I read with some interest last night about Twitter’s reaction – or Twitterverse’s reaction, as we now say – to an open letter about free expression. It’s interesting how rapidly the definition of disallowed speech has expanded over the last several years. Even the stage musical Hamilton, applauded by so many only five years ago, comes under attack this Fourth of July for its portrayal of the Founders.
Nothing escapes the Great Awokening: not artistic expression on the stage, not storytelling in children’s and young adult literature, not reporting in newsrooms, not pedagogical content in classrooms, not memorials in our public spaces, certainly not argumentation in political arenas. These methods incubated on campuses across the country for thirty years. Now, like Hogwarts’ basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the monster emerges from its tunnel. The serpent does not show mercy. It can kill your livelihood and remove you from society with a pitiless glance.
Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety cancelled people, too. Everyone sees the poor devil cannot ever again threaten public safety when the executioner lifts the victim’s head out of the guillotine’s basket by the hair, and shows the audience blood that drips from the severed neck. Implicit message: this will happen to you, if you run afoul of the Committee. Watch it. We have our eyes on you.
In 1793 – 1794, the Committee found so many threats to public safety that people stood in line to have their heads cut off. I guess safety depends which side of the blade you find yourself on: the input side, where a priest prays for your soul while you wait, or the output side, where a basket at the executioner’s feet waits for your head.
Ostracism is less bloody, but just as effective. In the long run, it is more painful, though I suppose few ostracized victims would trade their fate for a capital sentence. The same good doers who condemn ostracism among children in schools, pursue adults they do not even know – to ostracize them. We cannot abide a twelve-year-old bully, but when adults practice the same thing, they call it justice.
No one cares to be the next victim. Virtually everyone buckles to the bullies. If you do not fall in line, you could be next. The more you have to lose, the more compliant you become. The manager who greets staff every day when they arrive at work, eats with them in the lunchroom, reverts to primitive instinct: “If I have to throw my friend over the side to save myself, I’ll do it.”
What explains mob behavior? They do not have sustained leadership. They form and reform. They do not have goals or perceptions beyond the violence or victims in front of them. Internet platforms like Twitter give us virtual mobs, whose behavior resembles real ones. If you become a target, nothing will save you. What can explain this phenomenon? Mobs arise from social and psychological states that lie beyond rational comprehension, as the phenomenon itself has no rational or comprehensible foundation.
The incubation period for mobs that run rampant through our culture wars and its battlefields might be long, but their destructive lifespan is entirely indeterminate. Saint-Just, who with Robespierre engineered the French Terror, said, “You have to punish not only the traitors, but even those who are indifferent; you have to punish whoever is passive in the republic, and who does nothing for it.” Saint-Just wanted to create a free, just society. To do so, he believed, you have to achieve “complete destruction of its opposite.” These aims describe today’s social justice fanatics, and their methods.
Indeterminate as its duration might be, the end of this cultural demolition will arrive soon enough. Twenty-first century Jacobins will consume their own, as the Committee of Public Safety met its end in 1794. Our current, self-appointed ideologues and enforcers still have a lot of scalps to take, but they already turn on themselves with more ardor than we might notice, as they pursue their latest suspects and targets.
Thus the story of the serpent that makes a meal of its own tail. As your moralistic colleagues attack and devour everyone else, they find they cannot intimidate others forever. Your select group finds itself isolated, condemned to impotence. When that happens, the final fall of the guillotine’s blade will be just as swift for the would-be saints as it was for their victims.