Nobody actually wants to burn a witch.
Humanity, Twain wrote, is “governed by minorities, seldom or never by majorities. It suppresses its feelings and its beliefs and follows the handful that makes the most noise. Sometimes the noisy handful is right, sometimes wrong; but no matter, the crowd follows it.”
Perhaps that accounts for what happened to the bus monitor in the YouTube video that went viral last week, or for why the apologies that resulted were so inadequate.
The apology is a rare, endangered beast. It is seldom seen in public. There are many things out there that resemble apologies that turn out, when you approach them, to be shoddy composites of accusations and complaints and hollow self-justifications. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” these tend to go. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. In my defense, it was an ugly purse.”
Just paper them over with a few glossy adjectives and present them in front of television cameras, in front of which everything and nothing looks quite genuine, and who can tell the difference?
So how much is a real apology worth?
More than $650,000, it appears.
This information comes by way of Karen Klein, the bus monitor who was reduced to tears by the taunts of a few seventh-graders from New York’s Athena Middle School. The students have been punished. The Internet has been appalled. And more than $650,000 worth of donations have poured in, from more than 29,000 individual donors, to send Karen on vacation or even allow her to retire.
The students have been on the business end of a few death threats. They have apologized.
“I feel really bad about what I did," one kid wrote. "I wish I had never done those things. If that had happened to someone in my family, like my mother or grandmother, I would be really mad at them."
Another wrote: “I am so sorry for the way I treated you. When I saw the video, I was disgusted and could not believe I did that. I am sorry for being so mean and I will never treat anyone this way again.”
Klein said she wasn’t satisfied. “I think they can do better,” the 68-year-old grandmother said after she’d called in to TMZ with her daughter. (Now that’s a sentence you don’t see every day.)
But it is hard to apologize in middle school, just as it is hard to apologize on the Internet, and for similar reasons.
Both times, you are the only real person in the room.
Most of growing up amounts to the realization that there is a person in there — sitting across from you on the bus with a bag from Wegman’s, or sitting across the continent from you with a poorly made video.
There is a reason empty apologies are so ubiquitous. You cannot make a real apology until you notice that there is a real person on the other end. This realization comes late too some, never to others, and to almost no one in middle school.
The video is a slowly building group rhapsody of vitriol. The taunters riff, ineptly, on bra sizes and speculate cruelly about Klein’s sweat. Do that to a real person, and everyone admits it’s horrible.
Do it about someone who exists only inside one of the many glowing boxes you use in the course of your day, and it’s Twitter.
“The vast majority . . . are secretly kind-hearted and shrink from inflicting pain, but in the presence of the aggressive and pitiless minority they don't dare to assert themselves. Think of it! One kind-hearted creature spies upon another, and sees to it that he loyally helps in iniquities which revolt both of them.”
That is Twain again.
Secretly, people are kind. Secretly, people mean no harm. But turn too many eyes on us, even under the convenient shadow of an online persona, and —
We pile on. Onto all the people who are not real like us — the Fat Lady and the Emo Girl and the Poor Boy — and on, and on. The noisy handful prevails.
It is a lovely gesture, $650,000. But there are enough examples of absolutely brutal Internet mobs that it would be unfair to say that the condition of being a solitary person at a computer, making a decision in peace and quiet, is sufficient to activate the better angels of our nature. The Internet creates mobs just as surely as the backs of buses.
It is simply that the mob can swing both ways.
The test of character is not what you do when no one is watching. It is what you do when everyone is watching.
It’s as Twain said. For every noisy handful there are 29,000 who are kind — or would be. If only you could remember this on the bus, at the time. If only they weren’t so quiet. In the meantime, we’re all sorry.