“Shame! Shame! Shame!”
It has become one of Game of Thrones’ most bizarrely iconic scenes: A bell-ringing religious fanatic berates a nude Cersei Lannister as she is paraded through the streets in forced penance. The memes are many.
One assumes that at least part of the amusement derived from such a harrowing scene of public humiliation is that it is outside the realm of possibility in the West. We don’t subject even our most heinous criminals to groups of screaming, filth-throwing citizens. At least not in the streets. Most of the time.
The byways of social media and the halls of academe are another matter entirely. So, is the significance of that scene so strange and anachronistic after all?
In the past several years, a recrudescence of this primitive mob mentality has emerged under the ostensibly unimpeachable flag of the self-proclaimed social justice movement. And I say self-proclaimed because many who believe in and advocate for, social justice, myself included, find the methodologies and rhetoric employed by the current movement operating under that name to be suspect at best and outright damaging at worst. Their proclamations and actions are not representative of the humanistic urges driving many of us who strive for a more equitable world.
The purging furor of the moralizing lynch mobs of today hasn’t been without its benefits, to be sure. The excision of such repulsive creatures as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby from the scandal-ridden hide of Hollywood is not something to be lamented, though their lurid trials in the press have hardly been ennobling to anyone involved. And the opprobrium heaped on networks and studios who underpay female actors and actors of color seems to be shifting the tide. And that’s great. That is what the pursuit of social justice looks like at its best. And they’re far from the only examples.
But: the practical is increasingly eclipsed by a brand of jingoistic moralizing divorced from material reality. It ranges in tone from insipid and infantilizing to outright prejudicial and violent. What unifies it is the utter certainty with which its prescriptions and proscriptions are issued and the ecumenical dedication to their enforcement. Call it “hashtag social justice.” It’s not so much concerned with the achievement of real social progress — despite its earnest proclamations otherwise — as it is with the exertion of a certain kind of hieratic power. Its proponents act as keepers of an ever-more arcane assemblage of shibboleths and codes. Transgressions are met with, at best, simpering condescension, and at worst, threats and violence. Purity, that is, the unswerving adherence to this nebulous and expanding lexicon, is the ultimate goal here. And only this select caste of parties who define themselves in terms of oppression may make determinations as to one’s purity.
Like most fanatics, these enforcers of purity lack self-awareness of the motivations for their own actions. Or perhaps, more accurately, they have actively deluded themselves. Some may genuinely believe that they are advocating for positive change — and with good reason. There are real, profound problems visible through the murky rhetoric purporting to solve them. And attempting to articulate them, however inchoately, is a good thing. But the gleefully self-righteous tone to some of the mandates issued by these self-styled experts in racial, class, gender, and identity politics betrays a baser motive.
What position could be more powerful than that of an arbiter of purity? The perceived right to assess and render judgment on someone’s moral worth, especially someone with whom one disagrees, must be heady stuff indeed. No wonder the glee. And even more gleeful still is the manner in which infractions are punished and the more tractable perpetrators forced to perform absolution.
Take the example of Hannah Hart, an unswervingly anodyne YouTube personality known for her videos in which she cooks while drinking. A lesbian, Hart has a devoted LGBT fan-base and as such expressed her support of trans people in a video in which she also hawked her new book. This message of solidarity was met with a stream of hateful comments accusing her of exploiting the trans community.
Was this truly righteous outrage, aimed at correcting the actions of a bigot? Or was it a performative display, intended to secure the abjection of a well-intentioned person navigating the ever-tricky boundaries of politics and commerce? I suspect the latter. Whatever the case, it worked. Hart issued a tearful apology (is any other kind acceptable, really?) and, sated, her critics unctuously praised her for having confronted her problematic behavior.
Trivial though it might seem — spritely YouTube personality scolded by trolls — this is a microcosm of a truly disturbing trend. Because the doctrinaire language and ideology promulgated by the social justice movement is so easily co-opted — while at the same time maintaining a whiff of the sacrosanct — it has become a useful cudgel for those with less noble ideas in mind.
Matt Damon was pilloried for his assertion that there is a spectrum of sexual misbehavior not because the statement was untrue or even damaging but because it was satisfying to a public ever eager to see a powerful person eat crow, whether they deserve it or not. Calls for his firing from a film further crystallize the motives of his critics: power, and its attendant pleasures. This was not someone justifying assault; he was simply drawing distinctions. The delicate nature of what he was talking about, combined with his maleness, were nonetheless sufficient grounds for disproportionately nasty character attacks in the mainstream press. This appetite for meting out punishment, it seems to me, comes from the same place that the rabid paparazzi-fueled celebrity culture of the early 2000s did.
“Let’s just say it: Watching people be destroyed is delicious.”
It’s one thing to take some satisfaction in the downfall of someone truly terrible — a Weinstein or a Cosby, or even someone slightly sleazy — a Casey Affleck. But now the Internet revels in the possibilities provided by a new tool kit with which to dissect public — and semi-public — figures guilty of minor infractions, if any at all: the social justice lexicon. This is the same prurient interest and schadenfreude that built TMZ and Perez Hilton, hiding under the aegis of investigating moral purity.
Let’s just say it: Watching people be destroyed is delicious.
As Cersei purrs to the septa, having turned the tables and strapped her to one, it feels good. Cersei sees the pinch-faced martinet for what she really is: a hypocrite, a sadist who justifies her actions using religion. She doesn’t torture infidels because she cares for the fate of their souls. It gives her pleasure. Religion simply enables her. So, too, we must suspect of the more zealous elements in the social justice movement. This pattern has simply occurred too many times not to.
Telling someone to shut up feels good, too. So does marching defiantly out of a lecture hall in protest or simply drowning out the speaker. Also: “punching Nazis” or even just talking about it; using inflammatory language; exaggerating; getting someone fired.
These are all satisfying in some primal, adolescent way. And, conveniently, have been legitimized as political tactics. In many ways, I sympathize with the impulses they suggest. But when the satisfaction comes from the commission of the act itself, not the change — if any — it brought about, one is compelled to question the legitimacy of such tactics. It must be acknowledged that some of those who engage in them probably think they are having a positive effect. But just as many, if not more, are simply enjoying that good ol’ feeling. The satisfaction gotten from victory in these types of battles should be closer to that gained from removing a tick or popping a pimple than that gained from scoring a goal.
There’s a reason that “if it feels good, don’t say it” is a popular maxim in guiding personal interactions. Those things that feel good when you say or do them, especially in the context of a disagreement, are almost assuredly exactly the things that will escalate the disagreement and make it unproductive.
The social justice movement as it presents itself now seems intent on doing just that. And that’s a shame, because these disagreements need to be had.