Not that we care about the people next door to us. Rather, we fret about the opinions of officious strangers, possibly thousands of miles away, who swarm social media like deranged starlings over and over again, in the same pattern: A few thousand souls, left or right, decide that some opinion or behavior, tolerated as recently as last week, is now anathema. Then they descend upon unwitting heretics en masse — as when author J.K. Rowling attracted the mob’s ire in mid-December for tweeting in support of Maya Forstater, who was fired from a British think tank for expressing her belief that biological sex is immutable and binary. “Dress however you please,” Rowling wrote. “Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill”
Institutions reward the mob by firing employees, yanking advertising or inflicting other punishments. Those in the mob-ridden middle quietly think this insane but also quietly think the better of saying so out loud. Which is how the Terrible Tens became the decade of the online mob.
Even the most strait-laced small town probably rolled its collective eyes at those delicate souls who supposedly used chintz ruffles to hide piano legs from the imagined stares of lascivious men. We moderns haven’t yet developed any such filters. Today’s vaporing maiden aunts fell for an adolescent prank that gulled them into believing that the thumb-and-forefinger “okay” sign was a secret white-supremacist symbol . . . and rather than ever admit they were fooled, or that it’s a bad idea to voluntarily cede harmless gestures to racist lunatics, things escalated until the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point were investigating whether midshipmen and cadets were making an “okay” sign at this year’s Army-Navy football game.
It would be too neat a bit of plotting if the decade ended with the discovery of the antidote to this proscription plague. Yet I wonder if that isn’t what happened when the mob decided to cancel J.K. Rowling, and she demurred.
Rowling’s tweet earned her all the denunciations and anguished think pieces that a good mobbing entails. The usual script for what would follow: Rowling vanishes the tweet, apologizes and goes on a listening tour until she had been sufficiently reeducated to explain how wrong she’d been. But Rowling didn’t recite her lines.
There was no apology (though Rowling, who for several years apologized each May 2 for a beloved “Harry Potter” character she had killed off, clearly knows how to offer one). GLAAD contacted Rowling’s PR people to arrange a meeting; she declined it. Almost two weeks later, the tweet remains up despite suggestions that Rowling had irreparably tainted her legacy.
Whatever you think of Rowling’s views, you have to acknowledge that until recently, hers was considered a highly progressive opinion. That view was deemed wrongthink not because reasoned debate proved it incorrect, but because activists proved they could shout louder than anyone who voiced it. Can we also agree that virtual name-calling is a bad way to decide important questions? Quite possibly we’ll decide that Rowling’s beliefs are wrong — but that should be a decision, not something we conceded to save our eardrums a beating.
If you’d prefer reasoned debate, it will start with a collective realization that mobs can’t do much except make noise. They’re not actually very big, for starters — the number of people who replied to Rowling’s tweet wouldn’t fill most Texas college football stadiums, and reasonable people don’t choose their views by polling the crowd at the Aggies-Longhorns game.
More important, most mobs aren’t committed to the effort beyond flicking a thumb. Institutions that ignore the mob are often astonished at how little difference all the outrage makes to their business — and I’d bet Rowling won’t see much evidence of this controversy in her royalty statements.
The censorious power of Mrs. Grundys always depends on the cooperation of the governed, which is why their regime collapsed the moment the baby boomers shrugged off their finger-wagging. If Rowling provides an unmissable public demonstration that it is safe to ignore the current crop, we can hope others will follow her example, and the dictatorship of the proscriptariat will fall as quickly as it arose.