Are lynching mobs a general human thing?

A little while ago I heard a story about someone who’d built up an online craft business, largely through social media. The person booked a holiday to a distant destination and, online, described their pleasure at looking forward to visiting what to them was an ‘exotic’ location.

That, it seemed, drew the ire of somebody in their online community who felt that using the word ‘exotic’ in regard to a physical location very different from the writer’s own was discriminatory; it was ‘otherist’. This swiftly mutated into an explosion of online hate about the supposed bigotry of the target, which then turned into an open drive to boycott their business and, in about 24 hours, had destroyed it. People were joining in who hadn’t been part of that community, but who felt able to judge a total stranger on the basis of what was being said to condemn them, and add their own voices to the mob.

None of it reflected the actual thoughts and attitudes of the target, and all seemed disproportionate to an innocent statement about looking forward to a holiday. The mob was also engaging in the very behaviour – ‘othering’ – that they were condemning their victim for. The target of this behaviour hadn’t engaged in hate speech or done anything intentionally offensive by any reasonable measure, but they certainly became the target of hate. They’d just expressed pleasure over going to what, to them, was clearly an exciting and interesting location. The 11th Edition of the Concise OED tells me that ‘exotic’ means ‘originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country’ or ‘strikingly different or colourful’. As a noun, it is also a biological term referring to an animal or plant which is not indigenous to an area where it is found.

It would appear a different implication was assigned by those who took umbrage at its use and judged their victim on the basis of their own prejudices, or who joined the band-wagon largely because, it seems, the band-wagon existed.

This isn’t new; lynching mobs have been around for as long as human society has existed – we don’t know exactly how paleolithic hunter-gatherer communities behaved, other than by analogy with those that survive today. However, mob-think over a perceived issue seems to be a human thing; everybody suddenly gangs up on somebody, often for trivial or negligible reasons, such as some supposed difference between the target’s supposed ideology or physical appearance and the one the mob regard as acceptable to them. It is how witches were hunted in the early modern period. And as far as I can tell, the targets, are often judged and condemned for no better reason than a sense of indignant righteousness held by the mob’s leaders, to which others are drawn.

Sometimes the target actually has mis-stepped relative to social values, or committed an actual crime. However, in any civilised society that should not leave them vulnerable to mob rule and summary justice. History is rife with examples. One of the more famous, for instance, was the lynching and summary execution of Benito Mussolini at the end of the Second World War. As Churchill lamented, he should have been given a proper trial. And that is the thing. In that example, I am sure, Mussolini would have been condemned to death; but it would have been by due process of international law. But there are other examples; and what happens if somebody falsely accused of something, and then lynched? The point is that by mob rule, at best, actual criminals have been denied a chance for proper justice and hearing.

At worst, innocent people have died for no better reason than that they have been attributed with attitudes that are not theirs. The whole behaviour-set is emotional. It is also indicative of group insecurity; of society feeling threatened by the intangible. Part of the issue is that we don’t know what each other is thinking; it is easy to attribute and fear the unknowns of somebody else’s thoughts. Societies, at times, can be riven by such things; the best example I can think of is Robespierre’s ‘Terror’, in 1793 France, where every citizen basically ended up setting upon every other in a frenzy of hate. Innocent people died.

The execution of Louis VXI in Paris, 1793. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

So there’s nothing new there. However, these days the difference is social media, which has enabled this kind of behaviour in two ways. First, it’s a mechanism for communicating and connecting. Mobs can form through its links. But second – and this, to me, is perhaps the most crucial difference with the ‘bad old days’ – it is also physically costless and effectively remote. People can behave badly, knowing they are insulated from any consequence not just by the power of the mob but also by their practical remoteness. It’s all happening on screen in front of them and they can satisfy their own emotional need to have power, at the expense of others, with very little physical effort and little emotional danger to themselves. Unlike a real lynching mob, where people had to front up and where they might get caught.

The world-wide web, in short, has facilitated a side of humanity we have always struggled to control. Even calling out the fact that such behaviour exists risks bringing it down on whoever has pointed it out. And it’s removed many of the practical controls. As always, of course, kindness, empathy, tolerance and reason remain the ways ahead, but it sometimes seems hard for people to find them.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019


8 thoughts on “Are lynching mobs a general human thing?

  1. There’s a literary example from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”:

    But I’m Cinna the Poet!

    (Mob) Kill him for his bad verses!

    One wonders if “social media” per se enable this sort of negativity exactly because no one perceives or is otherwise exposed to the consequences of their actions, and bad actors know it. Even glory in it. Like you said, that bit of power.

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    1. Shakespeare knew his stuff! Yes, I think you’ve nailed it – social media is a facilitator. The behaviour has been around since we had organised societies – possibly before, though I think to some extent lynching is symptomatic of the behaviours that follow once humans are outside their ‘Dunbar number comfort zone’. But the cost-free, often anonymous ability of social media to make lynching possible – and to allow others to see it in unprecedented number – is new.

      The question is whether it can be addressed. Just a few months back, I see, Tim Berners-Lee was lamenting the fact that all his world wide web had done was facilitate bad behaviour, when he had imagined so much for it. I don’t know whether the hope for good from it was naive or idealistic; the good is certainly there, but so is the bad; it is a mirror and amplifier of the human condition. And when that condition seems to veer, so often, away from the needed values of care, acceptance, tolerance and understanding, it’s a worry. I doubt that a big-business, big-data algorithm can fix the problem, for the cause is nothing to do with software and everything to do with what humans innately are. So we can only look to ourselves as individuals and societies. The problem is that we have always been looking to ourselves and societies to fix things when societies go wrong… and history tells me it never seems to happen with any lasting effect. Sigh.

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  2. Social media allow people to behave anonymously. Maybe this tells us that people behave much worse without the checks and balances of social approval. I tend to think that web anonimity is the problem – if we kept out real identities online there would be the possibility of appropriate checks and balances. But I know there are problems with this as well!

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    1. I agree. Back in the ‘early’ days of the internet (less than a human generation – gaaah!) anonymity and audience were, it seemed, tickets to bad behaviour. These days, audience alone seems to suffice. It is a sad indictment of human nature – the need, I suppose, to be personally validated with least effort – that this has become so. Kindness and care are perhaps the harder road in large societies, but they remain essential if humanity is to survive, let alone prosper.

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