Sating the Hungry Mob

mob pitchforks

There’s an episode of South Park called “Britney’s New Look.” In it, the boys (and we, the audience) discover the true reason why American society gets so invested in building celebrities only to viciously tear them down. Here’s the relevant clip:

[I've disabled the clip because it's auto-playing and I can't get it to stop. Here's a link to the video.]

If you can’t watch it, here’s the portion of the transcript that matters:

Prof.: No one wants her to die, little boy. We all simply … need her to. Do you understand?

Train driver: Look, kid: Throughout history, people have found it necessary to engage in human sacrifice.

Prof: In ancient times, humans would commonly pick one lovely girl, adorn her with jewels, treat her like a goddess, and then … watch her die.

Bystander: We Americans like to think we’re more civilized now. But the truth is, our lust for torture and death is no different than it was in gladiator times.

That episode debuted in 2008. It is just as true today as it was then. In some ways, things are actually worse. Celebrities have to expect a certain amount of extra scrutiny. It is, as they say, the price of fame. But the rise of social media and the proliferation of instant reactions means that someone, somewhere is probably saying something stupid. And if you can’t find a celebrity to destroy … well, why not just destroy a random person on the Internet?

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A woman yesterday made a joke about black people catching AIDS in Africa on Twitter.* At the time of her thoughtless transgression she had around a hundred followers. She worked for a media company, but not in any sort of terribly public capacity. However, a couple of journalists decided that this human sacrifice was as good as any other. So they made an example out of her, retweeting her lightly seen missive to hundreds of thousands of people, then writing a story about the outrage they caused, and then cashing in and watching the pageviews roll in.

Let’s take a look at how the mob reacted, shall we?

Lovely, as you can see. But here was my favorite subset of tweets:

As I wrote, the “grab the popcorn!” tweets were my favorite. Because, in a very real way, they are the most revealing. More revealing than the threats of rape and murder; no one is actually going to rape or murder the woman in question. They just want to see her suffer. It’s a tremendous source of entertainment for them, better than buying a ticket to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Because in this case, the suffering is real. It’s a real person who is being humiliated, frightened, and impoverished. It’s a real person they are terrorizing for making a joke they disapprove of. Movie fear’s got nothin’ on real person fear.

We’ve seen this sort of thing before. Now, before you take to the barricades and start calling for my rape and murder, allow me to make it very clear: threatening violence against someone on Twitter and working to get them fired and ruining their life is not the same as literally murdering another person. ObviouslyBut the impulse is the same: “This person has transgressed against our community. For their transgression, they must be made to suffer. And we will take enjoyment in their suffering.”

This has been an especially annoying week for faux-rage. There was the Duck Dynasty thing, obviously: A stupid controversy in the sacrificing Britney mold, but with an old, bearded redneck instead of a young, pretty one. Then there was Pajama Boy, which went from being a relatively innocuous and fun memeification of the stupidity of the Obamacare PR team to something a little weirder and darker, as the kid’s name and history were splashed all over the Internet. And now, finally, this.

It’s been a banner week for the polity.

*It was a joke in especially poor taste, because no one has ever joked about black people getting AIDS in Africa before. And, as someone in my Facebook page noted, he never ever heard any such similar jokes from liberal aid workers in the field in Africa in the early-2000s. This was a singularly horrific joke, one that merited a human sacrifice.