He was in the mob. No, not “our thing,” but the other mob.
In my previous life, I was a self-righteous social justice crusader. I would use my mid-sized Twitter and Facebook platforms to signal my wokeness on topics such as LGBT rights, rape culture, and racial injustice. Many of the opinions I held then are still opinions that I hold today. But I now realize that my social-media hyperactivity was, in reality, doing more harm than good.
This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. For one thing, people regularly come to epiphanies about themselves, their actions, after the feces splatters all over them. For another, this isn’t the first made man to find himself the target of his own kind. Brett Weinstein, the Evergreen College biology prof who dared to propose the slightest tweak to Inquisition suffered the same fate. Weinstein, too, became an evangelist of reason, but only after his escape.
In discussing such matters, we’re constrained to understand the workings of other people’s minds, what motivates them to do as they do. This is a dangerous endeavor, as we’re prone to assume what serves us best and, most of the time, them worst. Some will impute absurd motives to others as a weapon to diminish the force of their views while simultaneously putting them on the defensive. After all, everyone who disagrees with you does so in bad faith or for bad purposes, since there can be no other reason for them to be so very wrong.
But at Quillette, this made man, under a pseudonym so that his already-ruined life isn’t subject to another round of destruction, explains what he did and why. He tells us his motive, his purpose, so that we need not assume and, indeed, can’t impute our own facile motives to his actions.
How did I become that person? It happened because it was exhilarating. Every time I would call someone racist or sexist, I would get a rush. That rush would then be reaffirmed and sustained by the stars, hearts, and thumbs-up that constitute the nickels and dimes of social media validation. The people giving me these stars, hearts, and thumbs-up were engaging in their own cynical game: A fear of being targeted by the mob induces us to signal publicly that we are part of it.
Just a few years ago, many of my friends and peers who self-identify as liberals or progressives were open fans of provocative standup comedians such as Sarah Silverman, and shows like South Park. Today, such material is seen as deeply “problematic,” or even labeled as hate speech. I went from minding my own business when people told risqué jokes to practically fainting when they used the wrong pronoun or expressed a right-of-center view. I went from making fun of the guy who took edgy jokes too seriously, to becoming that guy.
But what would cause a seemingly sentient person to become a cartoon character of himself?
When my callouts were met with approval and admiration, I was lavished with praise: “Thank you so much for speaking out!” “You’re so brave!” “We need more men like you!”
Was it really so basic, the desire to be part of a tribe and to receive its validation? So it would seem, given that this reformed SJW’s lesson was learned only when, and because, the mob turned on him.
Then one day, suddenly, I was accused of some of the very transgressions I’d called out in others. I was guilty, of course: There’s no such thing as due process in this world. And once judgment has been rendered against you, the mob starts combing through your past, looking for similar transgressions that might have been missed at the time. I was now told that I’d been creating a toxic environment for years at my workplace; that I’d been making the space around me unsafe through microaggressions and macroaggressions alike.
It’s possible, of course, that he was creating a toxic environment for others, even if such characterizations are simply conclusions that provide no actual information as to what he was accused of doing. When he writes he “was guilty,” does that mean he was, in fact, guilty, or that he was presumed guilty because that’s what the mob does? Who knows. What we do know is that self-assessment is notoriously unreliable. So too is mob assessment, where the reinforcement of lies, irrationality and outrage precludes any challenge. Passion precludes reason.
But the teller of this story of his failed social justice crusade suffers a similar problem to those who would impute motives to others. He imputes banal malevolence to himself in his former life, but only after he left it, only after he was forced out by the mob. He didn’t wake up one morning, and realize the harm he was perpetrating on others and decide to walk toward the light. He could have. Nothing stopped him from doing so, but he didn’t. Like the defendant at sentence who is so terribly sorry for his crimes, the nagging question is whether he’s sorry for what he did or sorry for getting caught. Either way, he didn’t stop doing it until somebody slapped the cuffs on him.
Having spent time talking with people of good will about their belief in social justice, this explanation of the motives of its sycophants seems inadequate and somewhat contrived. The putative goals are wonderful, equality, ending oppression and bigotry. What’s not to like? It may be shallow and childlike in its rhetoric and grasp of reality, but it’s initiation can’t be chalked up to merely a random group of people in pathetic need of validation to fill their empty souls.
But even if it can be rationalized as grounded in the best of intentions, it still became a mob. And there is no discussing, no arguing, with the mob, whose characteristics are no different than any other mob in constant search for new blood to spill, new enemies to destroy, new reasons to justify its existence.
The social justice vigilantism I was living on Twitter and Facebook was like the app in my dream. Aggressive online virtue signaling is a fundamentally two-dimensional act. It has no human depth. It’s only when we snap out of it, see the world as it really is, and people as they really are, that we appreciate the destruction and human suffering we caused when we were trapped inside.
Except he didn’t “snap out of it.” He was thrown out. Only then did he see the error of his ways.