In praise of the mob

One man's inquisition is another man's jolly good time

© 2009 Giovanni Dall'Orto, used under a Creative Commons license

The bad thing about social media:

Everything except the good thing about social media.

The good thing about social media:

It is exemplified by Monday’s Bret Stephens debacle. It has the hallmarks of some of what’s bad about social media: For example, it involves the “mob” (which has a fluid definition, about which more in a minute) ganging up on somebody, and it focuses a great deal of attention on something small and silly — which, if you haven’t heard about it (lucky you!), in this case involves New York Times conservative columnist Bret Stephens making (or should I say remaking, given his habit of self-embarrassment) a complete ass of himself in a particularly delicious way: Some professor reacted to news of bedbugs at the Times by saying “The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens,” and Stephens:

- Sent an email to the professor’s provost, with a copy to the professor, inviting the professor to “call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face,” a puzzling combination of a speak-to-your-manager threat and a drunk-car-salesman challenge;

- Went on MSNBC (!) to compare being compared to a bedbug to “totalitarian” tactics (one assumes he meant the Hitler/Trump shtick of comparing one’s enemies to vermin, though Hitler and Trump generally aimed such comparisons at the weak and powerless, not at absurdly overcompensated writers) and claimed that in ratting the professor out he had “no intention whatsoever to get him in any kind of professional trouble” (though it was later revealed Stephens also contacted other administration officials at the professor’s college);


Now, it may be said Stephens was “mobbed” on Twitter for this. But, number one, being mobbed on Twitter is generally like being bitten by week-old puppies — the injury is to one’s dignity only.

True, some people have suffered something more serious by these mass attacks — like Justine Sacco, the publicist whose “Hope I don't get AIDS” tweet got her fired in 2013. But Sacco is a public relations professional — that is to say, reputation is her business — so being a public asshole is probably fair grounds for dismissal in that line; and, being an upper-middle-class type, Sacco landed on her feet anyway.

Also, as I have noted before, there are many, many people who have been canned for social media gaffes who, being not so upper-middle-class, are not so likely to land on their feet (“I had to fire an employee for a tweet he wrote about a customer”). We tend to talk about those casualties as goofy woo-woo you-had-one-job doofuses, but the bleak reality is, when anyone south of a certain income line loses their job for such reasons, they’re fucked and they get sent to an even lower circle of hell.

There is no mob involved in these cases — the shameful work is done quietly and at a small scale. Yet it happens many times a day, and it all adds up.

On the other hand, sometimes the “mob” comes after thoroughly privileged assholes like Bret Stephens, and it is a joy to behold — because in this case the mob is not that snarling, inhuman mass we associate with the term at all. It is, rather, just a lot of ordinary people in a frame of mind like that of a large audience for Twelfth Night laughing at Malvolio in his ribbons, or for Monty Python’s Life of Brian laughing at Pontius Pilate babbling about Biggus Dickus. Just because a group of people find something ridiculous doesn’t always mean they’re wrong; in fact comedy, from ancient times to the present, has ever been about crowds sharing a cleansing, cathartic belly-laugh at that which is plainly absurd — at something that offends our shared values, but over which we still feel our collective power to reject and expel for the good of our health and sanity.

In this age of Trump, I think we need that laughter very, very badly; and since we have no Aristophanes, we must thank American democracy for supplying buffoons of its own.