Frontier Justice

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"The man who pulls the lever, that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man. And that dispassion is the very essence of justice. For justice delivered without dispassion, is always in danger of not being justice."

The response from the Chicago theater community was swift, the exterior of the theater wallpapered with issues of the Reader and the #NotInOurHouse hashtag trending across social media — inspired by the non-Equity rights group Not In Our House. Led by actors Lori Myers and Laura Fisher, Not In Our House began as a Facebook group after Myers received 178 responses to a status asking about the stories she had heard of actors being exploited. They have since become a proactive force, bringing the stories of Profiles Theater to the surface and also creating a non-Equity code of conduct to ensure that non-unionized artists still have an organization looking out for them. The day after Levitt and Piatt’s story ran, Not In Our House created a petition demanding that Profiles end its relationship with its artistic directors. It received almost 4,000 signatures, and less than a week later, the theater closed for good.

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Public shaming has become the new lynching.  Now let that sit and before you lose your shit over the use of a word that traditionally has been the vicious mob justice most associated with Klan whites against innocent blacks, take a moment to understand the term.

Lynching is an extrajudicial punishment by an informal group.  It is an extreme form of informal group social control such as charivari, skimmington, riding the rail, and tarring and feathering, but with a drift toward the public spectacle.  Separated from the obvious racial implications, lynching is simply, as Oswaldo Mobrey explains in "The Hateful Eight," 'frontier justice.'

It's more complicated than that, however.  While Darrel W. Cox deserved the tarring and feathering he received and I am personally happy that Profiles shuttered the doors, I'm a bit uneasy on how it came about.  I don't trust our justice system much - with giving obvious rapists 3 month sentences to acquitting murderous policemen, the system is most definitely rigged and finding justice can be a bit of a crap shoot.  But I trust my fellow man and woman even less.  The crowd is generally less informed, more prone to quick and thoughtless judgment, and hands out frequently bloodthirsty punishments with out regard to possibility of innocence or the fake ginning up of emotion to create the narrative of guilt.

The justice system is broken but fixable.  Angry people with a penchant towards victimization complexes are more broken and the only thing that fixes them is revenge.

Perhaps comparing public internet shaming as 'lynching' goes too far, though.  While the Shame Pile On online can be devastating (and in the cases of a lot of kids, lead to suicides) it does not involve actually killing anyone.  It's more like killing someone's reputation.  And in a world where online reputation is held in such high regard - employers, parents, potential mates all check social media profiles - destroying a reputation can have serious real world implications.

“A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.” 
― Jon Ronson, So You've Been Publicly Shamed

In the case of Cox and Profiles, it is arguable to say that the end justified the means but that argument is almost always shown to be ethically bereft.  At first, I jumped in with the mob, posting statuses on the Profiles' Facebook page.  After two or three of those, it hit me how petty and grotesque the pile on was and I stopped but not until I had thrown my few stones first.

Why do we do it?  This compulsion to join the mob and add to the online bullying (because that's what it is, isn't it?  Bullying.  A bully posts out some infraction of the unity of thought and the crowd takes it on, throwing digital stones at the accused until either the object of scorn gives up and dissolves their public profiles or hides from the onslaught) is fierce and ugly.

In December 2013, Justine Sacco, a woman with 170 Twitter followers, tweeted acerbic jokes during a plane trip from New York to Capetown, such as "Weird German dude get some deodorant" and in Heathrow "Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m white!" Sacco, a South African herself, intended the tweet to mock American ignorance of South Africa, and believed that her twitter followers were aware of Poe's law, and in a later interview expressed that her intention was to "mimic—and mock what an actual racist, ignorant person would say."  

Sacco slept during her 11-hour plane trip, and woke up to find out that she had lost her job and was the number one twitter topic worldwide, with celebrities all over the globe denouncing her and encouraging all their followers to do the same. Over the course of her flight, and while she was unable to respond, New media bloggers published sensationalised columns encouraging readers to express righteous indignation against Sacco. Sacco's employer, New York internet firm IAC, declared that she had lost her job as Director of Corporate Communications.  People began tweeting "Has Justine landed yet", expressing schadenfreude at the loss of her career.  

The Gawker Media blogger who promoted the #HasJustineLandedYet Twitter later apologised for his role, admitting that he did so for Internet traffic to his blog,  and noting that "it's easy and thrilling to hate a stranger online.”

It's as if the internet and the distance that involves sitting in a Starbucks or a bookstore or at your cubicle at work (hell, even nannies have been known to engage in online bullying while their young charges sit in the background and cry) invites us to release our Id without filter and exposes ourselves as the vengeful, truly heinous people we actually are.  And the whole time, as we heap on the insults and false categorizations and outright lies, there is an air of faux justice, as if one is doing the service of the Hangman.

Participants often feel that their abusive actions flow from justified outrage—but all bullies think that their behavior is justified. “We know from moral disengagement work that all bullies feel morally justified in their actions,” Swearer pointed out. Ask people why they bully, and they rarely say, “Because I can.” They say, “Because I need to.” Bullies believe they are teaching someone a lesson; they claim that their victims are, through their own actions or faults, asking for it, and that they need to be called out and corrected. “They say it’s retaliatory. ‘I just retaliated,’ “ Swearer said. “They build narratives of their behaviors.” Many of the bullies Swearer has dealt with don’t seem to have realized that what they did was bullying: they demonstrate “a lack of insight and self-awareness.” Instead, they see themselves as righteous crusaders.

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What sets the Profiles incident apart from say, a case of someone's hurt feelings blown up into a series of angry accusations of abuse and falsehood, lies in two areas.  The first is the sheer number of those affected negatively.  Cox was known to have been a sleaze bag (sleeping with students and neophyte actors) and a psychologically and physically abusive actor/director. Granted, these two things are identifiably separate (there are plenty of older male sleaze bags in Chicago theaters who routinely date their students but do not physically abuse anyone) but put together and confirmed by what seems to be scores of people over decades gives this situation serious weight.  The second was the incredibly researched Reader article that took over a year to put together.  Put together and it was fodder for the mob.  In no time whatsoever petitions for Cox and his enabler were signed in the thousands and the sheer number of shares and potshots taken on the Profiles Facebook page was staggering.  And a week later, Profiles and Cox were gone.

Even then, the question remains if the 'frontier justice' of the internet gang up is a necessarily positive conclusion to these two pieces.  Justine Sacco made a poorly received joke and it destroyed her life (quite literally) through nothing more than the gleeful handing out of retribution for a momentary diversion.  Sure, the pitchforks aren't physical and the torches don't really burn but the mob mentality is no different than the villagers bandying together to destroy the monster in the castle or the townsfolk riding their horses to the jail to string up the accused (but untried) horse thief.

It may seem incredibly satisfying to think that five years from now, Cox will still be unemployable in the theater anywhere in the country because the internet is forever and every mention, every nasty insult, will haunt his sleazy abusive ass for the rest of his days.  What if the experience caused him to change?  What if five years from now, he has come to grips with his horrible actions and repents, rehabilitates and 'finds Jesus?'  It won't really matter.  The damage is done and done and done.

I don't have any answers, just questions.  Something about this tendency of ours to use social media to dole out mob punishment seems off.  It feels too much like the kind of middle school online torture that causes young gay men and women to kill themselves from the shame.  Not really the same thing but close enough to feel wonky.  How do we stop the bullies without becoming bullies ourselves?

As Bill Maher pointed out recently on his show, the internet makes assholes of us all.  I, for one, think we can do better.