Burn, Witch, Burn
By Ken Eckert
July 30, 2015
In Augustus Egg's "Past and Present" (1858) painting triplet, a moral play is depicted where a housewife's infidelity is exposed as her children innocently play; then in later years her older daughters cry for their fallen mother as she sits forlorn somewhere under an arch by the Thames, now an abandoned streetwalker gripping an unwanted child. The message to live a righteous wifely life, or else, couldn't be clearer, as is our modern eye-rolling. Oh, those repressed Victorians with their obsession with sex and respectability, and their public shaming and scarlet letters branded on women's bodices! How nice now to be liberated to do what we want without prim scolds tut-tutting us to cover up those indecent table legs, or to lie back and think about England. And what a ridiculous name Augustus Egg is anyway.
Ask Dr. Walter Palmer about this, who as I write is in hiding after a barrage of online death threats and abusive statements advocating, among hopes for summary and violent divine or earthly vengeance, his arrest and a boycott of his dental practice. Palmer's crime was to shoot Zimbabwe's most famous lion, Cecil, for sport hunting.
What does this lecture on Victorian art have to do with Palmer? Both issues feature rough justice meted out for violating public standards of moral conduct. This isn't the first time. In April online pictures of "huntress" Rebecca Francis posing with dead bears/giraffes led to similar abuse and threats, cheerled by professional asshole Ricky Gervais. Contrarian that I am, am I really presenting myself as the only person on the Internet to defend these people? Not as such: trophy hunting of inedible and endangered animals is abhorrent, and evidently Palmer is an unlikeable person with a previous record for felony hunting and possibly sexual harassment. But do I think he deserves to have his home address posted, his workplace vandalized, and to be potentially literally attacked or killed by vigilantes? Less so; and I'm a little concerned about the wider precedent set by advocating such actions for all of us.
As I get older, and as the cliché goes, realize my father was wiser than I thought, I see that two of his assumptions were correct: 1) people are rotten, and 2) some stuff taught in university is rubbish. As a Christian, I don't think people are downright evil, enjoying badness for its own sake with moustache-twirling, but it is our nature to be flawed and to have tainted motives: we feel a righteous indignation at seeing cruelty or injustice, but there's also some selfish online glee in feeling superior by denouncing and casting people below us. There is also the "echorage" of rants in response to the Palmer incident, such as arguments that those who eat meat have no right to criticize Cecil's shooting. Telling people they have no right to an opinion on a highly controversial issue never ends well; it's also sometimes logically problematic: preachy academic missives declaring that white people can't talk about race issues are, well, racist–tending to prove my father's second point.
And so to reiterate, there's nothing wrong with posting Huff (or just huffy) news articles calling for justice for the odious CEO/ corporation/ party/ individual who did these terrible things. I do it too. Yet I think primarily the objections I have read to doing so are personal and aesthetic; I've blocked people for simply being depressing pains in the ass who rain down gloom-and-doom stories on my feed all day, and no, I won't be guilted into sharing and pestering others with your vitally important story decreeing a boycott of a pizzeria owner in Humptulips, Washington, who once owned a Dukes of Hazzard model car with a confederate flag. Outrage at being outraged by photos of Queen Elizabeth giving a Nazi salute as a six-year-old girl is a richly ridiculous phenomenon suitable for pop culturists to examine, but to me it is merely silly.
But I think the larger dangers of having a daily subject of outrage are less recognized. One problem is that increasingly people are simply afraid to do anything which potentially takes a risk of disapproval by the pitchforkatti, particularly with the omnipresence of cameras. My brother used to hunt elk, and I have Newfoundland friends who shoot and consume moose; how long until they are dragged onto the social network scaffold and vilified and threatened? And–I'm only using hunting for sake of example–what other past PC sins of enviro-unfriendliness, meanness to non-cute animals, bad-things-said about the marginalized, or wanton enjoyment of Valentine's Day, Columbus Day, Halloween, or sexy nurse outfits will be unearthed and denounced for public shaming? In other words, is anyone so innocent or blinkered to believe that the online (and perhaps offline) vigilantism growing over Dr. Palmer is the first or last incidence of SNS mob moralizing, and that the targets will not grow in number? Think alone of the barrage of new vocabulary shoved on us in the last few years to describe the new sins, the portmanteaus and Latininisms which would be incomprehensible a generation ago: sexist, racist, homophobic, ageist, lookist, cisist, sizeist, albeist, mansplain, fat shaming, slut shaming, white privilege.
Stop thinking about the sexy nurse outfits.
Hell, I'm already in trouble for writing this much.
So what's the worst that can happen online–you get defriended or downvoted, or people make mocking memes or posts, and you get your little pixel-feelings hurt? Well, no; people commit suicide; they quit university over the public humiliation (e.g. the Korean dog poop girl); they have private information posted, such as addresses to their children's school; they are "swatted," where armed police are sent to homes for fake emergencies. They are chased with harassing lawsuits. And as with Palmer, it's a matter of time until the threats materialize and someone is retaliated against for keeps with real live fists or bullets. This is the States. In 2010 someone in Houston shot a friend who insulted his dog.
It's also the mid-level risk of being the day's Person Who Should Be Fired which makes online noncomformity so dangerous. I regularly remark that it is a wonder that anyone has a job in the United States, what with the regular, clockwork deluge of angry posts demanding that anyone acting wrongly in a professional role Should Be Fired. For example, if there weren't already enough reasons not to be a teacher or professor in North America, add having a hundred student-customers armed with smartphones ready to upload you saying/writing/doing something that offends them/any of the 29 Oppressed Groups. Yesterday on Quora someone wrote complaining that a math professor called her a "goddess" on Facebook. A bizarre and slightly ewwy comment, yes; but the chorus of Quorans demanded the prof's head on a platter and reported as a sexual predator. And to think the Old Testament God has been accused of being overeager with the "smite" button.
The Should Be Fired button has been screamed for after some pretty small beer crimes. A CNN story lists: a Tucson CFO fired and forced to move after arguing with a Chick-Fil-A employee over gay marriage, caught on YouTube; a techie at a trade show fired over a childish sexist joke about "dongles"; a hydro employee in Toronto fired after shouting a crude comment at a female reporter live; an ignorant tweet about getting AIDS in Africa costs a senior director her job. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was ousted in 2014 after a secret tape recording voiced a racist rant. The Charlie Hebdo protesters who so proudly defended free expression so long as Christians are reviled seem not to be concerned that a man lost his career over statements, however repellent, made in a private recording made in his home without his consent. Think about this the next time you have drunk a little too much and said something off-guard in a pub.
Yet if I might Kensplain, I don't want to dwell on the minitiae of the ethics of what these people did, or make arguments about whether they deserved their unemployment or not: they done stupid thangs. There are larger issues. One is that the short-term frisson of joy and schadenfreude we feel on Facebook at hating and demanding the sack for whoever has stepped out of line might be warranted, but it can also be cruel. Again, I'm not excusing the offensiveness of the action; but should someone who wears a tacky native Indian costume, makes a sexist/racist/whatever-ist comment, or just makes a professional mistake of judgment, have his or her life ruined for it in the same way that Monica Lewinsky's has been? Second, do we not realize that we might someday be busted ourselves? As the Chinese say, the tiger we ride can also eat us. I'm not going to wade in on the recent U.S. gay marriage decisions (I don't feel strongly either way, but anything less than smug rainbow-icon fervor: homophobic!–Should Be Fired!), but I will surmise that many Christians don't worry about the social change happening so much as they fear being on the wrong side online. Americans, to say the least, aren't a people big on compromising.
Last, to make a point leading back to my introduction, we don't have much cause to look down on the Victorians. So many of my examples of people ostracized and humiliated online or ruined through mob judgment comes down to: sex. Where sexual relationships were once policed by the church, as Camille Paglia notes, they are now increasingly politicized, and subject to both online witch hunts and employers quick to disown affiliation with us should we do or say what the herd does not find personally empowering. The goal posts have moved, but having the wrong opinions will still get us not invited back to parties, or worse. We laugh at the Victorians' prudishness; I hope someday we can laugh at the PC age, where a Washington staff member was fired for saying niggardly (cheap) in a meeting. And this was in 1999. Had something similar happened in 2015 he'd be shunned from Reykjavik to Auckland.
O, for a muse of fire, where I might be so rich as to say what I want and not care if it offends anyone! Thus the peculiar recent popularity of Donald Trump, who fits such a bill and provides vicarious satisfaction. As much an ignorant, narcissistic buffoon as he is, how nice to be mightier than the legions of morally outraged bedroom bullies of Facebook, and how much I reluctantly have to say, how blessed it must be to freely exercise that deeply fundamental human right to be wrong.