… …It was probably in the American equivalent of sixth grade. Our English teacher presented us with a comprehension passage for classwork. This particular passage will print a memory in my mind like a new eerie awareness never to be forgotten.
Once, in a busy rural market, a shopkeeper suddenly jumped out of his stall. Pointing at some arbitrary fellow who had just been around his shop, he shouted: “Thief Thief, catch that thief”. Then, in a manner typical of rural African villages – at least in those days, everyone went after the man. Butchers lifted their knives and some women carried their brooms with them. Everyone gave a chase. Also typical was to run first when accused publicly, and answer later. So the accused average aged man took off running and evading the crowd as much as he possibly could – all the time shouting, “It wasn’t me, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do anything”. His words fell unto deaf hears as his pursuers, ever more determined by his evasive moves, continued a hot chase with a powerful will.
When the crowd eventually caught up with the running man, they overtook him like a torrent – beating, pushing, and punching from every direction. For some, it was all a practical joke. For others, it was punishment on the man for making them run so hard after him. Everyone hitting, some laughing, and many simply giving a distance and watching the spectacle. The accused thief who at this point was in injury continued to squeal in agony, “I did not do anything, I didn’t do it”. His voice broke many times as he tried to plea his innocence, or got interrupted with a punch or push. People were clamoring. This was all taking place in what seemed like seconds. Then, some random person shows up with gasoline and begins pouring on the man accused of theft, who by this time was bleeding all over. He was suddenly pushed to a distance from everyone else, and a match was lit. In what seemed like an exhausted dying breath, the man gasped once again with tears, “I am innocent.” The match was thrown at him, and he went up in flames.
The shop keeper who all this while was tracing the path of the pursuit after the thief eventually caught up to a crowd watching a man in fire, and said, “I found the money, it was never taken.” At this, the once angry mob quickly dispersed in shock and horror as though now coming to a realization of what had happened. Spectators still watching. Everybody had, whether actively or passively, thrown a penny into the death of another man, even though no one person could be held entirely responsible.
That story bothered me as a child. It still does today. While it was fiction in a school textbook at the time, it was a plausible situation especially in the far north of Nigeria. Once as a kid, I had seen a man mobbed for stealing someone’s duck. He took a great beating and was made to do things. Thanks to a strong restraining voice in the crowd, which acted as its conscience, the man was not killed. Still, the most troubling part about these stories is how quickly ordinary people suddenly become savages on a blood hunt sport, and usually oblivious to the damage they inflict on their victim until after the fact… ….
The point of this excerpt is not to arouse pity for those lynched in rural African villages. In fact, you need not bother. The sad truth is that the same behavior and social mobbing is alive and well in modern internet society. While some people actively strike venom into victims, others watch the spectacle passively – sometimes even rooting for their entertainers as though entirely oblivious to the real life pain and suffering of the victim. There is a saying, “…those who watch injustice silently are part of the abuse”. This is what today’s talk is about: that unfortunate tendency to cut sharply and mob people who blunder under the public eye, and how everyday ‘nice’ people, companies, and even charity organizations try to catch the free ride at the expense of another’s downfall. Humanity is not a Saint race, I realize that. I also know, however, that people do not willfully intend the ultimate consequence of these jostles. Today’s post is to draw a perspective and increase awareness of the extent every individual voice has on the internet. By being mindful of how we use that voice, hopefully, we can minimize those deaths inflicted by a thousand cuts.
Here’s Jon Ronson: