The Madness of Crowds Feed

Cruelty & Justice On Line: Meditations of A Justifed Sinner

The sleep of reason produces monsters - Goya.

Jeff Doyle cites Richard Rorty's remark, "Cruelty is the worst thing we do," and wonders whether ripping the mask off anonymous posters, even in a good cause, is cruel. Who decides what cruelty we may justifiably inflict on one another? Here are some observations, from a self-confessed sadist, who tries very hard to be good:

  1. Justice can be cruel, whether in the court of public opinion, or through the courts. Flogging, imprisonment, beheading, drawing and quartering, torture, or the needle.  Gossip, ad hominems, name calling, verbal abuse, insults, veiled threats.  All are cruel.
  2. As a society we sublimate cruelty through law, delegated responsibility, precedents and due process.
  3. Vigilante violence is cruel and unsupervised. When it runs amok it can leave innocent people injured and the guilty lynched.
  4. The Maenads were women driven mad by Dionysus who would chase miscreants (including unjust rulers) through the forest tearing them limb from limb and leaving the trees decked with gobbets of flesh.
  5. The 18th Century was known as the Age of Reason. But it was also the Age of Madness. Dionysus and Apollo tend to show up together, with one uppermost. Tragedy and satire balance Dionysian frenzy with reason and justice. They are sublimations of the impulse that drove the Maenads to bloody havoc.
  6. Satire is sublimated cruelty: Our noble trade.
  7. The lightest forms of satire are banter, raillery, chaff and wit. ("Laughing the fool out of folly.")
  8. The lowest form of satire is insult, invective, name calling,  cheap irony, bullying, aping, and the usual ad hominems. For practice, go here.
  9. A kind and generous-hearted form of satire is to enter into the mask, or Type, satirized and so satirize yourself. (Erasmus, "The Praise of Folly" in which Folly celebrates herself. Mock Epic works this way too.) Better in such cases to flay a Type than use a real name. (Buffo, Harpax, Captain Blowtorch, etc.)
  10. Hang a Type in Effigy, if you must hang someone,  other than yourself. 
  11. When the process of meting out crowd sourced justice breaks down, as in Paris during the rule of the People's Court, the monster devours itself and leaves Tyranny.
  12. Bullies are best faced one on one. Bullies prefer the madness of crowds because one on one they are cowards. In a crowd a bully hopes to pass without personal responsibility. But that is not wise online, since each comment generally ties out to an ip address, a real world identity.
  13. When a mob runs amok, its leaders, and those who were obliged to lead and did not, must be brought to justice, tried and sentenced. Even the guilty person gets a defender. Judgment is pronounced solemnly. Sentence is carried out dispassionately by those duly constituted with that authority.
  14. In this game of meting justice, there are no free shots, no free fire zones. Things build on themselves and get out of control. Cruelty escalates. We each bear responsibility.
  15. The wisdom of crowds and the madness of crowds - we have seen both here at Gifthub over the years. We can learn from our mistakes.
  16. With all of the above in mind, I prefer to satirize myself, rather than others, or to Praise Folly as Folly. This may seem an affectation (to those who have not been initiated into the mysteries of Folly's Guild), but the alternatives are worse. I know the madness that comes over me when I inflict pain in a spirit of self-righteousness. I consider that feeling my besetting sin. Hence the dodges, to sublimate that will to power, that will to injure, to lord it over others, and to lead a mob to tear apart an evil-doer. That is a sickness I must cure in myself if I hope to cure others.
  17. For thousands of years, this noble trade of satire has been an art form studied and passed on from one hooded hangman or headsman to another. Surely, we should not engage in the cruelty of impromptu justice without studying it as an art form? Why should we just hack away, like a slovenly butcher, when it can be done, as Dryden noted, with wit and finesse?
  18. Bullying is a game people play. But the game is best played in community environments conducive to it, where consequences for misbehavor are few, and where bullying soon becomes an accepted part of the culture.
  19. Those who build and maintain communities conducive to bullies or mobs do an injustice to themselves, their members and the public in being hospitable to what is low and vile in our human nature.
  20. As we build, staff, and run growing online communities, we should learn from the periodic outbreaks of the madness of crowds and build the systems needed to channel and constrain it.  Failure to do so brings discredit on the community, its members, its moderators, and its owners. The name of that community may become a byword for bullying.
  21. In the evolving law around online communities, it is not clear who gets punished when a site owner and its moderators have created an environment conducive to real world harm, and real world harm has been done by a member as part of a mob action that went unrestrained. The law of internet harms will probably be built up around specific cases.
  22. There are better ways to get famous than having a statute named after you.
  23. Before closing this sermon with my blessing, let me thank my generous patron, Candidia Cruikshanks, for helping me appreciate the pleasures of injustice. Bending to kiss the boot that kicks you is what Christ taught too. Turn the other eye that it might be gouged. Christ taught it and did it. A very hard act to follow; beyond satire, the way of the cross.
  24. Dearly Beloved! Let us each bow our heads and contemplate the sins of the person in the next pew.

For ad hominems please go here.