Why does the term “mob” have such negative connotations?
(To be specific, I am referring to the kind of mob which is “an organized group of individuals who enact brutality while under the influence of a group mind”. I’m not referring to “The Mob”, as in organized crime.)
Mobs, in theory, are not that different from forces for change — they can be physically similar to nonviolent protests, for example. They’re groups of angry people gathered to try to enact some kind of change; that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So again: why this opprobrium for mobs?
For one thing, a central theme of the mob is simply that mobs are not tools of justice.
This is actually strange to me, since one of the powers of a mob is that it is not constrained by the laws, or even the morals, of a given place and time. Citizen mobs are specifically outside of things like judicial review, investigation, and the rule of law. (Indeed, they sometimes happen as an opposing response to one or more of those things.) A mob is thus in a unique place to attempt to bring what it perceives to be “justice”, particularly in a situation where the mob feels that responsible authorities are unwilling or unable to do so. On the surface, the mob seems like it could be a helpful self-corrective, working synergistically with the system — a sort of check-and-balance, if you will. If the system’s broken, we rely on the people, right?
The problem with this is that mobs are not “the people”. They’re a specific group of people, sharing the same angry thoughts, gathered together by that anger — and disapproving of anything which might defuse their fury, even if it’s a correction of the problem.
That happens because mobs can start with all manner of intentions, but they end up ruling by fear. The mob’s question, whether it’s implicit or explicit, is not, “Do you agree with this action, or should we leave you alone?”; it is better stated as “We’re going to destroy the enemy. Are you on our side, or are you the enemy?”
If that sounds heavy-handed, it’s because this isn’t a subtle aspect of “mob justice”. Rational protest can be debated. Irrational protest feeds an internal fire, and with the goal of setting external fires.
To parse mobs a bit more, they do not actually thrive on “justice”, simply because “Justice” is not an emotion; it is at best a complex set of concepts which change culturally and over time, and even from individual to individual. Mobs are emotional; they thrive on the dopamine-engaging sensation that they are virtuous and that they are doing right. They are, in a very real sense, high on rage and righteousness. They’re tripping on the familiar chemicals which make any of us excited when, say, we indicate that we like a particular post on social media, or when we make some scathing comment on something which opposes what we think is “good” in the world. It’s well-known by now that our bodies construct emotional reinforcement for these actions; it’s part of why people have information overload, and a large part of why social media fatigue is a literal fatigue; you’re running on adrenaline, and it exhausts you.
Mobs, somewhat by their definition, take this to extremes.
Among other things, part of the mob mentality is that it deeply self-reinforces, and history has shown that, ironically, mobs become tools of injustice very easily. (It is in fact tempting to argue that any prolonged mob situation becomes unjust. But that is a longer historical debate.)
What is known is that they easily become unjust because large groups of people pumped full of adrenaline are dangerous, and do not behave in ways that are always rational — much less compassionate or kind.
While this behavior runs across a wide range of social and economic strata, in this case I speak to you from experience. I have my own pet mob.
I don’t mean that I run one. Not anymore. And I’d like to think that the mob I ran with was different — that it might have called out in problematic ways, but it didn’t doxx, it didn’t chase people down, it didn’t seek to try to (literally) blot all positive thought of someone from the Internet.
But it’s hard to tell. I keep reflecting on what it was like to be part of whipping people up into a frenzy and running with a crowd which was constantly seeking to attack people who seemed ideologically opposed (and therefore worthy of attack). This has been and continues to be a process of deep personal reflection. But good thing I got out of it is that I have the rare and powerful experience of having once been a part of a mob.
And now I am the target of one. It’s a fascinating lesson in perspectives.
I call them the “Jeff Mach Allegations” mob, dedicated to making sure that people see the allegations they created against me, and to claiming that the allegations are true and disqualify me from — from what? Life, I imagine; I think they wish life had a “block” button, and they’d like to see me on the other side of it.
Those of you who have been targeted by mobs yourselves: you’re perhaps thinking that this is poetic justice. And you are not necessarily wrong. I don’t mean that the mob is “right”; I mean that it is fitting that someone who benefited from moblike behavior be attacked by one. To tell the truth, it is not only fitting but it is part of how pack mentalities work; leave the pack, or question it, and you become an enemy. For now I will simply say that I would love to believe that the group actions of which I was a part were more thoughtful, more conscientious, were quantitatively and qualitatively different from the ones I’m currently experiencing.
But that is the lens of hindsight. I can name a number of lines that are regularly crossed now which I would never have crossed — doxing and job harassment, to name two of them — but I can’t honestly say what would have happened if the crowd hadn’t turned on me. Would I have rejected the heightened brutality, the viciousness, the eagerness to act on no proof, or even in the face of conflicting proof? Or would I have let myself be swept up with the tide?
I’ll never know. All I know is where I am now: I’ve seen the brutality of mobs from both sides, and it’s time for me to speak against them.
Lots of people get carried along. It’s hard to blame them. At what point do you say, “I believed up until now, but this is too far”? …particularly knowing that once you say that, your former gang will set its sights on you?
It’s ugly. Some of the traditional deterrents to mob violence have been elements of personal risk to those involved, particularly physical risk. There’s the danger of attracting significant negative press since if you roll down a street trashing everything in your path. And people are going to get a lot of photographs of you doing something tangibly wrong (like, say, destroying things which belong to people who are no part of this fight.) And if you bring violence towards individuals, they might respond with violence. You could get hurt.
That’s changed completely.
Consider that we are now in a time when completely anonymous people can coordinate an attack with something as simple as a few social media posts, and then be seen by hundreds of thousands of others with loose but meaningful affiliations with the causes they claim to espouse. And this is a known property of mobs: they claim righteousness, and a moral high ground, and so they sweep up entire segments of the population who want to be “right”. Mobs tend to be against things that no-one would advocate against. “We’re against abuse; don’t tell me you’re FOR abuse, are you?” But the actual question isn’t “What does the mob stand for?”; it is “What does the mob do, and does that even advance the cause to which they claim allegiance?”
The mob can doxx you. It can harass your job and try to make the company fire you. It can print libel, knowing that defending yourself from false claims is a long and expensive process. It can try to hack your email or take down your website; I can say that, just for myself, an ex-employee openly admitted unlawfully accessing my server, and used that information to convey a fake story about my actions. The fact that the actions were unlawful, and the story was a thoroughly debunked lie doesn’t matter; lots of people still believe it. Such is the power of groupthink.
It can spew hatred and vitriol in an attempt to dishearten you, to depress you, to make you afraid or even to make you try to kill yourself. And make no mistake: while not every mob has the intention of driving its subject to suicide, there are many mobs which would be very encouraged if they thought that the subject of their fury might take his life. (I am going to add a personal sub note to the members of my mob: I am not afraid, as you can tell from the existence of this article. And I am certainly not going to take my own life.)
This is incredibly relevant for the times in which we live, as we’re starting to recognize some of the toxicity of social media. But are still exploring exactly why it is, and can be, that poisonous. We’re beginning to recognize that mass pile-on behavior is doing tremendous damage to individuals and institutions, but they’re also seeing how difficult it is to challenge those things. Because again:
Disagree with the mob, and the mob will target you. They’ll say you’re siding with something evil, and thus, by extension, you’re letting evil off the hook; aiding and abetting.
There’s a reason why our judicial system tries to avoid guilt by association: because it works. And sure, if this were a comic book, a good way to find the big villain is to watch the little villains. But this is real life, and most people aren’t villains — and there’s no Big Boss to be taken down, no simplistic happy ending, no “roll the credits, movie’s over” — there’s the sticky, complex patchwork of life going on.
And in that world, mobs have tremendous power.
But there is something more powerful: defiance.
If you believe that the mob might have any moral rightness, any ethical compass, insist on the basics of civil liberties. Insist on a discussion of evidence. Insist on a discussion of right and wrong. Insist on a chance to look at where problems might lie, regardless of origin, and insist on a chance for all sides to sit down to fix them.
But if the mob continues to act, as mobs do, with nothing but threats, anger, and an attempt to rule by fear, if the mob rejects everything which might brig peace or happiness to those involved:
Defy it. Defy it with every breath. Denounce it. Don’t let it rule your life. Because an angry, vengeful hivemind helps no side. It’s only out for one thing: the sheer chemical pleasures of being a mob.