It is a feature of our era that the old fashioned, slow motion, ordeal of Trial by Tabloid has been replaced by the much swifter process of Conviction by Social Media. The ritual is by now well established; once a critical mass of outraged tweeters has been reached the object of execration shall, sometimes within hours, be dismissed from their job, have their career and reputation destroyed and quite possibly be abandoned by their spouse and lose access to their children.
While this raises legitimate worries about the infliction of injustice upon the innocent I will lay these aside here. My concern is about the no less important issue of injustice being inflicted upon the guilty. Although rarely enunciated it is a fundamental principle of equity in a civilised society that the mere fact of guilt alone does not justify the imposition of the maximum possible sentence. A Twittermob is, I would contend, unable to uphold this principle both by virtue of its own inherent nature and by virtue of the culture from which it springs.
In particular there are two fundamental human realities it does not or will not grasp. Firstly the complexity of any individual human Self, secondly the critical difference between a mortal sin and a venial sin.
To take the second point first. Twittermobs only possess the capacity to sing on one note. Semi-hysterical fury fuelled by righteous (or self-righteous) indignation is the defining characteristic of the phenomenon. Without either of these elements the mob remains unassembled. This means that it’s behaviour depends not on the object of the mob, alleged or proven wrongdoing by an hapless individual or group, but on the intentions and desires of the subject, that is, the mob itself fused into a quasi single individual mass of quivering outrage.
The mob behaviour, then, is precisely the same regardless of whether it is attacking a professor for making a clumsy (and largely autobiographical) joke at an international forum or a Hollywood producer for comitting serious sexual assaults in private. For Twitter all sins are mortal sins and therefore all sinners are worthy of damnation (without the benefit of the traditional options of repentance, confession and penitential works.) But it is a certain truth that all sins are not mortal. Some are worse by many degrees than others.
As is often the case we only have to spend a short time reflecting on our own lives to see the truth of the proposition that wrongdoing is of varying levels of seriousness; both in terms of its impact on the persons who suffer from it and in terms of the presence or absence of intentional and conscious malevolence in the person perpetrating it. When we ourselves are guilty of wrongdoing (as we all are at some time) then we hope that those reacting to us take into account all these relevant factors. Yet if these persons are fused into the hydra-headed Twittermob they simply do not have the capacity to do so. The venial sin you commit today may be punished as a mortal sin tomorrow if your judge is the one trick pony whose only tool is maximum outrage.
On the complex Self. As long ago as Aristotle it was recognised that each Self is less a unified field than an arena of contending forces. The Philosopher recognised three main powers in the Psyche: the incensive, which was concerned with anger, the appetitive, which was concerned with desire including sexual lust, and the intellective which was concerned with cognition and conscious thought. This tripartite division proved congenial to a Christian philosophy, Catholic and Orthodox, which was concerned about the inner battles each soul fought against its demons. As a result the idea of the divided Self was central to Western thought for about eighteen hundred years.
The Enlightenment, however, decided to simplify the picture of Man (male and female.) Reason, it was argued, was the singular dominant force in human motivation. If men (male or female) acted contrary to Reason it was because of the influence of religious superstition and ignorance. If everyone received a good secular education the baneful effects of religion and ignorance would be banished and Reason would be the sole power motivating all human acts at all times. Whatever the limitations of Aristotle’s model might be it offers a more realistic depiction of the nature that actual humans possess than the reductive, one-dimensional Enlightenment model. Nonetheless the idea prevailed that education, and education alone, was the chief weapon in the fight against morally illicit behaviour.
An unintended consequence of this is the re-introduction of Manicheaism into Western thought. That is, if an educated person behaves in abominable ways it must be because they are a thoroughly and irredeemably wicked person. This follows as a necessary consequence of the belief that they are motivated solely by Reason. If they are knowingly and deliberately doing wrong it is because their reasoning mind has intentionally followed a clearly thought through path. What it cannot be is that they are acting as they have acted because their Reason has been too feeble to consistently control the urges which powerfully emerge from the appetitive or incensive parts of their psyche.
Again, any time spent in self-examination will reveal the flawed nature of this kind of thinking. Each of us has acted against our own better judgement hundreds or thousands of times. Equally, none of us really considers ourselves to be a totally evil creature as a result of this series of capitulations to our demons. We should, then, apply the same standard to others which we apply to ourselves since the only concrete evidence we have about the human psyche is that which is generated by the one we ourselves happen to inhabit. What has this to do with Twittermobs? Well, our appetites may well lead us into doing things which others (and we ourselves in our calmer moments) would condemn. Sometimes the best and most productive response to this is a reprimand or a suspension or a fine or a period of counselling or some other form of constructive engagement. Twitter, however, only recognises one response as being valid: total expulsion from Eden with no prospect of return. And that is a manifest injustice against the guilty, a cruel and unusual punishment. Guilt is a relative not an absolute quality and Twittermobs don’t have enough tricks in their repertoire to recognise that simple truth.
thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.
The picture is an illustration by Andrew B. Myers, prop stylist Sonia Rentsch