Sunday, January 20, 2019

When The Shoe Is On The Other Foot. The Social Media Response To The Covington Students Incident.

Here is an example of a "when the shoe is on the other foot" story (1).  I use the term in roughly the same sense as I use the term reversal:  to gauge whether everyone can equally engage in certain behaviors and what happens when we switch the players' identities or their general circumstances.  Do we still approve or disapprove of what is happening?  And if not, why not?

The story is this: The Covington Catholic High School, an all-male private school, sent a contingency of students to yesterday's March for Life in Washington, D.C.  Other marches took place in Washington on the same day, including the Indigenous People's March. The clash of marches allowed something disgusting to happen:

They were Catholic high school students who came to Washington on a field trip to rally at the March for Life.
He was a Native American veteran of the Vietnam War who was there to raise awareness at the Indigenous Peoples March.
They intersected on Friday in an unsettling encounter outside the Lincoln Memorial — a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.

Nathan Phillips, the Native elder, later gave his account of the events:

Phillips, a former Marine, said the incident started as a group of Catholic students from Kentucky were observing the Black Israelites talk, and started to get upset at their speeches. The Catholic group then got bigger and bigger, with more than 100 assembled at one point, he said. 
"They witnessed these individuals on their soapbox saying what they had to say," Phillips said. "They didn't agree with it and got offended."

Then, things got heated.
"They were in the process of attacking these four black individuals," Phillip said. "I was there and I was witnessing all of this ... As this kept on going on and escalating, it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know? You see something that is wrong and you're faced with that choice of right or wrong. "
Phillips said some of the members of the Black Hebrew group were also acting up, "saying some harsh things" and that one member spit in the direction of the Catholic students. "So I put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place," he said. 
But then, the crowd of mostly male students turned their anger towards Phillips.

Phillips also described the boys' behavior as "mob mentality."

A longer video, taken by one of the Black Israelites, shows what took place before the incident though it doesn't show the incident itself.  It's enough to begin watching it around the fifty minutes mark to get a clearer picture.

Doing that helped me to set the incident into a wider setting, but it didn't add to my understanding of what, exactly,  happened between Nathan Phillips and one or more of the Covington students or what those students thought they were doing.  Whatever it was, the whole chain of events is troubling.

I then turned to studying the social media reactions to the incident.  Some of them were also nasty:  Demands to doxx (publish the names and addresses) the boys or their parents  and even some attempts to do so.

I also spotted a rise in the general mob mentality, abetted by the anonymity of the social media.  The same pictures were posted over and over again, the culprits were condemned over and over again, contributing to rising outrage and anger.  It began to remind me of the mob mentality portrayed in Hawthorn's Scarlet Letter (2).

Many forgot that the Covington students we watched on the video are still children (even if obnoxious children) whose brains and ethics are not yet fully developed.  Many forgot that the kind of social shaming online media allows just might be cruel and unusual punishment for what actually took place.

Yes, I felt terrible watching the videos, and I felt terrible even after learning more about the events leading to the videoed interactions.

But I also strongly feel that the online mob court gives excessive sentences (3).  Many of us have witnessed bigotry in real life or have been targets of it, without the perpetrators having had their whole lives spread out for the world to mock. The introduction of social media as a court of communal justice (accountable to no-one) now allows that public shaming, even of underage perpetrators.

One might argue the social media just gave the Covington students a salutary "the shoe is on the other foot" experience by providing a faint echo of the various types of unfair treatments that many black teenagers face in the hands of the police and the legal system in this country and even at schools.  Still, two wrongs really do not make a right, and though treating everybody horribly is one way toward equality, it's not the way most of us want to pursue.  Rather, we should treat everyone fairly.

The second, and more important, example of the "shoe being on the other foot" in this story has to do with the two kinds of mob mentality it describes.  First the Covington students were said to have acted as a mob, then (I argue that much of) the social media acted as a mob.  That the latter mob was well intentioned is not an acceptable excuse, because it's a large and powerful mob and because it allows for the anonymity of the individual perpetrators.

As you can see from the above, I am, in general, very concerned about the impact of the more venomous types of social media use (4).  The social media courts and the sentences they hand out trouble me greatly, because those courts follow no established rules, may not have the needed evidence, are under no oversight and have no appeal processes.

I am also troubled by the hatred, including the hatred of women, I see on social media every day, how often it goes unsanctioned, and how often it results in online mobs harassing one specific individual.  Sadly  mob mentality is not a problem only in cases like the incidence this post talks about.

(1) A slightly different example of such a story has to do with one conservative pundit's reaction to the Gillette advertisement targeting toxic masculinity:

I don't understand why I've got to be berated because I happen to be a man.
And I agree with Brian Kilmeade, the man who made that comment!  None of us should be mistreated, berated or discriminated against just for belonging to a particular demographic group.

And yes, I know that I am pretty much alone in that opinion these days when both the right and many parts of the left use genetic group guilt in all sorts of contexts.

Still, his comment makes hilarious reading for almost any woman, given that sexism is inherently based on just that type of treatment.  I was three years old when I was first told that women are not very good at anything, based on some woman burning a cake.

(2)  It doesn't matter, for that comparison, that those online commenters believed they were on the side of all things good and decent, that their public disapproval was aimed at making the society better.  That's exactly what the mob in the Scarlet Letter believed, too.

(3)  Any consequences of this particular case cannot yet be fully determined, but there are earlier cases where the court of online mobs punished some ordinary person for something stupid and/or nasty they had said or done and where the punishment meant losing a job or a business and so on.  There have also been cases of mistaken identity where the online mob doxxed the "wrong" person so that some bystander ended up experiencing harassment.

The point I am trying to make is that the proper people to decide on the punishment of the Covington students are their parents and teachers and school authorities, not a giant and faceless online mob.  The latter is far too likely to dole out punishments out of proportion to the crimes that have taken place or that it considers to have taken place.

(4)  Indeed, I am so troubled by this aspect of social media that I used this example to highlight my concerns, even though the Covington boys were sent out to support forced-birth policies which would, in the extreme Catholic formulation, make it impossible for women and men to have equal opportunity in economic and political arenas.