The Mob Comes for Everyone: On the Age of Public Shaming

The villagers find the windmill offensive
The villagers find the windmill offensive

There is wisdom in crowds.

Ask a classroom full of children to guess how many gumdrops are in a jar. They’ll give you a small margin of error. Groups are better at estimating than individuals. Bring researchers with different theories together and watch them cancel out each other’s biases. Groups with diverse opinions are good at making rational decisions. Go to trivia night with friends with different interests and you’ll increase your odds of success. When people with different focuses collaborate, they raise the collective knowledge pool.

There is madness in crowds too.

Fill your Facebook feed with people who share your beliefs and they will never be challenged. Groups of like minded individuals are less inclined to let new ideas in. Get your news from one point of view and you will see through the same narrow lens. Groups with spokespeople are less open to independent thought. Limit your Twitter tribe to users on the same side and they’ll choose your battles for you. Groups that don’t value outside perspectives will tell you your opinion.

Our peers pressure us to raise a torch to someone who tipped our sacred cow. Someone who made a joke that didn’t connect. Someone who said something that wasn’t politically correct. We form cyber mobs before our target has time to explain. We turn their humiliation into a game. We hurl insults just to feel like we’re part of something.

Our cause may be pure, our indignation may be righteous, but when so many of us are wielding pitchforks we overkill our target. We cost them jobs, their sense of security, and sometimes their lives.

The madness of a crowd is never more apparent than when it’s on a witch hunt.

George Carlin once said, “People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate a group of people with a ‘common purpose’. ‘Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs. And a list of people they’re going to visit at 3AM.”

Social media has given us surgical control of the groups we pledge our allegiance to. We don’t have to tolerate family members with opposing viewpoints. We can simply ‘hide’ them. The editorial nature of the news allows us to select which reality we want to see. We bookmark the world we prefer to live in, and pity those poor saps looking in the other direction. Online reporters are so comfortable with our allegiance that they resort to name calling within the headline.

My Superstition About A Public Shaming

I have my share of politically polarizing beliefs. It doesn’t take much to trigger my anger. My blood boils at room temperature. Still, every time one of my groups drafts me for war, I dodge it. The networked name-calling seems inviting. Some people seem like they really have it coming, but I have a superstition that keeps me from joining in. I can’t help but imagine what it will feel like when the mob comes for me. I say, “will” because in this day and age it feels inevitable.

Share your thoughts online, grow your audience, spend a lot of time doing it, and the odds of a backlash increases. For every off the cuff tweet I make, there’s a greater chance someone will take offense. For every article I post, a public shaming feels inevitable. For every photo I upload, there’s a higher probability I’ll turn myself into an unflattering meme.

The repercussions are at the ready. The mockery is in the mail. The insults are inbound.

I’m not a target of significance, but I can’t shake that irrational notion that the mob is coming. That one of my dumb jokes will go viral and a group’s rage will not be quelled by a retroactive artist’s statement. That even after I issue a sincere apology, my words will continue to haunt me. That after my 15 minutes of shame has passed, I’ll still be backpedaling over a toxic brand.

I want to keep participating in the conversation without worrying how my words could be used against me. I want to make jokes without crossing the line, but I’m sure your line isn’t the same as mine. I want to use satire without dumbing it down so much that it’s obvious on first glance. I want to embrace the totality of language without limiting myself to well trodden topics.

The villagers can't take a joke
The villagers can’t take a joke

On Comedic Irony

On Pete Holmes’s podcast You Made it Weird, Comedian Patton Oswalt said, “I like social justice. I like political correctness. I like progressivism, but I don’t like when it’s used to silence and control other people.”

Oswalt likes to make fun of difficult subjects to reduce their power. “If you start laughing at that, that’s how you get your control back.”

Comedians make absurd statements about absurd situations like racism, rape, and homophobia, to undermine them. Often an offensive joke isn’t meant to make light of a situation, but to cast a light on the reality of it.

If you’re too afraid to address a taboo you give it power over you. If you can’t joke about “He who shall not be named,” then Voldemort has control over you.

Not every moral message needs to be delivered with a straight face. Comedy can be a round about way of reenforcing our ethics. Satirists have the power to enlighten while they entertain.

This doesn’t mean that comics can say anything with reckless abandon. It means we should ponder their intention before we overreact. Sometimes they’re being offensive for the sake of it, and sometimes they’re doing something with a little more nuance.

When comedian Sarah Silverman makes a joke about racism, her intent isn’t to perpetuate a bias. She’s making a joke at the expense of her dim witted onstage persona. The joke isn’t the racist statement. It’s that her character is too dumb to realize she’s being a bigot. An entire group of people aren’t the crux of the joke. Prejudice is. To chuckle at the racist statement, is to laugh at the wrong part of the joke.

Silverman calls this laughing with a mouth full of blood.

Someone who hears an endorsement of their own bigotry, didn’t get the joke. Someone who takes personal offense, didn’t get it either. The question is just how clear does a humorist have to be?

Sometimes a comedian’s intention gets away from them. When Dave Chappelle left The Chappelle Show Time Magazine reported he felt his sketches were reinforcing racial stereotypes rather than sending them up. His cowriter Neil Brennan told Maxim Magazine that Chappalle walked out when a crew member laughed at the wrong part of a sketch.

In Jonathan Swift’s book A Modest Proposal, he suggested solving poverty in Ireland by selling Irish babies as food for English aristocrats. Swift was being intentionally offensive to draw attention to human suffering in the wake of the Irish potato famine. To this day, there are people on Yahoo Answers wondering if Swift was serious.

Maybe people are that gullible. Just look at all the people on Facebook who react to Onion headlines like they’re real. Maybe people just want an excuse to be offended, because deep down they like the feeling, as comedian Jim Norton suspects in his article for Time Magazine.

The villagers find Frankenstein's monster offensive
The villagers find Frankenstein’s monster offensive

You Can’t Please Everyone

Comedians should consider their forum. Places like Twitter, where’s it’s hard for audiences to gage intent, might be the wrong place to workshop edgier material. If you can’t fit a disclaimer in a 140 characters, be prepared to own up to the joke later.

As for those of us sitting in the peanut gallery, we need to consider the speaker’s intention, and learn to accept apologies when they’re given. When someone offends our groups’ sensibilities, we need to downgrade our homicidal rage and show a little empathy. Our reactions shouldn’t force people to water down their language for fear of the consequences. If we do there’s some harsh truths we could be losing.

In his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay said, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

If you disagree with someone, know that threatening them will only strengthen their position. Don’t give them a token resistance to point their finger at. Be the charming alternative to their misconception. Be a delegate for your belief system. If you don’t have the patience for a rational conversation, then you’re the wrong person to represent your position.

19 thoughts on “The Mob Comes for Everyone: On the Age of Public Shaming”

  1. My sentiments exactly. I’m tired of people playing the victim card. Fer God’s sake, it’s not like this isn’t a condition of the human race. It’s a sad state of affairs when comedians can no longer make jokes or people cannot have passionate discourse without tearing the other side down. I happen to love the humor of political incorrectness. But you can’t say anything online for fear of being lynched.

  2. Great post, Drew. I often sit on the proverbial fence because a) I fear and hate any kind of confrontation, but, and more importantly, b) I have this really irritating character trait of always being able to see both sides and can be easily swayed in my opinions, even quite strong ones. Then I go into self doubt, so I just steer clear.
    I don’t shy away from other’s polar opinions online, but I guess I am guilty of following and engaging with like minded people, simply for a peaceful life more than anything. I can’t stand this thing where everyone is offended and so I do water down what I think online because most of what I think would offend someone somewhere. But then I am not at all easily offended by anything so maybe I just don’t understand why people get so offended.
    Also, yeah. I like individuals. Groups (herds) not so much. There can be a mob mentality at times which makes me uncomfortable. Some of the stuff I read on Twitter, where people get together and insult, ridicule someone with a different opinion I think, ‘seriously people, let. it.go. I can almost feel their blood pressure exploding. Why do that to yourself? But more than that, we all think we are so individual and different, we advocate celebrating diversity and freedom of speech but when push comes to shove, we herd together and hate it when someone differs in opinion to us.
    Er….I’ve rambled on and gone off any point I was trying to make (or indeed probably you were trying to make), but I found this a thought provoking post, so thank you 🙂 I’ll go now…!

  3. And sometimes you just gotta say, “F*@# it.” There’s a reason that old cliche keeps coming around: “Can’t win for losing.” You really can’t please everyone. One day, someone’s gonna crawl right out of the woodwork and toss a big, steaming pile my way. I know this. I’ve also accepted that they’ll do that regardless of my stance on any particular issue or how I choose to express that stance. All I can do is try my best to present my stance in a clear, constructive manner, if at all. That last line in particular really resonates with me. At the end of the day, I’ve gotta be able to look myself in the eye and say, “We did okay today. We did good.” Because when someone does stand against me, all I’ve gotta do is keep my head, regain my footing, and keep on moving forward. I’ve been through worse. (Haven’t we all?)

  4. This is an incredibly well written post, and I totally agree. True, you have the right to screen out what other people want to post on Facebook by not following certain people, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to post it in the first place. I tend to keep contentious statements off Twitter because like you say, it’s harder to add disclaimers and given its public nature, you have no idea who’ll see it. At least on Facebook you can limit the damage. But then I like to make sure I have other articles to direct people to if they jump on their high horse!

  5. Here by way of a RT on Twitter.

    The scary part, for me, is that so much of this is true, even when users don’t cloak themselves in pseudoanonymity. You’ve given me much more to think on, Drew.

    1. Happy to see you discovered this through twitter. Glad you liked the piece. I’ve written horror stories about pseudoanonymity. Thanks so much for reading.

  6. I think each individual needs to be honest about motive. If your motive in whatever you said was to “be right” or to bash, then expect (and even invite) criticism.

    If your motive was to attempt to change the minds of militants in the opposite camp — I’d find another motive, since this just isn’t going to happen.

    If your motive is to add your own perspective to the world — go for it. For every person who riles against you, another will get it. You’re right, Drew. You can’t please everyone.

    Madonna is, I think, an excellent example of someone who wielded controversy wisely. She offended (on purpose) to stay relevant as long as possible. Then she’d reinvent herself and go flapper girl. Then offend. Then be a mom. Then offend. Then do “Evita.” Then offend. Then tout her Kabbalah beliefs. She’s not a schizo. She’s smart. She knew how to offend and then draw it back in the right doses to keep people on their toes, stay relevant and win over her critics in cycles (at least for a while).

    There’s a quote I see mostly on bumper stickers: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” And that is true for men and women. Milktoast voices are worse than none at all.

    Drew, in this post, in addition to enjoying what you had to say, as always, I enjoyed HOW you said it. You have a lot of literary value and even poetry in your prose style. Noted, sir.

    1. You really know how to make a blogger feel appreciated. THANK YOU for reading so deeply.

      I grew up when Madonna was the reigning queen of the tabloids. She always had the best responses to everyone who tried to shame her. I remember when her old nude photos leaked.

      She said, “Yeah, so?”

      Everyone who puts themselves out there for an audience should be so bold. We take risks and sometimes those risks don’t connect.

      I can’t say this enough, thank you so much for reading.

      1. Social media, for me, has NEVER been about “group mentality” or numbers. It’s about building connections with real people, learning new things, stretching our idea banks, and encouraging one another to continue doing whatever it is we do. You’re one of the best “fits” I’ve found for this mentality and connection so far in 2015, Drew.

        I look forward to reading each post. Keep up the good work. (And I’ll like you even when I DON’T agree with you.)

  7. Great piece, Drew. You’ve echoed many of my thoughts in your article. I especially like your line “If you’re too afraid to address a taboo you give it power over you.” I’ve said this for years regarding racial epithets. Strong emotional reactions to them only increase their power to hurt. The power from words is derived from the receiver more than the presenter. Thanks for taking the time to put together this great post.

    1. One of the pieces of advice in my recently published book is this: “No one can make you mad.” The fact is, other people simply don’t have that power — we choose it every time.

      Don’t believe it? Unless the central contention causes EVERYONE (or at least everyone in the same “category” as the person who got mad about it) to become offended and angry — then it was not the words that held the power. The only other logical conclusion is that the words DID hold power, but the people who somehow aren’t offended hold some sort of superpower to resist those words (which, though preposterous, still leaves the offended “weak” by comparison).

      When we realize that no one holds the power to MAKE us mad (or jealous, or even happy) — that we alone choose whether we will become angry (or jealous, or to allow our happiness to hinge on another person) — we stop being a victim.

  8. How can we grow as writers if we surround ourselves with yes-men? Some of the most powerful lessons I have learned have been from people who told me what they thought without any worry about retribution. I have edited for several people who probably fancy themselves as writers, but have nearly zero talent. They keep at it, thinking that they will “break through” at some point. I wish them luck. I have the thickest skin. I love it when people point out my flaws, because that is the crucible by which my craft is refined.

    1. OK, Roger — even in your short reply, your writing talent, sharp mind and understanding of “things” is apparent (and, no, that is not coming from an aforementioned sycophant). Reading your thoughts brought an instant smile, simply because of the effortless layers I saw in it at once: from grasp of grammar, to voice, to keen understanding of connotation and specific word selection.

      And aside from all of that, your surface thoughts are right on. I can’t stand it! I’m definitely going to look you up, sir.

  9. Ive been involved in a debate on another forum over the illegal alien issue and one of the combatants, who clearly hates anyone labeled as an illegal alien even if they aren’t, said that Americans support Trump because he says it like it is—for instance, calling all illegals from Mexico rapists and wanting to build a Great Wall of China along the US-Mexico border.

    I countered that 27% (the latest poll figures on September 15 for the GOP side of the latest presidential liars contest—-the most skilled liar usually wins, not the most prolific liar) is not a majority of the American people. The polls showed that 27% of those who were polled supported Trump, but his closest GOP runner up was at 23% and the 2nd most popular Democrat was at 27% too behind Clinton who was in the 40% range.

    Another member of this politically correct mob blamed Obama for all the problems will illegal aliens. I replied with a link to a history or illegal aliens entering the United States that revealed this issue goes back to before the Civil War and that President Reagan signed a bill that allowed all illegal aliens who entered by a certain date early in his presidency could easily become citizens without worry and that the number of illegals crossing the US-Mexican border actually dropped dramatically during the Obama administration way down from the GW Bush administration.

    What happened? several members of the illegal alien hate mob ignored what I had to say and posted more hate comments bashing illegas for not paying taxes.

    I replied and compared that allegation with the fact that US Corporations were caught hiding more than $2 Trillion overseas to avoid paying taxes and provided links. I asked if they condemned those US corporations too. I was ignored and the bashing of illegals continued.

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