Socio-Political Power and Pizza in the Age of Virtual Mobs

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April 2, 2015 by J. Truett Glen

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Every now and then we are reminded of the ugly power of the mob. Undoubtedly, there have been a few occasions in history where a mob has brought about something without mindless violence… I just can’t think of many examples. Overwhelmingly, mobs have been a source of swift, emotionally charged power. The power of the mob has normally been ignited by a smaller community of ideologically driven brokers, who use the mob for a desired end game. The key to using mobs is to find enough people who are emotionally tied to an issue to such a level that they will toss wisdom and virtue aside to achieve their goal. Even the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger understood the danger of this mentality:

For it is dangerous to attach one’s self to the crowd in front, and so long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself, we never show any judgement in the matter of living, but always a blind trust, and a mistake that has been passed on from hand to hand finally involves us and works our destruction. It is the example of other people that is our undoing; let us merely separate ourselves from the crowd, and we shall be made whole. But as it is, the populace,, defending its own iniquity, pits itself against reason. And so we see the same thing happening that happens at the elections, where, when the fickle breeze of popular favour has shifted, the very same persons who chose the praetors wonder that those praetors were chosen.
Seneca the Younger

Every ideological community is susceptible to using the power of the mob, which has become accessible to an exponentially larger community now that the majority of the world is connected online. We live in an era when people are increasingly narcissistic and hungry for self-gratification, but there remains a desire for transcendent meaning. Thus, sociologists, such as Christian Smith and Sherry Turkle, have noted the desire consumers of social media have in shallowly attaching themselves to justice movements on the web. It is easy to vow our allegiance to this or that philanthropic/justice movement with little risk through virtual “Likes” and “Loves.” As the Apostle Paul observed, it’s easy to see one’s self as strong and right when you don’t have to confront ‘the other,’ face to face (2 Corinthians 10).

We all observed the power of the mob yesterday in Indiana, where a pizzeria felt so threatened by the ‘progressive’ masses that they have closed their doors, at least temporarily. This is one of the outcomes that those ‘online angry masses’ desired. Those in the gay community (and their advocates) that have become frustrated and volatile online employed virtual mob tactics to pressure this pizzeria into either complying with their agenda, or shutting down. States and city governments already given over to a secular humanism also helped add pressure on the citizens of Indiana. The beauty of the virtual mob as a weapon is that there are less possible consequences for the mob participant. One can sit comfortably in one’s own living room, watching the Big Bang Theory, while spewing hurt, anger, outrage, and oppressive words at the object of one’s disagreement. Anyone can watch the outcomes and success of their vitriol on Twitter as they continue to sit comfortable at the feed trough of American plenty. All the while, Memories Pizza, and others like them, are feeling the real threat. The tweeters aren’t the one’s receiving threats of murder or arson. But wait, nobody ‘really’ means what they say on social media, do they? They’re just trying to express through hyperbole how hurt they are because the pizzeria wouldn’t cater a theoretical wedding they might someday decide to have with their lover/partner. Screaming hate speech at Christians on Twitter over theoretical wedding plans sounds more like narcissistic rage than a concern for justice.
In a day when mobs formed in physical reality, there would have been much greater risk in running down to the pizzeria while screaming for revolution, hoping that more people joined in and threatened to burn down the building, or to make life unbearable for the owners. The embodied mob would probably have realized a goal and caused significant destruction, but the reality of what just took place would have felt much more…real. Thus there would have been negative emotional and physical consequences incurred by the mob member themselves, hopefully causing them to question their tactics and state of mind. Virtual mobs rarely offer such cause for pause.
The mob affect is now so readily accessible online for those who know how to use it, there might as well be an app for it. We exist in an age when neighborhoods, cities, states, and even countries can’t discuss things according to their customs, traditions, and worldviews without some manipulative narcissist trying to live a meaningful life by expressing their zealous ignorance in the midst of everyone’s important socio-political conversations. I know this because I have done it myself, and have continued to observe it in others over the past decade. Social media often gives us the impression that we are entitled to speak our opinion into people’s lives. If it is an issue we care deeply about, we sometimes feel that it is our right to become emotional and indignant. In an increasingly impersonal world, where everyone’s gaze is directed at their phones, it is easier for us to think that life is about making ourselves feel good. And so it does momentarily feel good to fixate and rage against ‘those bigots,’ and against ‘those ignorant liberals.’ Again, I am guilty. Knowing my own tendencies makes me more aware of the tendencies of others. We all want to be right. We all want to be validated.
As Sherry Turkle has warned, “We are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face. We are offered robots and a whole world of machine-mediated relationships on networked devices. As we instant-message, e-mail, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude.” This contemporary development isn’t some isolated internal struggle; it works itself out in religion, politics, business, philanthropy, and play. It might be likely that our virtual mob activity is just a consequence of our desire to have real relationships again. It’s invigorating to feel like you’re a part of something larger, something more meaningful for a moment. It just so happens that our egocentric search for meaning, our thoughtless attempts at finding validation tend to hurt other people. There’s good reason that God confused those building the Tower of Babel. We have a tendency to seek to make our name great, and to make for ourselves gods in our own likeness. We then persecute those who get in our way. By sending us out into smaller communities, the repercussions of our broken desires are not universally felt. One community does not so easily feel the destructive decisions of another community. There is, of course, good to be found in a glocal existence, but the trajectory of our broken collective desires moves past any just end we might have had in mind.
It is appropriate this Maundy Thursday to speak of the mob that Jesus faced on Good Friday. The mob was a fickle one, charged with confusion and anger. The Gospel of Mark gives us an understanding that the Pharisees used the shallow disposition of the crowd to manipulate them toward a desired end, the death of Jesus. If individuals who had observed the innocent face of Christ were swayed by such hateful and manipulative agents in an age of touch and spoken word, imagine how easy it is to direct the distracted souls of contemporary America! We can’t even look each other in the eyes any longer, for fear our tainted reality might come to light. Before hopping on a campaign to destroy someone’s livelihood, try sitting down with her in person. Try looking her in the eyes and telling her your story. Then listen to her convictions, to her faith commitments. Consider the family she is trying to take care of as she seeks obedience to her God. You may both walk away unmoved in your convictions, but the mindless raging mob won’t have your soul. That’s progress we can all hang our hat on.

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