The G-File

Culture

The Twitter Mob: Society’s New Mechanism for Enforcing Morality

(Photo Illustration: NRO)
In the larger historical context, Internet public shaming is a return to the social norm.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (and all my friends at sea),

Forgive me readers, it’s been three weeks since my last “news”letter.

So, as Bill Clinton hopes to say to a new crop of White House interns in 2017, be gentle with me, I’m rusty.

#ad#I don’t mean to make light of the confessional, but I have been thinking lately (“That must be a new sensation for you,” — The Couch).

It seems to me that the Internet is taking the place of God for a lot of people.

I always liked the old line, “Character is what you do when only God is watching.” The alternate version, “Character is what you do when no one is watching,” is actually theologically and philosophically a very different statement. But both have their relevance in the age of the Digital Panopticon.

Gossip-Talking Man

For most of human history, to borrow a phrase from social science, people got all up in everybody else’s business. For most of prehistory we lived in small bands, with minimal clothing and communal shelter. Not a lot of room for privacy there.

Gossip mattered less when everybody was pretty much in plain view of everybody else all day long. But as bands grew to tribes and clans, gossip took on ever greater importance as the social sinew of reputation. Boiled down, reputation is what people say about you when you’re not around to hear it.

For my next book, I’ve been reading a lot on human evolution, and it appears that one of the things that let us open an earthen bowl of whup-ass on the Neanderthals just might have been our ability to gossip. Chin-wagging about who Xeroxed his ass at the office Christmas party (I couldn’t say, but I hear it rhymes with Shmevin Billiamson) is fun, but gossiping is actually a crucial asset when it comes to determining who can be trusted and who cannot. If you know Aruk is going to soil his loincloth the moment he hears a saber-toothed tiger growl, that’s useful 411 that might cause you to change tactics (“Let’s tie Aruk to a rock and use him as bait!”). The growth of gossip is tied closely to development of language and clan size.

Anyway, in these types of early societies, the rule of law was a lot like a unicorn that craps iPhones: a really great idea that has very little bearing on real life. Social pressure is what kept people in line. And the main enforcing mechanism of social pressure was gossip. Actually, that’s not quite right. The enforcing mechanisms of social pressure were pointy sticks, big rocks, swords, pikes, pitchforks, etc. (Withholding of food, sex, and time in the Moon Bounce no doubt played a role, too.) But the process for deciding who should be on the receiving end of pointy sticks and Moon Bounce–timeouts was inextricably bound up in gossip. We are homo rumoris.

Death to Morality, Long Live the New Morality

In modern societies — and by modern I mean after the agricultural revolution — reputation and gossip never really lost their potency. How many duels — how many wars? — were started over questions of individual honor? (As Julien Benda notes, with the rise of nationalism comes the rise of “national honor” which had long been an issue for which the Monarch, not the people, decided what was required. But that’s a “news”letter for another day.) You don’t hear much about honor these days, but that’s not because it has gone away; we just define it differently.

Indeed, there’s a tendency on the right to bemoan the fact that traditional morality is breaking down — and that’s obviously true. But the conclusion many take from it is that nothing is taking traditional morality’s place. I’ve been writing for years that this isn’t true. Society, like nature, abhors a vacuum; if you remove one moral dogma, another will rush in to take its place. That’s what much of political correctness is — an attempt to replace one system of customs, mores, values, and ethics with another. The idea that the tweedy Torquemadas who make lists of “trigger warnings” are moral libertarians —or libertines —is resplendently asinine in its manifest ignorance of how the world actually operates.

Get Free Exclusive NR Content

God & the Twitter Mob

In other words, gossip, like everything else we do, is informed by the moral ecosystem we live in. Change the ecosystem and you change the gossip. “Henrietta won’t churn butter” sounds like World War II code or a campus euphemism for something dirty that prudish Henrietta refuses to do. But for all I know, 300 years ago it would have counted for vicious gossip. And, “Henrietta worships Satan,” or for that matter “Henrietta doesn’t wear knickers to church,” would have counted for the kind of “news” that warranted getting a good mob up and running.

In The Seven Deadly Virtues, Jonathan Last made the point that when Donald Sterling was driven from the public square and forced to sell his basketball team, it was because the mob had gone bat-guano crazy about his private racial views; no one objected to the fact that he was sharing his racism with his mistress, whom he escorted around town openly. (Jonathan doesn’t mention this part, but I always thought it was odd that Sterling had no problem with his mistress having sex with black dudes, he just didn’t want her to take pictures with them at basketball games or something. That’s some weird stuff right there.) In short, there was little change in the amount of judgmentalism, it’s just the flavor of judgmentalism changed. “The scarlet ‘A’ doesn’t exist anymore,” Last writes, “but the scarlet ‘R’ is very real indeed.”

The Scarlet Hack

On the other hand, that’s not entirely true. Adultery is more socially acceptable than it’s ever been since the last time it was socially acceptable. (It’s been a while.) But it’s still embarrassing. And there’s still one constituency that can generally be relied upon not to endorse adultery: the loyal spouses of the adulterers (as well as their children). Even Hillary would likely have preferred that Bill not be so Aesopian about his urges.

That’s what’s so significant about the hacking of AshleyMadison.com. For those of you who don’t know (and those of you who are pretending not to know because your wife is reading over your shoulder), it’s a website that helps married people cheat on their spouses with other married people. It does it all in secret, which is another of vice’s tributes to virtue. Well, AshleyMadison was hacked and 37 million personal profiles were stolen. Hilariously, the hackers were motivated by a desire to scold AshleyMadison for not respecting privacy as much as they claimed.

I particularly liked this line from Gizmodo:

It goes without saying that this is about the worst data leak imaginable — not only does it have the usual problems of identity fraud, but if the full list of AshleyMadison’s users hits the internet, that’s a lot of adulterers outed.

There’s so much to unpack here. First of all, on the heels of Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and, most recently, the OPM hack, it’s a remarkable thing to write, “It goes without saying that this is about the worst data leak imaginable.”  But it’s also intriguing that in an era where every day another “hot take” liberal or feminist writer is celebrating polyamory and adultery, the actual users of AshleyMadison still don’t want to be “outed.”

For a while, gay activists would “out” gay conservatives to prove right-wing hypocrisy and to work on removing the stigma against homosexuality. Well, if adultery is an acceptable lifestyle choice, shouldn’t someone be celebrating the outing of these hypocrites?

The most powerful lesson from this story, however, is that even when all of the parties to AshleyMadison have a deep interest in keeping their secrets, you can’t count on the secrets staying secret. The only way to guarantee you don’t get “outed” as an adulterer is not to commit adultery in the first place. Behave as if God is watching you and you won’t much care who else is watching you.

The Village Returns

Ian Tuttle had a thoughtful meditation Thursday on Cecil the lion and the cultural perils of Internet outrage titled, coincidentally enough, “Cecil the Lion and the Cultural Perils of Internet Outrage.” He quotes Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death:

The information, the content, or, if you will, the “stuff” that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist — could not exist — in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business.

Ian adds, “Now they can. Postman was referring to the cultural sea-change represented by television. The same effect is compounded beyond measure by the Internet, which has, in essence, made everything ‘news.’”

Well, yes. But this is less new than it is a regression to the norm of human history. Every little thing about us used to be “news” on the Village Well Network. What the Internet does is recreate a facsimile of the vicious system of gossip that once upheld the moral order.

What is dismaying is not that society is, via Hayekian spontaneous order, creating mechanisms to enforce morality; that’s actually kind of awesome and reassuring.

(Indeed, it exposes why all of the hand-wringing over proposed changes to the Voting Rights Act is so overdone. Does anyone honestly think any state government could long survive the tsunami of obloquy that would arise in response to any real attempt to restore Jim Crow? And that’s assuming there are any states interested in doing such a thing in the first place.)

What is dismaying is that the content of this new morality is often so ridiculous. I have no problem with the creation of a Scarlet ‘R’ for racism, but I do have a big problem with its promiscuous overuse by people who see it as a censorious tool for their will-to-power or mere amusement.

I certainly don’t mind shaming jack-wads like the guy who killed Cecil the Lion (more about that to come), though I think we’ve moved beyond shaming to moral panic and bullying hysteria.

But here’s my point (“I was wondering if you’d ever get to it” — The Couch). In days of old, we worried about our reputation at the retail, interpersonal level. For a brief period — not much more than a few generations really — we were able to enjoy unprecedented anonymity. Contrary to a lot of the hand-wringing about the anonymity of comment-section trolls and Twitter shmucks, the reality is that the Internet and the Digital Panopticon —by which I mean everything from Wikipedia to metadata, GPS records, credit history, Facebook, Twitter, etc. — are making anonymity ever more rare. In fourth grade, my kid started getting lessons at school about how the permanent record of the Internet is vastly more real and permanent than the “permanent record” I was taught to worry about at her age.

The body-cameras-on-cops stories are just the beginning of the body-cameras-on-the-body-politic stories. Within the next ten years, I wouldn’t be surprised if virtually all public spaces end up being monitored by drones taking pictures of everything we do. In the not too distant future, our cars will increasingly be driven by computers that will record all of our comings and goings. It won’t really matter, until you do something you shouldn’t do. The challenge will be, how should we define doing something “you shouldn’t do”?

The phrase ‘Character is what you do when no one is watching,’ is really a way to get you to imagine that someone is watching you.

The phrase “Character is what you do when no one is watching,” is really a way to get you to imagine that someone is watching you. We are relearning that someone is watching us, but we aren’t being taught that that someone is God.

We’ll see how that works out.

Various & Sundry

Hitler, Huckabee, Obama, Oh My!: My column today is about the brouhaha over Huckabee’s Hitler comments. I’m not a huge fan of Huckabee, but the hysteria over his comments was know-nothing and hypocritical. But, as someone who’s spent quite a bit of time studying the history of argumentum ad Hitlerum, I did find it interesting. Regardless of the merits of Huckabee’s comments — which I think are defensible, even if the words may have been poorly chosen — I think part of the problem for Huckabee was that he talked of Jews and ovens, which still has the power to shock. The other part of the problem, of course, was that he spoke ill of Obama, which simultaneously infuriates and reassures liberals of a certain ilk.

But the hypocrisy of his critics is really rather stunning. FDR proclaimed in his 1944 State of the Union Address(!) that anyone who wanted to return to the “normalcy” of peace, prosperity, and limited government of the 1920s was essentially a fascist traitor:

One of the great American industrialists of our day—a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis-recently emphasized the grave dangers of “rightist reaction” in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called “normalcy” of the 1920’s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.

In, the next presidential election, Harry Truman implied that his opponent, Thomas Dewey, was a front man for the sort of “reactionary” forces that led to Hitler.

George W. Bush was routinely compared to Hitler across the popular culture and there wasn’t a fraction of this kind of outrage — to the extent there was any outrage at all.

I could write a book about all this — but I already did — so suffice it to say that at least part of what offends liberals about Hitler analogies isn’t the substance of them, it’s the violation of their monopoly license on them.

Zoë Update: Well, the dingo had a great week road-tripping. While I was winding down the NR Alaska cruise, the Fair Jessica was driving the dingo up to New England. I left the boat a day early and flew all night to make my daughter’s camp-visiting day (Because: Dad). Jess picked me up at the Boston airport (“America’s 712th least crappy airport!”) and we drove up to Maine, which the dingo liked a great deal. After an afternoon of licking my daughter’s face, chasing red squirrels, and rolling in deer poop, she joined us in a drive to Vermont, which she also really liked. We spent the night at the Inn at Sunset Hill, which was typically charming, dog-friendly, and had a great English Sheepdog with a summer haircut (here’s Zoë and Dudley hanging out). We then went to the much swankier and even more charming (and expensive) Pitcher Inn in Warren, Vermont, where they treated Zoë like royalty, which was nice, given her roots as a swamp dog of Dixie. The only problem with Vermont is that it was amazingly critter-free. We saw maybe one squirrel, a couple chipmunks, and no bunnies. Zoë was pretty furious about that. She suspects they were tipped off she was coming.

If you’re reading this on Friday, I’ll be on Special Report tonight. If you’re reading this on Saturday, I was on Special Report last night. If you’re reading this 10,000 years from now, I wrote this One Year Before the Age of SMOD.

The cruise was great fun, as usual. You should go sometime. Rumors that I walked onto the stage of the night-owl session without pants on are based in some fact.

Dog ingenuity for the win!

Cows derail train in Kent, England

Most terrifying plane landing ever?

Meet Jojo, the surfing Corgi

Prince Charles & Duchess Camilla dive-bombed by eagle

Ohio toddler and lion play the imitation game

This deer wants to be heard

This exasperated Dad’s channeling Taken to deal with his kids

Giant squid surprises Russian sailors

Stressed from life and work? Channel this pug to chill out

Ernest Hemingway look-alike crowned

German police detain a SQUIRREL for “stalking” woman

Emu drag racing?

Swiss military crosses French border without permission . . . to get water for their thirsty cows

Take a virtual tour of Japan’s robot hotel

Car-wash chaos in central London

Graves of Jamestown original leaders located

Time lapse captures stunning storm over the Grand Canyon

A whole new meaning for “fresh” fish

Battle of the birds

Student protests $140 college fine by paying all in pennies

Don’t have an oven? That’s okay, you can make dessert in your hot car

Crocodile or creature from the dark lagoon?

Kansas authorities find 60-pound carp in drainage ditch

Polish authorities catch runaway cow after two years

Pennsylvania man caught drunk & naked in barn, claims “I just like pigs”

Boston’s last “tower of snow” finally melts

’Til death do they part?

Disneyworld catches dine & ditcher

Britain’s 20 year old MP, youngest since 1667, delivers maiden speech

Take a virtual ride down the world’s biggest water slide

Who wouldn’t want to throw a luxury birthday party for their pet sea lion?

Are snakes squirrels’ new acorns?

GoPro like a Jedi Knight

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, will be released on April 24.

Most Popular

White House

Democrats in Peril

I will just make a prediction and try to keep out of the swamp of Trump-obsession as the weeks unfold. The anti-Trump movement is now in inexorable decline; it is a little like the Nixon defense forces after the Saturday Night drama in October 1973, with the departure of the attorney general, his deputy, and ... Read More
World

Canada Is Attacked Again

Media coverage of yesterday’s monstrous van attack in Toronto, which as of this writing is responsible for ten deaths and more than a dozen other casualties, was punctuated by political press conferences of the sort that are now an inescapable part of the dark theater of public tragedies. At his first ... Read More
World

Trump and the North Korean Tipping Point

The world has been stunned by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s announcement last week that he was suspending his country’s nuclear tests in preparation for the impending meeting with President Trump. Even critics have had to concede that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric since last summer regarding the North ... Read More
Economy & Business

Trade Misunderstandings

I was distracted by other policy topics last week but not enough not to notice Peter Navarro’s article in the Wall Street Journal, headlined “China’s Faux Comparative Advantage.” Considering Navarro’s position in the White House, it is unfortunate that it demonstrates some serious misunderstandings ... Read More