One unfortunate byproduct of the internet age is the rush to judgment: the pressure to decide – and boldly declare – just how despicable an act is before we know all the facts.
But if we can’t just blame the internet, not if we want to be honest with ourselves. The internet is a tool, one we use to justify our own laziness and focus our addiction to outrage. We want to be pissed off. We want to feel superior, to believe that we are best equipped to make decisions about other people’s lives.
When we aren’t.
That’s not the worst of it. Outrage is contagious, viral, if you will. Not only are people tempted into outrage by their own egos, they’re afraid they’ll be shamed shamed – right along with the original target – if they’re not outraged. If something isn’t condemned immediately, suspicion arises.
“You must be one of them. How could you possibly side with that (racist, sexist, homophobic ... fill in the blank) so-and-so? You must be just as bad yourself!”
It’s not hard to recognize the same kind of dynamic that led to communist purges in the McCarthy era. Supposed “sympathizers” were as bad the alleged communists. This isn’t far removed from grade-school scandbox mentality. Growing up in the 1970s, before advances in LGBT rights, kids on the playground were routinely shamed as “gay” if they failed to measure up to some social norm. And anyone who dared defend them was called “gay,” too.
The labels have changed, but the principle remains the same. The process has merely accelerated in the age of social media.
Mob mentalities weren’t built in a day. They were built in the amount of time it takes to film a video and post it on Twitter. It’s the psychological equivalent of arson: Drop a match by the side of the road and watch it incinerate everything in sight.
Case in point: CNN recently ran a story about Dominique Moran. I mention her name because it’s important, I think, to realize that people affected by our addiction to outrage are real people with real lives that can be turned to shit in the blink of an eye by nothing more than an accusation.
Moran is a 23-year-old woman of Mexican-American heritage, but according to the outrage culture, she was branded as “white” because it’s more convenient to be outraged at white people these days. We wouldn’t want to complicate the narrative, now, would we?
According to CNN, she was working at Chipotle when a group of black customers entered the store. Moran had seen video footage of the men “dining and dashing” in the past when a credit card was declined, so she required them to pay for their meal in advance. One of the men responded by accusing her of racism, then began shooting a video and later posted it online.
It went viral, complete with nasty name-calling and calls for her to be blackballed (“I hope you never get another job”) in the comment field. and She wound up being fired because, you know, outrage demanded it.
The outrage had taken on a life of its own.
Modern outrage is the product of a perfect storm. On the one hand, you have a media culture built on the constantly shifting foundation of instant gratification. Social media enables it, and the news media perpetuates it. When you’re chained to a 24-hour news cycle, the pressure to be “first” in reporting accusations is immense – especially if it’s already trending on Twitter. If you’re out there “ahead of the story,” you’ll get more clicks, more viewers ... and more advertising revenue. The pressure inherent in “breaking the news” makes an earlier era’s rush to hit the newsstands first look like a walk in the park. And it makes mistakes all but inevitable. (For more on this dynamic, see my book Media Meltdown.)
On the other hand, there’s an understandable frustration with our legal system. When monied elites can run out the clock on justice by filing endless appeals, or use their resources to make legitimate accusations “go away,” is it any wonder mob justice becomes attractive? There’s a lot of truth to the old saw that justice delayed is justice denied, so it’s natural for social justice vigilantes to take matters into their own hands.
There’s just one problem. It doesn’t work. You wind up “winning” a battle with a straw man and losing the war against the monster.
At what cost?
The cost goes of our rush to judgment goes far deeper than Dominque Moran’s anxiety and lost job, or the other highly personal costs born by any individual who’s falsely accused. Because whenever we sacrifice an innocent victim on the altar of our outrage, it gives real racists, sexists and homophobes ammunition to argue that they’re being set up and persecuted. It uses real victims like Moran as an excuse to promote the kind of false victim mentality that attracts people to racist and sexist groups in droves.
If you’re a member of the outrage culture lamenting the rise in white supremacy, you might be part of the problem. When you point that finger to scapegoat Dominique Moran or some other person you’ve never even met, four others are pointed straight back at you. And if you refuse to admit it, the problem only gets worse – which will further fuel your outrage. And that of the racists on the other side. Vicious circle doesn’t begin to describe the damage.
In our rush to judgment against the Dominique Morans of the world, we give the real enemy – white supremacists, neo-Nazis, homophobes and their ilk – an excuse to dismiss credible accusations as merely another “left-wing conspiracy.” Worse, we give people on the fence an excuse to believe them. We can’t afford to do this.
The antidote to “justice delayed” is not “injustice imposed,” which is exactly what the outrage culture – fueled by media pressures and social media access – promotes. Our judicial system may be imperfect, and at times unjust or even corrupt. Still, that doesn’t mean we should turn the gavel over to social media vigilantes fueled by sanctimony, prejudice and their own fear of being demonized.
But that’s exactly what we’ve done.
Heaven help us.