Back when the practical blawgosphere took Joseph Rakofsky to task, a charge was leveled that he was the victim of “internet mobbing,” the mob consisting of lawyers who piled on to ridicule and abuse him for being worthy of ridicule and abuse. Was that what was happening? Were we, lawyers ripping a kid to shreds, just a mob?
At the time, the accusation seemed ludicrous. His conduct was facially reprehensible on many levels, and the fact that a few dozen blawging lawyers all reached the same conclusion, and thought it proper to condemn him for it, was hardly surprising. No doubt it felt to him like a mob, but then, how else would being universally condemned by others in one’s profession feel?
The question recently arose again on the twitters, since cries of mobbing have become somewhat ubiquitous as tribal condemnation of the hour’s latest word that cannot be uttered or idea that’s definitely hurtful came under scrutiny by a few million of your closest friends. This time, it was broken down into two questions, the first being whether there can be such a thing as a “virtual mob” at all, as opposed to a physical mob. The second is how one distinguishes a mob from a million independently sentient voices all reaching the same conclusion simultaneously.
Having used the word “mob” with some regularity here, to characterize the swarm of SJWs whipped into a frenzy to attack anyone who fails to respect the victim hierarchy or, dare I say it, wears a culturally-appropriated hairstyle, have I been unfair? Unprincipled? Even hypocritical?
It’s unclear to me why the concept of a mob should be limited to physical reality, as the same influences that drive the townsfolk to grab their torches and pitchforks and march on the castle exist in the virtual domain. Sure, you can always turn off Facebook or Twitter and the mob disappears, whereas in real life they will just beat you to death, but does that difference make them any less a mob?
The harder question is what distinguishes a mob from a group of people who reach an individualized, independent conclusion to speak out about a particular thing they deem worthy of condemnation. There are sometimes leaders, reaching a conclusion, and followers who, well, follow. Then again, there are always the knee-jerk outrage seekers, who see a word they’ve been trained to recognize as inherently problematic and react as they’ve been trained to do, without any actual thought process involved.
How do we know which is which? How do we know who is legitimately concerned, if not outraged, and who just mouths the words of outrage because that’s all they know how to do, as far as their unduly passionate feelings can take them.
I suspect that if one queried each individual member of the mob, each would claim to have come to their position based on their personal critical scrutiny of whatever wrong was at issue. People are rarely inclined to admit to being mindless lemmings for the cause, although it has become less of a bad thing to pile on when someone higher on the victim hierarchy calls for comfort upon pain of being complicit in the outrage. Can they be doubted when they say they’re not merely following orders, but acting as free agents?
If there are mobs roaming the internet, attacking words, ideas, people with whom they disagree, then it reflects a different problem than a million people who independently reach the conclusion that something is wrong. After all, each of the million is just as entitled to their opinion as any other. But if it’s a mindless mob, contributing nothing more than heft to the cause for no better reason that to inflict harm on the other tribe, then it’s a problem. Which is it?