By Josiane Joseph
“…a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? ... It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
In the present climate where people—whether they be women, minorities, immigrants, school-aged children, weapon owners, religious individuals, etc.—feel threatened, many important conversations have begun to take place. One theme that I have encountered frequently among friends and even on television is that mobs are impeding our freedom of speech. That is a loaded statement, full of fear and indignation. To be on the same page, first we have to define mob.
Mob has a negative connotation. Before looking up the term, I associated the word mob with anger and riots. A quick internet search confirmed that mob is commonly defined as a crowd that is not only violent but a source of trouble and disorganization. Using this definition, we can contemplate whether there is some truth to today’s mob issue or if there might be something else going on that is also worth considering.
In recent times when people mention mobs, they may use it to denounce the actions of a collection of individuals using social media to speak out against employing people who are guilty of or using goods and services from entities where at least one instance of sexual misconduct or racism occurred. In order for this dissenting internet crowd to be considered a mob, based on our former definition, their actions would have to be wildly negative. So that bears the question: is it bad to speak out against people or entities en masse on behalf of victims?
Perhaps, it is not merely that the people are speaking out that earns some folks behind the screens membership to the mob. Some have said that it is the demand for those involved in the two previously mentioned egregious acts (sexual misconduct or racism) to be terminated or criminally prosecuted that draws concerns. Though this does not directly impact free speech privileges, the issue could be that we have a judicial system that—if working properly—is responsible for prosecuting criminals based upon evidence. Such evidence is not usually accessible to our mob members that demand consequences with language that is not always friendly. Furthermore we have seen on multiple occasions that those requests for consequences or termination may spillover onto the supporters of the possibly guilty party. Here, the issue may seem plainer because it is mostly factual that by working, people earn the means to make the purchases that sustain their existence. So it is possible that out of fear of compromising their livelihood, some people are choosing to stifle their true views of highly publicized accusations. Not many, whether they be criminals or otherwise, can maintain a productive life without being able to work. This makes the term mob seem more permissible; however, in order to understand the dynamics of the mob issue there are several other historical and social problems that should concurrently be considered.
Let’s speculate on how we could have come to a place where if a student wears blackface there is a swift push for expulsion, or if a guy takes a knee on the field there is a push for exclusion from a sports league. Passing over the controversial 2016 election and the present political chaos as potential contributors, we can consider how things were handled before the rise of social media mobs.
Consider how many times during those former days that we would hear of (or see) college students wearing blackface as Halloween costumes? Their black friends were granted the opportunity to party with gross caricatures of themselves on a day that celebrates all things that are scary or total jokes. And what would happen if those individuals were reported to their institutions? They might go through due process whereby they have a meeting with a stern student conduct staff member and usually get what amounts to a slap on the wrist; at best the offender is provided some training on inclusivity. Then the same blackface scenario would take place again somewhere in the US (and possibly again at the same institution). Leaving us back to where we began with people wandering around society with a potent symbol of hate smeared all over their skin; a symbol that marks a period of time where the humanity of a multitude of people was questioned and mocked; a symbol much like the swastika. (Whether or not these young people know this does not change what the symbol represents nor does it ameliorate any of the additional trauma it incites.) Are repeated offenses like this enough to make people angry or lash-out mob-style? Could this subscription to passive ineffectual correction be the root cause of our mob issue? These are questions that people who cry mob should consider.
It is probably not necessary to discuss specific instances of sexual misconduct because we have all heard of or witnessed these often mishandled situations. Many of us might have even experienced the harassment and watched the perpetrator go on to live full lives— perhaps as Supreme Court Justices or as wealthy producers. (In case the assumption that we can forego an in-depth discussion about sexual misconduct is incorrect then consider the case of Brock Turner.) Which brings us to several questions that were alluded to in Dr. King’s quote: do mobs, particularly our current social media mobs, serve a purpose? Is it possible that instead of a mob issue, we have a neglected racism or sexual harassment issue?
Last thing that we should consider is this: is it healthy for people to avoid other people that have exhibited potential to cause them great harm? Should the answer to this question be yes, that implies that people have a right to NOT work alongside other people that are blatantly racist or that support sexual misconduct. Which then begs the question of whether or not “mobs” are too extreme by demanding the termination of offenders?
This piece is in no way in support of mobs (which inherently cause harm and harm is never a good solution). Rather it is something borne out of reflecting on multiple conversations and grappling for understanding. Understanding is something that may be lacking in today’s environment where people are struggling to meet their peers on an equal plain and move towards progress. If we do have a mob issue, to resolve it we must first understand it.
PS: Happy BLACK HISTORY month.
About the author: Josiane Joseph is a Haitian-American MD/PhD student at Mayo Clinic. She was born in Miami, Florida and earned her B.S. at the University of Florida in 2015. During her free time she enjoys movies, writing, attending High Point church, and learning about what makes other individuals unique. Josiane values discussions of meaningful issues and looks forward to sharing diverse views with others.