A lynch mob is an extreme form of gossip

Communications technologies magnify destructive as well as constructive information

As our power increases, we often need to develop better discipline if we want to avoid self-destructive patterns. As food became more plentiful, people needed to learn to discipline their eating habits better. Obesity replaced starvation as our big problem with food. Increased wealth and power always put greater demands on character.

Our age is notable for dramatic increases in the ease and power of communication, and this is accompanied by a great democratization of communication–by which I mean hierarchical constraints on communication have eroded. The gatekeepers are gone. It was seldom easy to get a story in a national publication, and normally doing so required persuading seasoned and somewhat dispassionate editors who were as concerned about maintaining credibility as about making a splash. Fact checking, adequate sourcing, maintaining a temperate voice, providing enough context and balance to lend perspective–some editors took such things very seriously.

These days, speed tends to matter more, and in any case it’s no longer necessary to get past the gatekeepers. The comments sections of lots of big websites appear unmoderated. They are stuffed with commentary that would never have been published in the print age.

Unfortunately, communication is not an unmitigated good, any more than calories are. Speech can be destructive as well as constructive. Lies and misinformation can make us stupider rather than more intelligent. Our religious traditions warn us to discipline our tongues. Gossip, slander, backbiting, lying and the like are not innocent little hobbies. They are powerfully destructive forces in most societies.

lynch-mobBetween 1889 and 1930, 3,724 people were lynched in the United States (more than 80 percent of them were black). In his study of this phenomena, Arthur R. Raper described the pattern that led to these violent acts: “As the crowd grows and discusses the case, the details inevitably are exaggerated. These exaggerated reports, in turn, further excite the excited people who exaggerated them. After a time, the various stories of the crime take on a sort of uniformity, the most horrible details of each version having been woven into a supposedly true account. The milling process continues until an inflammatory speech, the hysterical cry of a woman, the repetition of a slogan, the accidental firing of a gun, the waving of a handkerchief, the racing of an automobile engine, the remarks of some bystander, or some other relatively trivial thing, throws the group into a frenzy and sets it on a career of arson, sadistic mutilations, and murder.”

It’s easy to see those same communications patterns in the Zimmerman case, as both men have been vilified by overexcited people eager to feel righteous. A lynch mob is an extreme form of gossip.

The lynchings were stopped, finally, by the imposition of a hierarchical system of justice that “disempowered” the local people, replacing pure democratic action with a system of authoritative constraints. Authorities constrained horizontal communications and forced communications to move vertically, and they customarily required messages to be associated with documentary evidence. We continue moving toward pure democracy, in which there is no law–only the will of the people as it changes from moment to moment, usually due to the persuasion of a charismatic leader.

Among the questions we face now the verdict is in is whether the judicial system was corrupted by mob fervor rather than operating as a constraint. The question we face moving forward is whether mob fervor will corrupt other institutions rather than being constrained by them.

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