The internet, particularly twitter, has become a wonderful new way to cast stones at sinners. The latest eruption, the dentist who killed an African lion for sport, is currently being played out. It’s distasteful to kill large, elegant animals, especially those with uncertain futures at the species level. We shouldn’t do it. And here this rich man has gone and done it. In a shady – though perhaps not illegal – way. Other things that have come to light about his background suggest he’s a generally unsavory character.
I feel like there was almost a sigh of relief in the internet when this came to attention. There has been so much to be furious about lately. An enormous amount of absolutely legitimate rage is percolating constantly. The city of Cincinnati is preparing for riots in anticipation of the release of yet another video of yet another cop killing yet another unarmed black man. It keeps going on and on, and I don’t see an end or a solution, sadly. I don’t know how you fix a problem like a nationwide denigration of the right to life and liberty for a segment of our population.
When this dentist shot this lion, I felt a gasp of release online. Here is a problem which is clean cut and simple. It fits all the right pegs into all the right holes. A rich white man, with a history of being accused of sexual harassment, has killed a lion for no reason other than his own selfish pride. And a beloved lion, at that. It is the essence of imperialism distilled to a fine elixir of privilege and arrogance.
There are many times when rage is not only justified, but required. The last year, since the death of Michael Brown and the parade of likewise unacceptable atrocities, there has been cause for rage, activism, and change. We’ve seen some. The President has ended a program by which police departments are given military surplus equipment. That’s a small but good start. More and more police wear body-cameras. That’s a small but good start. Video of these horrific events is being broadcast to the world. That’s critical accountability. In Baltimore, police were charged with murder and other crimes. We may finally be turning a corner toward justice.
But amidst all this important rage is another kind. An ugly kind. A fashionable kind. The kind directed at this dentist. For a few, perhaps, this is their issue. Their science. Their hill to bleed for. But not many. For most, it’s about the opportunity to be outraged and mean while being on the right side of a political issue that their friends will praise them for. The victim of this public shaming is seen as deserving it.
And far be it from me to defend him. I wouldn’t kill a lion, and I’d prefer others didn’t too. But I know for damned sure that I’ve done things that, if suddenly thrust into the public sphere, would have many howling for my own blood. Fashionably. Popularly. And so has every person in the mob assailing him.
Lots of academic philosophers defend (or deny the existence of) internet mobs. It’s simply the public’s individualized expressions collated. There’s nothing wrong with it. But there is. At the mob level, and at the individual level. There’s no introspection. So few people seem to be able to imagine themselves placed in another person’s position. Every single one of us has done something that warrants the same kind of reaction as this man killing this lion, to some community. Each of us has done something that some community thinks ought to condemn us to death.
The vast, secular internet community, especially my community, the academic community, is as pious and repressive as any church. It is as puritan. And it wields the same weapons that mobs have wielded since the time of Socrates. Ostracism. The mob send mass emails to employers. The mob makes public the associations of individuals seen to be apostates. These are the stones of modern times, and they can be just as deadly as the literal sort.
But my what a relief, isn’t it, to be outraged about something that doesn’t really matter? A dentist and a lion and now we get to shame someone! Hopefully, we can hound him to destitution! He deserves whatever he gets, right?
There’s a place for all this rage. We need to change our society, and change access to liberty and justice. But rage has become a sport. One we can all participate in. It’s ugly. Because we’re ugly.