Sociologist Gerald Cromer once noted that the decline of public executions coincided almost exactly with the rise of the mass newspaper. Oscar Wilde said it better: “In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press.”
If only they knew what was coming next:
Online lynch mobs. Attack blogs. Smear campaigns. Snark. Cyber-bullying. Distributed denial of service attempts. Internet meltdowns. Anonymous tipsters. Blog wars. Trolls. Trial by comment section.
It is clear to me that the online media cycle is not a process for developing truth but for performing a kind of cultural catharsis. Blogs, I understood from Wilde and Cromer, served the hidden function of dispensing public punishments. Think of the Salem witch trials: They weren’t court proceedings but ceremonies to cast out unwanted or disliked people.
Ours is a more civilized way to tear someone to pieces or undermine their humanity. But it’s the same thing. Snark is just the nicest way the way to dismiss someone, often to brutally cut them off at the kneecaps, leave them unable to respond and justify it all by saying it was a joke.
My experience with digital lynch mobs is unique. I get frantic calls from sensitive millionaires and billionaires who want me to fend one off. Occasionally they ask that I discreetly direct this mob toward one of their enemies. I am not afraid to say I have done both. You may remember the news about one of them, which the New York Post headlined as a “Charney [really, me] Wages Bizarre Cyber Battle.” This article hangs on my wall like a hunting trophy.
I want to talk about why this is and how it works.
THE DEGRADATION CEREMONY
These acts of ritualized destruction are known by anthropologists as “degradation ceremonies.” Their purpose is to allow the public to single out and denounce one of its members. To lower their status or expel them from the group. To collectively take out our anger at them by stripping them of their dignity. It is a we-versus-you scenario with deep biological roots. By the end of it the disgraced person’s status is cemented as “not one of us.” Everything about them is torn down and rewritten.
The burning passion behind such ceremonies, William Hazlitt wrote in his classic essay “On the Pleasure of Hating,” “carries us back to the feuds, the heart-burnings, the havoc, the dismay, the wrongs, and the revenge of a barbarous age and people.” You nudge blogs toward those dangerous instincts. They love the excitement of hunting and the rush of the kill without any of the danger. In the throes of such hatred, he writes, “the wild beast resumes its sway within us.”
Sneer, snark or vicious attack, the same attitude is behind it. Whether we publicly cashier someone for imagined or real crimes, or we just laugh and mock them because we don’t agree, it’s the same result.
At the risk of sounding like a public service announcement: This can happen to you too.
You used to have to be a national hero before you got the privilege of the media and the public turning on you. You had to be a president or a millionaire or an artist. Now we tear people down just as we’ve begun to build them up. We do this to our fameballs. Our viral video stars. Our favorite new companies. Even random citizens who pop into the news because they did something interesting, unusual, or stupid. First we celebrate them, then we turn to snark, and then, finally, to merciless decimation. No wonder only morons and narcissists enter the public sphere.
THE COSTS OF SCANDAL HYSTERIA
A few years ago I was part of a high-profile multimillion-dollar lawsuit involving Dov Charney and Woody Allen. After being wrongfully accused in a series of sensationalized (and later disproved) sexual harassment lawsuits, Dov and American Apparel ran two large billboards in New York City and Los Angeles featuring a satirical image of Woody Allen dressed as a Hasidic Jew with the words “The Highest Rabbi” in Yiddish. Allen sued the company for $10 million for wrongfully using his likeness.
You may remember hearing about it. But you probably didn’t know that the billboards—which ran for only a few weeks—were one) a joke two) intended to be a statement against the kind of hysterical media-driven destruction talked about here. They were designed to reference the public crucifixion Allen endured during a personal scandal years earlier (which by the way, nobody really cares about anymore) Ironically, this was totally lost because blogs and newspapers were too focused on the lawsuit’s big-name celebrity drama to discuss the intended message.
In response, I helped Dov write a long statement that was eventually turned into an editorial in The Guardian. It said, in part:
My intention was to call upon people to see beyond media and lawsuit-inspired scandal, and to consider people for their true value and for their contribution to society.
I feel that the comments of a former friend of Woody Allen, Harvard professor and famous civil rights lawyer Allan Dershowitz, apply to this particular phenomenon: “Well, let’s remember, we have had presidents . . . from Jefferson, to Roosevelt, to Kennedy, to Clinton, who have been great presidents. . . . I think we risk losing some of the best people who can run for public office by our obsessive focus on the private lives of public figures.
I agree that the increasingly obsessive scrutinization of people’s personal lives and their perceived social improprieties has tragically overshadowed the great work of too many artists, scientists, entertainers, entrepreneurs, athletes, and politicians, including Woody Allen.
Today blogs are our representatives in these degradation ceremonies. They level the accusations on the behalf of the “outraged public.” How dare you hold yourself up in front of us as a human being instead of as a caricature, they seem to say. If you don’t feel shame, then we will make you feel shame. The onlookers delight in the destruction and pain. Blogs lock onto targets for whatever frivolous reason, which makes sense, since they often played a role in creating the victim’s celebrity in the first place, usually under equally frivolous pretenses.
But it’s hard to say anything about this. It’s difficult to speak out seriously about it because the next thing you know, someone is either hitting you with snark or, I suppose now, accusing you of being smarmy.
It feels good to be a part of something—to tear down and berate. It’s not surprising to me that today’s media would want to assume this role. Consider how the ceaseless, staged, and artificial the online news chase makes today’s generation of reporters feel. They attended an expensive grad school and live in New York City or San Francisco or Washington, D.C. The wondrous $200,000 a year journalism job is not some myth to them; it was an opportunity dangled in front of them—just as the first generation of reporters after it went extinct.
Their life is nothing like that myth. Bloggers must write and film and publish an insurmountable amount of material per day, and only if they’re lucky will any of it be rewarded with a bonus or health insurance. Yet the people they cover are often rich and successful or worse, like idiotic and talentless reality television stars. It’s enough to make anyone bitter and angry. And indeed they are. They grind with the “rage of the creative underclass,” as New York magazine called it.
There is nothing to be learned from the tragic rise and fall of public men that we see on blogs. That is not their function. Their degradation is mere spectacle that blogs use to sublimate the general anxieties of their readers. To make us feel better by hurting others. To stress that the people we’re reading about are freaks, while we are normal.
Snark is how we kick these ceremonies off. It’s our first tactic for desensitizing ourselves, for making it clear that the person we’re attacking isn’t human–and that since it began as a joke, we can’t be held accountable for where others take the conversation.
But it has real consequences, as anyone who has had a real taste of it can tell you.