The most recent (hell's teeth, am I being topical?!) example of this is probably the reaction to footage of an NFL player assaulting his wife in an elevator. When I say 'assaulting', I don't mean pulling her hair or shaking her roughly; I mean knocking her out cold - brave guy. Understandably, as evidence of this has emerged into the public arena, the outrage has been palpable, and rightly so. Hopefully, there will be justice for this piece of low life crap; a justice more becoming than that handed down by the local courts. However, that's not the issue I'm here to broach.
Something else bothers me apart from the unpleasantness of this kind of behaviour. Some things troubles me about the rabidity of the public response to reports of criminal behaviour;
- The public seems surprised that this kind of thing happens.
- The evidence is always believed on face value.
- The online mob's demand for immediate justice is deafening.
First - what sort of blindness and deafness allows the culture of permanent shock to pervade everything? Has nobody heard of criminal behaviour? In the example I've quoted, surely people are aware of domestic violence? If not, what the HELL are they doing walking around with such an ignorance of the world? These days, there are few excuses for not knowing more about what we humans are capable of.
Secondly - and more disturbingly - the online mob seems to always believe that what they see is true. It's a seductive idea that the camera never lies, but unfortunately, it frequently DOES lie - it lies by omission, it lies by optical illusion and it lies through the bias of the person taking the footage. Although it's a cosy idea to think that what we see is always the truth, there's a reason why courts don't accept footage without corroborative evidence. Witnesses get things wrong - sometimes VERY wrong; I know this from my own extensive experience, and everyone tends to perceive things a little differently. It's why we have a judicial system - it's a safeguard against the justice of The Wild West.
Third - the mob's baying for blood (figuratively or otherwise). This leads on from the point above - the mob demands action based upon ill-formed and untested perceptions, often fuelled by a form of mass hysteria, and nearly always poorly judged and occasionally morally wrong. The mob these days is global, and it's a statistical truth that the overwhelming majority of the people who make up the mob are utterly unqualified and poorly placed to be making the noise that they're making. Very few people can see outside of these kinds of boxes, let alone think outside of them.
The modern social media world is in danger of subverting the carefully evolved systems of justice which currently prevail in the older western civilizations (I'll leave out China, which is in a category all of its own). By screaming for justice, the mob assumes that it is right, often by weight of numbers. The loudest voice is rarely the most considered, most equitable or the most sensible one, and mobs have a very poor record through history in terms of sound judgement (as any sixteenth century witch would tell you). Uninformed, inexperienced people with a tablet/computer keyboard/iPhone in hand does not constitute what we have come to know as a judicial system. We are all entitled to a presumption of innocence until the evidence against us is tested or guilt is admitted - it's an essential precept of the rule of law if we are to avoid the horrors of the bronze age.
It's a genie that will be hard to put back into the bottle - after all, the most shrill and strident voices so often belong to those who lack maturity and insight, or a well developed sense of restraint. Society must not (on pain of anarchy) allow itself to be kidnapped by the noisy throng with no life experience and a loud voice; our institutions are never perfect, but they have evolved through centuries of mistakes, reflection and adjustment. Our burgeoning online 'justice' system is a few years old, as are many of the brains who would be the leaders within it - I hope against hope that the uninformed, unwise groundswell never crests the river banks to become a flood of vigilante justice-makers...but I have one eye closed and have assumed the 'brace' position just in case, because my faith in society's structure is fading.