hobby Lobby decision was reported. I once followed a self-described liberal on Twitter whose work for Archive.org I’ve been a tremendous fan of, but I changed my mind when he retweeted a comment by someone else who asserted the decision was made exclusively because the majority justices were male. It was a comment that suggested a slew of societal ills, hearkening back to an age where women had no rights and were often thought of as property. Many of the subsequent comments were in vocal agreement with this assertion, and many more suggested that SCOTUS wished to deny women of basic health services (one such comment asked, chidingly, when SCOTUS would deny women access to antibiotics to treat infections). Sadly, the sort of non-sequiturs parroted by a mob of very angry people aren’t uncommon. It’s actually getting worse.
It’s no surprise (or maybe it is to some) that researchers from Beihang University in China discovered substantial evidence anger spreads faster than any other emotion on social networks. The oft-joked about Internet torches and pitchforks are, in practice, less of a joke and more of a frighteningly reality. They’re illustrative of the strange variety of “mob justice” that permeates online communities and motivates various miscreants into committing acts of questionable legality. It’s the emotion behind proclamations like “Brendan Eich should never have a job again” or “Hobby Lobby wants women to die.” It’s the desire to alienate those with whom you disagree and deprive them of basic rights. It’s the driving force that lends one to believe many of us on the political right are hateful bigots. It’s the burning hatred that wishes we would all simply die.
Ignoring, for a moment, the sort of pitiful irony in calling for the death of someone with whom you disagree, and the use of highly vitriolic, hateful language to describe those you claim are the legitimately hateful bigots, the mob justice this behavior inevitably leads to is quite real and rather dangerous. The further irony that those prone to this sort of behavior are also vehemently opposed to “Internet bullying” is not lost on me (though it might be on them). It’s an eye-for-an-eye philosophy seen as a valid mechanism of protest against the rights of others by those who are often staunchly opposed to vigilante justice. Killing a murderer is bad while depriving my neighbor the right to speak his mind is good.
Animal Farm, indeed.
I think the crux of the problem lies in the tribalistic intolerance we humans tend toward. We naturally gravitate toward those who share our opinions, those who look like us, those who talk like us, and those who praise us for expressing opinions with which we agree. It’s why online communities become insular echo chambers. It’s why atheists tend to avoid Christians and vice-versa. In its most sinister form, it’s why racism still persists. We, as a species, naturally disdain and hold suspicious those who are not like us. Paradoxically, some of the worst offenders seem to be the ones who are most vocally opposed to this behavior. It’s almost as though an intolerance toward intolerance drives one to become the same–to become that which they most hate. But then, relying on seething hatred to promote an agenda of so-called tolerance is likely to beget the same. I’m not sure where we lost our way, or when the philosophy “love thy neighbor” was swept under the rug.
I don’t know what Jesus, Gandhi, or Dr. Martin Luther King might think of this modern world, but I do know it’s in desperate need of men like them.