I started out my research for this post looking for the one right word that summed up what I was going to explain. Surely I remembered that there was a psychological term for the people who get a rush out of attacking other people when instigated and when it could be done at little to no risk of harm to themselves? I asked friends, and we all mulled it over… turns out, no, there isn’t a single word. Although the one that Berkeley Breathed invented back in 1982 or thereabouts works nicely for the topic I was addressing.
I’m talking about the herd mentality, otherwise known as Mob mentality, a phrase first used and described in Mackay’s Memoirs of the Extraordinary Popular Delusions and Madness of Crowds. In this sort of behaviour, we see people do things they would never dream of doing to another person on an individual basis. “Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviors that a person would not typically engage in if alone.” Tamara Avant goes on to explain the kinds of people you will find acting in this way, “The greater individuals feel like they identify with a group, the greater the pressures for them to conform and de-individuate become.” And finally, in the list of reasons people begin to herd, we find that they include when “we are surrounded by like-minded people, and/or when emotions are aroused.”
So we find that “As humans, we have instinctual responses that are exacerbated by group influences. What we might not do as individuals we may do as part of a group. People may lose control of their usual inhibitions, as their mentality becomes that of the group.” In the age of the internet, this may not lead to violence as it did with the witch hunts, but the possibility of shattered lives is still a clear danger, and one that you cannot escape from, seemingly, as internet lynch mobs spring up globally in response to imagined slights.
For that is what I was thinking of when I went looking for the word I wanted. People who hop on a bandwagon because of the mental mechanism that rewards their righteous indignation with a burst of dopamine. It’s addictive, as any athlete will tell you. It’s an all-natural high, a rush, and once you’ve figured out how easy it is to get, you go after more. Humans are clever monkeys in some ways, and in others they never take the time to figure out why they act the way they do.
One of the theories surrounding the actions taken during the Salem Witch Trials sheds some light on the new era of internet mobs, where the ducking and hanging is virtual rather than literal. Dr. Brian Pavlac writes, “Witch accusers acted on a psychological need to blame others for their own personal problems. Drawing on functionalist anthropology, psychology and post-modernist criticism, supporters of this theory argue that witch hunts were therapeutically beneficial for society, since they defined what was right and wrong and rid society of its troublesome marginalized folk, like the old and the poor.”
Feeling some lack in their own lives, then, leads people into following internet trolls. Let’s define a troll, shall we? Psychology Today has this to say: “An Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. Often, in fact, it seems like there is no real purpose behind their comments except to upset everyone else involved. Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response.” The article goes on to quote from a study performed by Buckels, et. al ” “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”
Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists. Keep that in mind as I explore a couple of recent outbreaks of internet lynch mobs. These centered around people who were attacked for ‘misconstrued’ words, attacked by people who were seeking to take offense in order to generate controversy and propagate their own causes. Hence I plan to lead off with Tim Hunt and only use Sarah Hoyt as support material, along with Matt Taylor and possibly one or two other cases. In all of those, you have an agent provocateur who was then joined by an internet mob in a witch hunt.
In all of these cases, once the blood was in the water, the mob fell into a predictable feeding frenzy. Due to the mechanism of dopamine release, which then leads from an autonomous bodily function to turning the internet mob into unthinking predators seeking instinctively to harm, rather than employing intelligence and reason in assessing the target of their rages. in the case of Tim Hunt, a single tweet, which contained some half-truths mixed with made-up (lies, if that’s not plain enough) statements purporting to be quotes, started the lynch mob on their crusade that would lead to his career being irrevocably destroyed, despite the whole matter having been revealed to be a baseless calumny.
In the excellent Commentary Magazine article which sparked my interest in writing about this messy situation, Jonathan Foreman explains why it didn’t matter that the tweets and initial news reports were revealed to be falsehoods. “That’s because for anyone with an ax to grind about gender equality or sexism in science, this was one of those stories that the tabloids used to label (jestingly for the most part) “too good to check.” For politically committed editors and reporters, a story that is too good to check is one that perfectly confirms their suspicions and prejudices about those they consider the enemy.” If you will recall, one of the motivations of a mob is to react to the arousal of their emotions, and gender equality is a push-button topic in this modern era, whether it is a valid concern in the developed nations, or not. And to bring this back to the title of my post, the people who made it their job to destroy Tim Hunt?
The coup de grâce came in July with Mensch’s release of a short recording from the luncheon. One can clearly hear applause and laughter in the room as Hunt ends his speech. Apparently out of a hundred guests from around the world, most of them women, the only people who were offended by Hunt’s remarks were a handful of British and American science writers, all of whom happen to be diversity obsessives.
Hunt experienced in less than two months’ time something similar to the process of denunciation, destruction, and rehabilitation that the main character in Milan Kundera’s autobiographical novel The Joke (1967) endured over a period of many years. Set in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, The Joke tells the story of Ludvik, a student who sends a jesting postcard to his girlfriend that concludes with the words “Long Live Trotsky.” Ludvik is actually an enthusiastic supporter of the relatively new Communist regime, but that doesn’t prevent him from being denounced, expelled from college, expelled from the Party, and then sent off to a labor battalion. Ludvik is too young and naive to understand that totalitarian systems have very limited tolerance for humor and see it as dangerous and subversive. Perhaps Hunt was too old and naive to realize that the worlds of science, education, and “science journalism” are policed by people who are not exactly totalitarians but whose obsession with “correct” language and thought is incompatible with humor and intellectual freedom.
It is a phenomenon that combines modern ideology with quasi-Victorian notions of “respectable” behavior and feminine fragility. For these witch-hunters, there can be no toleration of “inappropriate” speech by the contemporary equivalent of “Society.” The wrong kind of joke, breed of joke-teller, or even the wrong political opinion, moreover, creates a “hostile environment” that supposedly intimidates the sensitive victim to such a degree that she cannot function on an equal level.
I highly recommend that you read the full article. It is lengthy, but it will serve as an excellent primer on what the internet witch hunts looks like, and how it literally cannot be stopped with the truth. I do like Foreman’s term of Diversity Obsessive, as that is a perfect way to look at what happened to Matt Taylor, who wore a shirt that a rabid feminist objected to. Note that his boss, who was female, and co-workers, many of whom were female, had no problem with a ‘lucky shirt’ he had worn on previous occasions. The reporter who cornered him for an impromptu interview – he was not expecting to be on television that day – had nothing to say about his shirt. Instead, a blogger half a world away took the time to screencap him from a brief video, blow the screenshot up, and proceed to be loudly offended on the internet. Which led to the man being bullied into public tears as he broke down and apologized for the shirt his good friend – also a woman – had made for him.
Because reality does not matter to the internet mob. Case in point, where MR Kowal accused fellow author Sarah Hoyt of using an ethnic slur. The word she said was a slur? ChiCom, a commonly used abbreviation of Chinese Communist. Since ChiCom is used to differentiate between fellow Chinese factions of differing ideology, ethnic is more than just a stretch, it’s a flat-out fabrication. When pressed, MR Kowal then insisted that she had found in one source that the term was held to be derogatory. She ignored the multiple other sources that are more reputable, and do not do more than define the term as I have above. Instead, with less academic prowess than a first-year college student, she insisted that her source was the right one, and led a small mob in denouncing the confused Latina lady whose first language was not English, as racist.
I have no real answers for how best to cope if one is confronted by these kinds of witch hunts. It is clear that the de-individuation of the mob leads to a dehumanizing and instinctive reaction, fueled by the dopamine release they find from the arousal of emotions. While confronted individually, the members of the mob would likely be willing to listen to reason, as a herd, they are no longer rational, interested in seeking the truth, or able to be reasoned with. Confrontation with the truth only leads to more accusations, often of unrelated and imagined sins the mob demands expiation for, without ever stopping to explain what would redeem the target individual. Furthermore, the mobs are egged on and ignited by trolls, who feed off the results to satisfy their own sadism. Fueling the mob energizes the troll to new heights as they scent blood in the water.
It is said that an argument on the internet is not for the benefit of either side – the one in the right will never win, and the troll will never admit they were wrong – but for the bystanders. The important distinction then becomes: at what point are you fighting with a foe who is psychopathic, and willing to do literally anything to cause you harm? There is no point in debate with the mentally ill, and they can harm you. Be aware, and be wary. Know that it doesn’t matter what you say, the grievance seekers will find something they can use to gain the attention they so desperately seek.