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Bulletin from the Shark Tank
Ruminations on mob morality and Washington DC
“Shark tank” was the way I have been describing the recent Congressional subcommittee hearing I attended, in disguise, as support to RFK, Jr., as well as in my capacity as an extraterrestrial anthropologist learning about the ritualistic practices of the natives. I hope that doesn’t sound superior or judgmental. It’s my way of describing the feeling of entering a reality quite different from what I’m used to.
My “disguise” consisted of the traditional garb of the natives when entering the public arena of ritual verbal combat. It includes an unnecessary outer garment called a “sports jacket” in the local dialect. I’m not sure what it has to do with sports, though I suspect it may have health benefits by inducing sweating in the absence of vigorous physical activity. The other notable item of ceremonial regalia is known as a “necktie,” a kind of thin, silk kerchief tied around the neck of males only. The semiotics of this accessory are ambiguous. It seems to signal dominance (the lower-status photographers did not wear one). However, it also suggests submission to a tacit social code, or possibly a yoke of servitude. To show up at such a hearing in a T-shirt would be a high-status play, not a low-status play.
Anyway, at first I felt a little bad about calling the hearing a shark tank, because I don’t like to perpetuate negative stereotypes about sharks by equating the behavior of these magnificent animals to what transpired at the hearing. The sharks might not appreciate being compared to Congresspeople. Ooh, that was mean joke. I must be getting infected by the sensibilities of the shark tank.
The social dynamics I witnessed at the hearing were all too human. My study of Rene Girard was useful in understanding what took place.
Girard was a philosopher and theologian famous for two main ideas: mimetic desire, and sacrificial violence. The latter, he said, originated from the original social problem: retributive violence. Cycles of vengeance would escalate, embroiling more and more people into blood feuds in which eventually everyone took sides. These would arise especially in times of social stress, which could be entirely external in origin (bad weather, crop failures, plagues, etc.).
Lest this internecine strife tear society apart, people arrived at a rather irrational but effective solution — in an act of unifying violence, both sides would turn on a convenient victim or group of victims, preferably from a dehumanized subclass, people who were not full members of society and whose deaths, therefore, would be less likely to provoke a new cycle of vengeance. Once murdered, once the blood lust was discharged and the need to act was met, peace would reign once again. Since the problem was solved by killing the victim, people concluded, with typical perverse human logic, that the victim must have been the cause of the problem. The victims were thus memorialized in myth and legend as villains and monsters.
Many, if not most, ancient cultures institutionalized these killings and used them preemptively by murdering sacrificial victims to maintain social harmony. This, as I have argued elsewhere, was the origin of capital punishment as well as festival kings.
The legacy of this practice is that humans are exquisitely attuned to who is acceptable and who is not, who’s in the in-group and who’s in the out-group, who are the popular kids and who are the weird kids. A primal social reflex operates in the schoolyard as it does in the halls of Congress. Anyone who is seen playing with the weird kid takes on the taint of weirdness themselves. This kind of guilt-by-association is the hallmark of sacrificial dynamics. Even to join in the jeering with insufficient enthusiasm casts a person under shadow of suspicion. The safest course is to join in and outdo everyone else in the ferocity of your denunciations of the weird kid. Or the witches, the Jews, the Communists, the anti-vaxxers, the conspiracy theorists, or whomever is subject to the current designation. I call this mob morality. “Good” means conforming to the prevailing designation, joining in its execution, and displaying the symbols, uttering the catchwords, and holding the opinions of the in-group.
In the McCarthy era, merely having been present at a meeting attended by members of the Communist Party was enough to ruin one’s career. One needn’t have been an actual Communist. It was enough to be labeled a “fellow traveler,” a “com-simp” (Communist sympathizer), or “pinko.” The power of the accusation did not depend on any objective fact. Once the cloud of suspicion was raised, any prudent person would hasten to distance themselves from the accused, just to be sure.
In the Congressional hearing I attended, the Democrats on the committee deployed this tactic by calling Bobby Kennedy an anti-Semite, and through various chains of association, linking him to White supremacy, replacement theory, synagogue massacres, and racial violence. It did not matter that the man is obviously no anti-Semite. He is one of the most ardently pro-Israel politicians around. (I don’t agree with him on this issue—if I’m on any “side” of it at all, it is the side of the Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.) However, mob dynamics do not require that the victim is actually guilty of any crime.
Even if the victim is guilty of a crime, he or she is not guilty of what the dehumanization accuses, which is to be less than fully human. Everyone is innocent of that. That’s why a primal indignation wells up in most people as they watch mob dynamics in action. It is the original injustice.
Most of the comments I heard afterwards expressed this indignation. The dehumanizing tactics seem not to be working, whether in the hearing or in the broader media landscape. If such tactics begin to fail more generally, the future is bright, because these are how elites turn popular political energy against itself.
A certain personality type is adept at harnessing mob morality and riding it to power. Such people are aware that the crowd is always looking for someone to signal who the next untouchables are. The ringleader of the cool girls on the playground says, “Sarah has cooties!” and everyone else knows what to do. It matters not at all whether Sarah actually has cooties (originally the word meant “lice,” but when I was in grade school no one knew that. All we knew was that the term signaled ostracism.)
In the grown-up world, instead of having cooties we are accused of being White supremacists, racists, transphobes, conspiracy theorists, New Agers, anti-vaxxers, sexual predators, and so forth. There is no defense against such accusations; in fact, attempting to rebut them only further establishes the association. Because remember, it is the accusation itself that signals who is untouchable. Disputing its veracity doesn’t help.
The supreme irony of our time is that many of the above-listed epithets used to dehumanize opponents are themselves descriptions of dehumanization. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism see certain others as less than fully human. Using them to dehumanize opponents feeds the cultural and psychic field that is responsible for racism etc. to begin with.
Today, the sacrificial victims of mob morality are not literally lynched, murdered, or burnt at the stake. Yet these metaphors from an earlier era indeed convey what is happening. The dynamics are the same, and the result is likewise a removal from the social, if not the physical, world, through deplatforming, canceling, and silencing. Once the signal has been sent, the resulting hysteria does indeed resemble a shark feeding frenzy, as each member of the mob hastens to grab a bite of in-group acceptance by piling onto the victim.
Mob dynamics normally have a life cycle. Once the victims have been sacrificed, social harmony reigns again. That can happen, however, only when the victim subclass is too small and powerless to effectively resist. Today we have two large social factions attempting to use mob tactics against each other. The subtext of current controversies in the digital public square is, “Those people on the other side are inexcusable, horrible, deplorable… subhuman.” Both sides reinforce the same basic agreement that has so often led, historically, to paroxysms of violence.
We can reverse the pattern. The antidote to mob morality is to establish and spread the understanding of the full and equal humanity of each human being. It is to refrain from convenient disparaging caricatures and stereotypes that reduce people to labels. It is to hold, instead, a story of each other that makes room for the highest expression of our humanity. It requires a kind of unrelenting courtesy, an insistence on generosity of interpretation, and a willingness to put something else above victory.
The tactics of dehumanization are powerful, universally used in wars—and in politics. It is counterintuitive in the political realm to put anything higher than victory. Everyone is convinced that they are on the side of good. Therefore, victory for themselves means victory for good. But that is a delusion. No one is fundamentally more good than anyone else, and none of us are made of better stuff than the rest.
What else shall we place on the altar, if not victory? I won’t try to answer that question for you. That’s between you and God. All I can say is that for me, remembrance of and devotion to what I hold sacred is what forestalls my reflex to dehumanize the other, to make the other an other, and to perpetuate the age-old war of man against man. The reflex is strong. It feels safe to accuse in concert with those around me. But I think we are ready to be done with that. Any victory worth having must come through different means.
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