I believe the land of internet discourse is beset by a mob mentality. Anyone who is seen to offend is often subject to a witch-hunt. Discourse is dead, and we killed it.
Picture this if you will.
You’re in a bar. You’re in the company of friends and acquaintances.
Everyone seems to be having a good time, cracking jokes and sharing anecdotes.
It’s a safe, familiar space and, because you’ve had a few drinks and you’re feeling comfortable, or maybe just because it’s getting late, you decide to up the ante with an old-school, bad-taste dead baby joke.
And it goes down something like this. “Why did the dead baby cross the road?… (pregnant pause). Because it was stapled to the chicken!”
You begin to laugh, but you quickly notice you’re laughing alone. You realise that you’ve chosen the wrong audience, or the wrong time, and your joke has fallen disastrously flat. No-one is laughing with you. In fact, a couple of people within earshot have turned in your direction and are looking particularly annoyed. Somewhere in the fog of your inebriated consciousness, you remember that a school bus crashed in your town recently. Your joke has gone from lame to seriously, offensively unfunny. In a moment of panic, you double down and ask, “Too soon?”
At this point, the male half of the couple glaring at you calls you an asshole. He tells you his child just died. And he invites you, in no uncertain terms, to leave the establishment. Or risk a smack in the fucking mouth.
Now at this point, regardless of whether you’ve been in a similar situation, I’m sure you are empathising at least in part with both the tragic-comic and the annoyed patrons. At some point or another, you’ve opened your mouth and put your foot in it. It’s embarrassing. And everybody has experienced the heated sting of offence, so I’m sure you know how that feels too.
In a sane world, a world we inhabited not too long ago, the story would end something like this: you apologise to the man and your friends and, if you’re smart, you raise your hands in supplication and leave the bar as quickly as you can. You may even cop a few insults on the way out.
When you wake up the next day your head feels a little larger and your social circle feels a little smaller.
You’re a little humiliated. You’re a little regretful. Mostly, you’re glad all of your teeth are still in place.
The world moves on.
Except, that’s not how things go down anymore. It’s 2019.
The bar is the Internet. The joke is a tweet. And the audience of friends, acquaintances and familiar faces is now an ever-expanding net of outraged strangers who, by the sheer momentum of mob mentality, takes it upon itself to meter out justice.
Some of them believe you should shut up. Fair enough.
Some think you deserve a smack in the mouth, and you don’t necessarily disagree.
But then some believe you should lose your job and now it’s getting a little unreasonable.
Then there are those who believe you should suffer, go jail, be beaten. And of course, lose your job, never work again, suffer ongoing humiliation. A few even believe you should have your own family killed to learn a lesson.
They share these ideas (along with your original gaffe) with as many more people as possible. The mob grows. And many more decide to climb aboard the offence bandwagon.
The avalanche of outrage grows and now there are literally thousands of people who support the idea that your life should be destroyed in almost every aspect, and that you deserve what’s coming to you. All because you told a bad joke.
And it doesn’t stop there. Your place of work receives numerous demands for your termination.
Your name is permanently tarnished and a committed posse vow to hound you, lynch mob style, until your penance is served. This is justice, social media style. And it feels more 1817 than the present day.
Now, if you’re gearing up to tell me that I’m exaggerating and no-one would have their life and livelihood destroyed because of telling a bad joke, let me remind you about a certain David Leavitt, a former CBS contributor.
A writer of sorts, Mr Leavitt tried his hand at inappropriate comedy in the wake of the Manchester bombing. He made a bad joke. He tried to joke his way out of it. He failed.
From that point, the understandable upset turned to outrage, rage and downright aggression. To quote some of the responses:
“Your friends and family are ashamed of you right now.”
“You are a horrible person. I hope you never find work again.”
“OK, Twitter folks, time to band together and REPORT (him) until his account is disabled.”
“I hope someone decks you, you vile cretin.”
“…hope something tragic happens to you and your dreams are crushed…”.
This guy may well be a dickhead. And he’s definitely a case-study in bad judgement. But his career, his wellbeing and possibly his life are now in jeopardy. All because he made a bad joke.
And this brings me to my question.
What is the point of freedom of expression, if it means relentless mob justice for anyone who dares to use it in a way that offends someone else? If we censor expression, we’re on a slippery slope towards censoring thought. And that is an open invitation to tyranny and oppression.
If you’re still thinking, “Yeah, but that guy deserved it – he hurt people’s feelings. It was offensive!”, let me remind you that, as you read this in 2019, you hold a political view that millions of people find offensive. You have religious (or non-religious) ideals that some find offensive and hurtful in the extreme. Some of your favourite music is utterly repulsive to more people than you would dare to count. And your preferred sexual pastime is not only deviant to many, it’s a crime in several countries.
Trust me, your very existence offends someone. Offence, in its many forms, is the price we pay for living in a free society. And it’s not a high price by any means. Censorship, extreme political correctness, comes at the cost of your liberty, sooner or later.
So unless you are willing to live in a world where you have to self-censor every thought, every idea, every belief and every expression – or live in fear of the repercussions – might I suggest you get used to the idea of having your feelings hurt once in a while and simply move on. Delete and unfollow. Or better yet, learn something from the experience and start a healthy debate – instead of a witch hunt.
To my mind, freedom of expression is not simply the right to be heard, but the right (and in some cases an imperative) to listen and hear something you may not agree with.