After getting into an “interesting” debate on Facebook with someone from college – “interesting” in that it was yet another example of the Internet Arguing Checklist from a rabid liberal. I expected nothing less, actually, but I wished to engage merely for the encouragement of the silent and to give myself practice in dealing with these types of people. Because of privacy concerns I’m not going to quote from that specific incident, but rather I wish to use it as a stepping-stone to a broader topic: I’m sick of the witch hunts and the social media mobs, and I want to examine them a bit and explain why they’re so toxic.
Parallels to past behavior
I’ve called it “the modern witch-hunt” because witch-hunting calls to mind a hysterical village mob burning women at the stake. Obviously the murderous intent has not boiled over into actually murdering the witch-hunt victim (yet) but the modern version certainly has its own share of people who make death threats or threaten violence against the target. The term “witch hunt” may also bring to mind miscarriage of justice, as in the Salem witch trials, but although the Zimmerman episode is an example of a modern witch-hunt, the mob successfully managing to pervert the justice system to their will is not a necessary feature of a witch hunt.
Features of the witch hunt
A witch hunt is a form of mob mentality that propagates over the internet’s social media platforms. Sometimes there is an element of anonymity, but people also join in under their real names or handles associated with their real identities, secure in the knowledge that they are “one with the crowd” of likeminded people reinforcing each other’s opinions. What characterizes a member of the mob rather than a mere commentator is that a member of the mob is primarily emotional and angry about something rather than controlling their emotional response with reason.
Because witch hunts take place over the internet, and don’t involve large groups of people physically occupying the same space, riots don’t automatically break out whenever there is a witch-hunt. This is a blessing in that riots involve a lot of violence and property damage, but a media-inflamed witch hunt can act as the inspiration for riots. In the case of the Ferguson riots, it seems that the social-media-driven frenzy resulted in people from outside Ferguson congregating there, and using the cover of nonviolent protests in order to whip up a violent mob. The witch-hunters in this case weren’t personally involved in the rioting, but would outsiders have traveled to Ferguson in order to start rioting if there weren’t a firestorm of media outrage? Evidence points to “no” – there are many, many shootings that kill young black males and don’t result in media-fueled rioting. However, the specter of violence hangs over each instance of witch-hunting and forms one of the witch-hunt’s most effective weapons: give us what we want, or violence comes next!
A witch hunt is not the same as universal condemnation. Criticism of someone who’s made a mistake (criminal or non-criminal) can help create favorable conditions for a witch hunt to take place, but such criticism is necessary for society. What happens in a witch hunt is that the specific details of what happened are disregarded in favor of an archtypical narrative: the racist white man kills the peaceful black teenager (Zimmerman, Ferguson). The angry man lashes out at his helpless girlfriend (Ray Rice). The sexist pig and the homophobe oppress women and homosexuals (Larry Summers, Brendan Eich). In each case, what the “witch” actually did and the details of what actually happened were secondary to the narrative – a narrative which is at best a gross oversimplification of the situation and at worst, utterly false.
The reason I responded to my FB acquaintance’s post on the Ray Rice domestic violence situation was because she exemplified this very bait-and-switch: rather than evaluating the situation as it actually happened, she substituted her own narrative – the narrative of the psychopath’s abused girlfriend, in which a controlling man has gotten his victim so psychologically wrapped around his little finger that the woman suffers from Stockholm syndrome. The point I wanted to make to her was that her own interpretation of the situation, as an outsider who sees only what is reported by social media, should be secondary to both the actual facts (do such psychologically abused women offer physical violence to their abusers, or is that more likely to be a sign of the much more common “relationship between two aggressive people with poor anger management skills”?) and the testimony of the woman in question. However, the narrative of the abused woman is so strong in the minds of the witch-hunters that no evidence is sufficient to sway their opinion, and anyone who dares to disagree about this one incident (even while agreeing that any domestic violence is bad, and Stockholming one’s partner is the mark of an evil psychopath) is grounds for vicious verbal abuse. Disagree with the mob and the mob will turn on you.
They key here is that all opposing information is resolutely ignored. The witch-hunter will absolutely refuse to address any element of the situation that contradicts the narrative, as if it does not exist. In the face of someone bringing up these counter-narrative facts, the witch hunter will consistently dismiss, disqualify, and then turn to personal attack against the one disagreeing with the narrative. (The irony of a white woman literally dismissing the words of a black woman – replacing the black woman’s own testimony with her own projected imagination of the black woman’s inner life – never occurs to the witch hunter.) There is absolutely no way to get through to someone committed to this hear-only-evil, see-only-evil, speak-vicious-abuse mindset: they have an answer ready to dismiss any evidence at all. “That’s just what an abused woman would say.” There’s no reasoning with this: that’s also what a non-abused woman would say. A reasonable person would turn to the evidence and evaluate what the evidence can and cannot support – but the witch hunter clings exclusively to the narrative, disregarding any weak or opposing evidence.
The witch hunter always jumps to a conclusion based primarily upon their own narrative rather than on the actual evidence.
Vengeance, not justice
Mobs are notorious for disproportionate response, and for disregarding the law. A witch hunt will often arise because the mob thinks that the law “let off” or will “let off” their victim, rather than appropriately punishing wrongdoing. However, rather than focusing their ire on a corrupt justice system, the mob will attempt to dispense “justice” by destroying the livelihood of the victim. In a day and age of large corporations desperate for good PR, the witch hunt has settled on bringing pressure to bear upon employers as their favored tactic for destroying their target. Making death threats or assaulting the target will result in law enforcement getting involved; the days of men in white sheets burning crosses on front lawns are (thankfully) over, but vigilante “justice” is still alive and kicking.
This tactic is perfect for the witch hunt, because witch hunting regularly occurs over cultural rather than legal conflict, and corporations are often willing to fire people who dare to make controversial stands in an attempt to appease the mob. Even corporations that don’t blacklist and fire the witch hunt’s target will change their behavior in order to try to avoid such controversy and negative reporting. Interestingly enough, this happens even in the case of a witch hunt backfiring – Chick-Fil-A made a lot of money after being the target of a witch-hunt and didn’t fire anyone, but they certainly did drop all the controversial sponsorships and promise to stay out of “political” issues.
Damage to society
Witch hunts are damaging to more than their targets; who’d want to live in a place known for vicious mobs even under a guarantee that you’d never yourself be the target of one? Witch hunts release restraints upon violence and promote the demonization of their targets. Stripped of their humanity, the object of a witch hunt is fair game for vile insults, threats of violence and death, and every kind of discrimination that would otherwise be considered blatantly immoral. Anyone who stands in the way of a witch hunt – even if that person is the victim in the witch hunt narrative, on whose behalf the hunt ostensibly is agitating – is themselves stripped of their humanity and reduced to a caricature, a mere character in the witch hunt’s morality play. Step outside that assigned role, and the mob will ignore you – and ignore any collateral damage that they’re imposing on others.
Such a witch hunt is especially pernicious in that it attempts to replace the rule of law with rule by mob – in the case of actual criminal wrongdoing, rather than focusing energy on fixing the mechanisms of the justice system, the witch hunt does an end run around them and imposes its own trial, condemnation, and punishment. What is particularly chilling about the modern witch-hunt is its tribal nature – harking back to the days of the blood feud. Witch hunts are bad enough in nearly homogeneous communities like Salem, where upstanding citizens were condemned and murdered under color of law just for expressing skepticism of the witch-hunters’ claims, and calls for careful weighing of evidence were ignored. In a multicultural society already under strain, witch hunts can only exacerbate racial and cultural tensions and provide excuses for racially-motivated violence. Witch hunts substitute an “us vs them” mindset that excludes the careful judgement necessary for a nation of laws to function.