Tuesday, July 5, 2011

TV, Facebook, and the Mob Mentality

"The mob is the mother of tyrants."  -Diogenes

I hope this doesn't sound too sanctimonious, but I have never been happier that I don't own a TV than I am tonight.  Looking at Facebook, I see that a little girl named Caylee was murdered.  I don't know how, and don't want to know. It's not that I don't care.  It's an unspeakable tragedy, but one that happens all too often; too often for the news to focus on it at the expense of other issues that directly affect far more people. I also see that the girl's mother, who was accused of the murder, was acquitted.  Apparently, a lot of people think she is guilty.  If she is, and she slipped past the system, that is a tragedy too.  But not as great a tragedy as the murder itself.  Not even close.  It is also not as great a tragedy as if the mother were wrongly convicted.  I have no idea if she's guilty or not, because, I haven't followed this whole awful business.  I know how horrible the world can be; I don't need to scrutinize whatever particular horror the media has decided to fixate on.

Since I already knew that children are murdered every day, what disturbs me most about this are the comments I'm seeing on Facebook.  People are claiming that they are certain that the mother was guilty, and I've even noticed a few (mostly friends of friends) saying things like "People know where she lives....".  They are talking about how, if they were in charge, she never would have made it to court.  I even saw a virtual fight break out, where a couple of blowhards in a comment thread started threatening each other physically.

All this sounds a lot like the rumblings of an angry mob.  Luckily, this is only a virtual mob.  They aren't gathered outside someone's door, and they don't have knives and ropes inside their jackets.  But I get the impression that, if this poor girl's mother stepped out on the streets, and met a crowd of people who were talking to each other this way....they might actually kill her. And maybe she is guilty, and maybe she deserves a nasty fate.  But a mob is not who should decide whether she's guilty, much less take her punishment upon themselves.  Our justice system is far from perfect, but it's light years ahead of mob rule, which is far more likely to result in injustice than justice.

I've always thought that sites like Facebook are good for keeping you informed about how other people are thinking.  I want to know how others think, even if it disturbs me.  And tonight, what I see makes me think we are still quite capable of mob violence.  And it is disturbing, because if there's anything more frightening than a murderer going free, it's a lynch mob running wild.


"Well, I reckon we'd be in the calaboose if we hadn't skedaddled outta town." The big man, known only as Ain't Francis, tended the slumgullion stew, while his partner, London Jim, played mumbletypeg by the campfire. "Lord, what a ruckus. The whole dern saloon was cattywampus when the dust settled."

The Englishman nodded glumly, taking a drink from his hip flask. "It was a right kerfuffle, at that. Things went higgledy-piggledy." Frowning at his torn suit, he said "My finest haberdashery, as well. Now it's rubbish".

"Well, you're too dang persnickety anyway," Ain't Francis snorted. "You gamblers are a bunch of fussbudgets. Why, you didn't land a haymaker in that whole rumpus!"

London Jim looked affronted. "Poppycock! Would you have me risk these nimble fingers by engaging in fisticuffs? Games of chance cannot simply be left to… to chance, old boy! My skills lie in artful prestidigitation and legerdemain. I leave the roughhousing for rapscallions such as yourself."

Ain't Francis narrowed his eyes. "You act highfalutin', but you're a scalawag just the same. And you ain't as slick as you think. The plan was for you to keep them clodhoppers occupied playing cards, while I slipped in the back and busted into the strongbox. Then we coulda hightailed it with all that gold they keep in there."

"Codswallop." London Jim muttered, clearly flummoxed.

"That floozy you was canoodlin' with….Molly Coddles…what kinda moniker is that, anyway? She had you discombobulated. She acted like a flibbertigibbet, saying how your fancy duds made her 'all twitterpated', but she was a sly one. She had you showboatin', winning too many simoleons off that pair of sheepherders. Soon's as I busted into that safe, that's when she allowed how you wasn't just fleecin' em, you was plumb skinnin' em. That's when they decided to give you a wallopin'. And they would have too, if I hadn't put up my dukes and come in swinging."

"Balderdash," said Jim primly. "The barman had already pulled out that bloody great blunderbuss and blasted a hole in the ceiling. The altercation was just subsiding when Molly flounced over, batted her eyes, and asked that you rush to my aid. While you created a proper state of pandemonium, she absconded with the contents of the safe." Jim sighed, with clear admiration, and said "I believe you were as gobsmacked by her as I was, old boy."

Ain't Francis spat thoughtfully. "Yessir, I reckon she had us both hornswoggled. She used them feminine wiles, sure enough, and that's how she absquatulated with all our loot. Well, at least we ain't in the hoosegow. Pass me that firewater, would you, Jim?"

(Some silliness I wrote back in library school, during a fit of procrastination. To the best of my knowledge, it has no basis in fact.)