Web Only / Features » November 8, 2013
The Ethics of Mob Justice
A ‘Boston bombing victim’ Halloween costume brought out the Internet’s pitchforks.
Internet backlash can hit the harmful and the harmless alike. White supremacists who want black families to move out of their neighborhoods now have the option to send death threats through untraceable e-mail accounts.
On April 15 of this year, two pressure cooker bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people died; more than 250 were injured; some victims lost their limbs. And then, seven months later, Alicia Ann Lynch debuted her Halloween costume. The photo of Lynch dressed as a Boston Marathon victim—complete with T-shirt, runner number and fake blood running down her leg—quickly went viral, and the Internet’s well-established shaming wing kicked into action. It was to be expected: Lynch poked at one of the sorest spots in the American public consciousness with what appeared to be an upraised middle finger.
The means of that retaliation, however, were alarming. Along with some honorable, justified responses from survivors of the bombing—“You should be ashamed, my mother lost both her legs and I almost died in the marathon,” reads one Tweet listed in a Buzzfeed article about the response—Lynch was also the victim of retaliatory sexual harassment. Nude pictures were located and circulated with the intention of shaming her. She was fired from her job—no reason stated, but her opponents had found her employer's name. She says that she’s received rape threats (Lynch identifies as a rape survivor) and death threats, including a promise to blow up her best friend’s house. Her license information was posted online, lending those threats an alarming level of credibility. And the dialogue that wasn't comprised of threats was, ah, not focused on public morals: “I would hate fuck her and then punch her in the mouth,” said one commenter on the offending (and not linked here) website, Barstool Sports. “I hope she gets impregnated by a black guy,” added another. Bogjunas2 fancied himself a man of the world, and a connoisseur: “she's a dumb bitch but those are some titties. and all of them are kinda dumb.”
Lynch’s costume was wrong, and harmful. Regardless of her intent, she mocked and made light of tragic violence in a manner that caused pain to its victims. It is entirely fair to express hurt or anger. But Lynch did not threaten or attempt violence, of any form, and in any way, towards those survivors. That was done to her. Some people think that her actions mean we “don’t have to feel sorry,” and an alarming number of us—namely, the folks who sent the threats in the first place—are operating under the assumption that all this comprises proportionate response. It's entirely reasonable to say that Lynch should feel shame for her insensitivity toward trauma victims. What's not reasonable is the idea that we can raise sensitivity toward the victims of trauma and terror by traumatizing and terrorizing more people. Protesting a wrong-headed attitude toward bombings with bomb threats is, roughly, like protesting arson by breaking into someone's house with a jug of gasoline and a book of matches. And aggressive, violent misogyny rarely tends to win over its targets.
If there’s one place where the outrage about the various “dumb bitch” and “impregnated by black guy” comments, not to mention the rape threats, might be expected to outweigh the outrage over Lynch’s costume, the comment section of an often-feminist blog would be that place. And yet, here’s a comment on Jezebel: “I don’t condone rape threats but I don’t have to feel sorry for you.” The commenter, cassiebearRAWR, formatted her lack of sympathy as a Batman GIF. “This is perfect,” another commenter responded. “I think I love you,” added a third. The 14 other comments on the thread are all in effusive agreement with Batman.
This isn’t a problem with any one person, or set of people, or even with Lynch’s specific case. Thanks to the Internet, and its capabilities for raining Hell down on strangers, every one of us is being forced to decide how our morals about refraining from offensive behavior and causing harm extend to cover people who are offensive and even harmful.
The use of intimidation and humiliation to enforce social norms didn’t begin with the Internet. Cole Stryker has pointed out that societies have always relied on public shaming to enforce both laws and social conventions, from scarlet letters to sex offender registries. Stryker argues that we didn’t stop using shame-based punishments; we simply abandoned certain methods because, in large cities linked together by swift, reliable transportation systems, it was far easier to lose track of the intended targets. It’s no use ordering someone to wear a dunce cap in Brooklyn when he can just take it off and hop the next bus to Philadelphia. But while the Internet didn’t create weaponized shame, it did improve logistics: Whether you’re in small-town Illinois or the middle of Los Angeles, the public can find and contact you. Add this to the Internet’s economy of information—which runs on quick response, mass interest, visceral reactions and fragmentary, sometimes inaccurate information—and you have a breeding ground for exactly the sort of widespread, gut-level rage that hit Lynch. The “global village” everyone was so excited about in the 1990s has, indeed, come to pass, and it’s the village from The Lottery.
Claiming that I'm too enlightened to shame my fellow human beings is, admittedly, beyond me; I’ve shamed plenty of folks in my time. I've conducted online protest campaigns and written articles for the very purpose of shaming people. I could tell you I never threatened to blow up somebody's house, but that's a very low bar. The fact is, in my heart of hearts, there are some people I would love to see clamped in the stocks and pelted with garbage. And I believe that shaming, in and of itself, isn't an evil. It's a tool. When someone uses a hammer to build houses, the hammer is a wonderful tool; when someone uses a hammer to bash in his neighbor's skull, I think we ought to take that tool away from him. When we encourage people to view homophobia as shameful, that's helpful; when we encourage people to view same-sex attraction as shameful, innocent people suffer. I don't object to the existence of shame, but to the means—dangerous, bigoted, invasive, disproportionate, or just plain directed at innocent people—with which it's sometimes deployed. And I draw a distinction between encouraging healthy remorse and inspiring terror. If we can’t disown the human impulse that fuels Internet vengeance, or reverse the evolution of technology to stop it from happening, we can at least argue tactics.
Just as sex offender registries have been used to shame both rapists and gay men entrapped by police come-ons, Internet backlash can hit the harmful and the harmless alike. White supremacists who want black families to move out of their neighborhoods now have the option to send death threats through untraceable e-mail accounts. Transphobic pseudo-feminists can utilize “doxxing” to find and post the home addresses of trans bloggers who criticize them. The forces of digital-vigilante collective Anonymous can be called down to expose and torment the Steubenville gang-rapists, and they have. They can also be called down to torment, shame and lie about people pursuing rape charges, as they did Julian Assange's accusers—promising to be Assange's “loyal army,” they attacked websites and spread misinformation that the accusations he faced “would never amount to rape.”
These extreme tactics can feel righteous, like leveling the playing field: People who aren’t served by the justice system can now ensure just deserts. Similarly, opposing some of this can feel deeply wrong; no right-minded person wants to make life easier for the Steubenville rapists. It’s tempting to argue that extreme tactics like doxxing aren’t a problem, as long as they’re used by people with good agendas, or against people with bad ones. But then, people make the same argument for assault rifles, and shooting sprees keep on happening.
Similarly, trusting the use of this destructive power to be governed by public opinion is a fool’s errand; if there’s one thing history continually bears out, it’s that people may be brilliant and kind, but public opinion is bloodthirsty and irrational. In 19th-century New England, tuberculosis was so widespread and people were so panicked by the death toll that everyone started blaming it on vampires. At one point, a young girl’s body was exhumed so that her brother could drink her heart and thereby destroy her ravenous undead spirit. Technology has advanced, but our ability to resist fear and emotionally charged groupthink hasn’t: Just last fall, a young man by the name of Ryan Lanza was bombarded with death threats, and had to shut down his Facebook page. He hadn’t done anything wrong, and he said so repeatedly, but his brother Adam Lanza had shot up a school building, and early reports had used the wrong name. We’re more capable of mobilizing in groups than ever before, but those groups haven’t gotten a whole lot more thoughtful since the time we collectively decided to blame, mutilate and eat a dead woman in response to a common lung disease.
But, again, there's no eliminating the existence of Internet shaming, even if you wanted to—and if you did, you'd eliminate a lot of healthy dialogue and teachable moments right along with it. At best, progressive people who recognize the necessity of some healthy shame can only alter the forms shaming takes. If we regarded “having nude pictures taken” as less shameful than “posting someone's address online,” for example, we could channel our natural human bloody-mindedness away from slut-shaming and misogyny, and toward ensuring that people who endanger another human being's life out of spite are treated as outcasts.
So we’re left with upholding structural principles, and this brings me to the Internet’s other poisoned gift to social justice: Even as it enhances our ability to censure those who violate the social contract, it makes the individual members of that society more visible, warts and all. Where the radicals of previous generations could spout high-minded rhetoric about the Common Man, Womankind or the Human Spirit while interacting mainly with the limited circle of people they found tolerable, we contemporary activists have to uphold our principles while dealing with the fact that actual common men, women and human spirits are continually being presented to us in harshly lit, unflattering close-up, including people like Alicia Ann Lynch.
If I, as a feminist, deplore gendered insults and violence used as a tool to suppress women, I am therefore ethically bound to defend Alicia Ann Lynch against the gendered insults and violence used to suppress her, and I am bound not to minimize or rationalize that violence, no matter what I think of her actions when un-suppressed. I can understand public anger, but I have to oppose any manifestation of that anger that manifests as gendered insults, gendered violence, or the wish to terrorize her or inflict physical harm. Alicia Ann Lynch has said, on the record, that she’s “not a terrible person.” I don’t know her, and I don’t know what kind of person she is. I’ve only seen a photo of her online, like everybody else. But no matter who she is, I have to oppose what’s been done to her, not only because it’s misogynist, but also because I don’t want to live in a world where a woman can be stalked, threatened, sexually harassed or driven into poverty for wearing a bad outfit. Masked, pseudonymous vigilantes enact justice in comic books, wreak havoc everywhere else, and no matter how fit we may think we are for the task, no one should try to act like Batman.
Note: Lynch denies having written the apologetic Tweets pictured above, saying her account was hacked, but thanked the writer for looking out for her.
Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributor. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady