Let’s have at it, eh?
We’ll start this week’s with a really interesting piece by Elizabeth Piccuto at Arc Digital, titled “The Morality of Social Media Mobs.” We all know that social media mobs can be terrifying, a herd of wildebeest suddenly turning, catching something in the air, a sniff of food or a rutting sow, and bearing down at ground-churning and pulverizing speeds toward one target. Sometimes this target can be deserving and powerful and in need of a good shaking (like Elon Musk), but often it can be a nobody shmuck who suddenly have their lives ruined.
(There’s another category, which is trolling idiots who want to be attacked so that they can say they bravely stood up to the SJW mob. There’s a whole cottage industry around it. Tricking wingnut gulls into giving you money is America’s most sustainable industry.)
We tend to see this, and it is painted as, a bunch of virtue-signaling nonsense, a grotesque pile-on so that the finger-pointers can feel better about themselves, with no concern for the car wreck at which they are gawking or the pulped-up bodies inside, before moving on to the next show. But, as Piccuto argues, it isn’t quite that simple.
If someone says something racist, it hardly seems bad to, say, post a reply or quote-tweet saying it’s racist. The person who uttered the original statement might well take it to heart and stop saying such things. Even if she doesn’t, other folks may read your criticism and learn something about what people find racist. And again, stating your own moral opinions can usefully re-affirm them.
If it’s not bad for you to say make such a statement, why should the fact that other people said the same thing render your statement immoral? Why should a morally permissible or praiseworthy action become immoral when others perform the same action? When does the action suddenly become wrong? After 50 people say it? 1,000? Why would repeating such an action make it wrong?
It’s an interesting argument (there is a lot more to this piece, of course, and you should read the whole thing). We actually do act as individuals, and it is weird to say that there is a cut-off point for condemning truly shitty behavior. Piccuto isn’t saying that the mob is good, per se, although sometimes internet virtue can be a true force for good, but that the individual actors are all acting correctly.
Now, granted, that’s the very nature of a mob: individual actions, all of which are made, at least initially, with some kind of agency, turning into something different and something far more cohesive. And I do think there is a tendency, on the internet and in real life, to avoid being the last person to take an action.
After all, if everyone is calling out some chud for saying that women haven’t really earned the right to vote, then there is pressure to do the same, lest you lend support by dint of absence. But then, I’m sure people yelling at lunch-counter protestors felt the same way: they didn’t want to get involved, but didn’t want to not get involved either, and that’s how a mob forms and then takes on a life of it’s own.
Those aren’t the same, and I’m not drawing an equivalence. The questions here are how much intent matters, and when good actions become gratuitious and autonomic instead of thoughtful. I don’t know; I’m not a philosopher. But Piccuto is, so read the damn piece already.
(Disclosure? Many years ago Elizabeth and I were sort of friends in that weird but sincere internet way, through what were once very lively and thoughtful message boards on The New Republic. It sounds strange, I know! You had to be there. We really gave Marty Peretz the whatfor.)