Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Beware the Internet Mob

"Justice for Cecil."

The shaming of Walter Palmer strongly resembles a witch hunt. Who among us would survive such scrutiny? Even if we haven't killed a lion, most of us have done some stupid or immoral things. Sometimes repeatedly. "He who is without sin, throw the first stone." (Right?)

Clarificatory update: I actually agree that it was wrong to kill the lion for sport, that the wrongness was made worse by the fact that lions are endangered, and was also made worse because of the role this particular lion was playing in the ongoing research on how to protect the endangered lion populations. So I agree with many of the grounds that people are citing to justify their criticism of and use of social sanctions against Mr. Palmer. But the response to Palmer seems excessive in the light of his actual moral error, and is yet another example of the angry internet mob's frightening power. You could be next!

Second clarificatory update: Lots of people cross moral lines and should be punished, whether through the criminal justice system or through social sanctions. I am not opposed to using social sanctions against people who commit moral crimes, or against people who break the law. We should shame murderers, rapists, and thieves, for example, and Palmer also deserves a certain amount of social censure. But we also have a duty to make judgments about what legal punishments or social sanctions are justified in a calm, rational manner, lest we inadvertently make moral errors ourselves through disproportionate responses to others' immoral actions. Anger, hatred, scorn, and the other passions associated with moral outrage have a way of burning unchecked. It's not that we should forgive everything and punish nothing, but we owe it to ourselves to be careful in how we go about judging and punishing others. I fear that the internet is enabling and encouraging us to give into crude vigilantism and a mob mentality (even in cases where someone really did do something morally wrong). The short of it is, you can't reduce considered moral judgment to instant, unchecked outrage. I don't like where this is going, and I fear it will not end well for our society.

Third clarificatory update, now with more Reason: Three points worth bearing in mind: First, even if outrage is sometimes morally permissible or obligatory, what seems to be happening is people are equally outraged by all immoral actions, regardless of the severity of the immorality. For example, people seem just as outraged against Palmer (or even moreso) as they would be if he had killed a person, or 20 people, or 200 people.

Second, even if it is correct to be just as outraged against Palmer as many people are, there is still something troubling about the way the Internet and social media are causing people to focus excessively and obsessively on the particular day's cause celebre, and ignore everything all of the other crimes that are going on in the world. This excessive, obsessive focus is feeding our lack of proportion and perspective, and is leading to the harassment, firing, bankruptcy, etc. of people around the world (sometimes people who have legitimately done something wrong, but don't necessarily deserve the level of harassment they receive, occasionally people who don't seem to have actually done anything wrong in the first place, and therefore don't deserve any level of sanction or harassment).

Third, there is a case to be made that outrage in general is not morally permissible, at least if 'outrage' entails burning anger or hatred. As the Dhammapada puts it: "Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal." (Dhp I.5).

Addendum: It seems others have been writing about this as well. 
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