“As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy.”
The cyber conflagration that began with Bachelor producer Elan Gale’s live tweeting of his “epic” takedown of fellow airline passenger “Diane” has now metastasised into that most schismatic of internet events: the hand-wringing-cum-bacchanal with outposts in Salon, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and beyond, either celebrating or decrying the episode. It is easy to roll one’s eyes at this—whether “this” is Gale’s own immaturity masquerading as street justice (aisle justice?), or the proliferation of articles on the subject (my own included).
But I would not be so quick to dismiss this incident as insignificant piffle, or a joke that got a little out of hand. Nor does it really matter if Diane didn’t exist, as some have suggested. Elan’s behaviour itself, even, matters less than the true acme of our problem: #TeamElan.
By now we have already been witness to several worthwhile treatments of Gale’s little crusade and its many moral deficiencies. Two wrongs don’t make a right, et cetera, et cetera.
What is much more troubling to me, and what has been under-explored in the wake of these online histrionics, is what all of this says about the wider moral landscape of our cyber society and what is increasingly coming to pass for “justice” on the internet. I have long said that relativism and its attendant maladies must be resolutely resisted by anyone interested in making the world a better place, and that we must be unafraid to judge the moral failings of others rather than cower behind a vacuous un-philosophy to justify inaction and neutrality. But when one becomes a judge, she is not entitled to be the jury and executioner; it is one thing to use your moral faculties to identify and name vices and evils, it is quite another to then take it upon yourself to mete out what you consider a just punishment.
These two very separate tasks have become blurred in the information age, whose technology has become an unwitting adjunct to the parallel age of cynicism that is now wracking latter day liberal democracies.
What Gale did was wrong, not chiefly because he denied the humanity of his target in his misbegotten revenge fantasy-made-flesh, but because of what it summoned up online. It was an accelerating catalyst to the unchecked spirits of vengeance that are already animating far too many disaffected individuals online who believe that all means are permitted to avenge whatever one perceives to be an injustice; that one must be judge, jury, and executioner. It suggests that as soon as one comes to the conclusion that an individual they are judging is one of “the bad guys” then the gloves can come off and any punishment may be dealt to them because they “deserve” it. And this is okay, because only “bad people” will suffer these punishments; never mind the frightening opacity that occludes the moral math here. There is neither transparency nor accountability for the process through which one decides who needs to be punished.
Nothing is Unethical; Everything is Permitted
But what exactly did Gale summon up? Consider the following comment on a Los Angelista article by Liz Dwyer that was critical of Gale’s behaviour and suggested that if Gale had been black or Middle Eastern in appearance the response to his actions would’ve been less than sanguine:
“To the writer of this article. You are a joke. The problem with society as a whole is that here are not enough Elans out here being honest. No body [sic] would have given a shit if this was a black man or woman or Hispanic or Asion [sic] or cat or dog… it would have still been funny. Freedom of speech? ‘Eat my dick”. If this comment + Elan being a white male made this somehow more offensive… do the world a favor and go kill yourself please. #TeamElan”
Apparently, in the quest to get people to “act like adults” it becomes necessary to tell people to commit suicide for disagreeing with your methods. Even if Gale’s livetweets documented nothing more than a concoction of his imagination, as some allege, responses like this empowered by what Gale claims to represent are quite real.
The forces at work here are not new; we’ve long been bedeviled by the ageless conflict of means and ends. Depending on how we juggle those interests, we may find ourselves forgetting that the enemies of our moral crusade of choice are human beings. We have been here before. What is new is the way this is all-too-cosily imbricating with the anarchic spirit of the internet, epitomised by groups like 4chan, that enlist any and everyone to traipse in this timeless ethical quagmire. Uniting all of these incidents—including sexist campaigns like those directed at Adria Richards, Anita Sarkeesian, Jennifer Hepler, and other women in the tech industry deemed to be “villains” by certain precincts of the internet—is that sense that no rules need be observed when “punishing” people deemed to be in the wrong.
Diane acted entitled and spoiled with her flight attendants, therefore any and all means may be employed to punish her—including enlisting those same flight attendants in the attempt and putting them back in her line of fire for facilitating the “punishment.” In so doing, Gale seeks to marshal us to a lofty calling:
“…it’s OUR job to tell every Diane to shut up.
It’s OUR duty to put the Diane’s of the world in their place.
We need to REMIND them about the way of things.
We outnumber them.”
We must force the people to be free, one supposes. Or at least force them into their place (as judged by our infallible individual faculties). Note that his credo here is about defeating the enemy, as if we are the last defenders of Middle Earth athwart the Orcs and Goblins. We must tell the bad people to “shut up” and “put them in their place.” We do not need to persuade them, teach them, show them the error of their ways, empathise with them, et cetera. They are implacable foes who can only be dealt with by force. It is a classic pitch for pitchforks that merely summons more entitled, aggressive behaviour into the world under the guise of ending it.
Mob rule through a smart-phone is still mob rule.
Updating the World
The recently released anime Gatchaman Crowds is a rather surprisingly fruitful mirror held up to our society, in this regard. It is perhaps one of the most interesting and well-told cyber-morality tales of our time, and one of the few contemporary television programmes to get the internet “right.” The show is set in a near-future Japan dominated by the social network GalaX, which rewards people for using their talents to help others. GalaX is a kind of augmented reality Facebook game/network—if there’s a car accident, people nearby are “scrambled” to assist if, for instance, they have medical or rescue experience, changing the bystander dynamic irrevocably.
It is the brainchild of Rui, a cryptic idealist who believes the world needs to be “updated” and that technology can facilitate the creation of a truly just society. It is no coincidence that her solemn belief is that things must be “updated” and not “rebooted”; peaceful, incremental change through democratising technology is her highest goal here. This dream is eventually corrupted by long-time users frustrated with the slow pace of change who want to use the immense power of GalaX to effect a much more immediate and violent metamorphosis, and they are co-opted by the main villain of the season (who, unsurprisingly, wants to destroy the world). There’s more to it, of course, but this is the salient bit that illustrates with its beautiful, almost satiric lens, our present quandary.
The rogue users of GalaX, known as the Neo One Hundred, are motivated by high ideals; they too wish to make the world a better place. But so wracked are they by cynicism towards the powers that be, as well as what they perceive to be Rui’s naiveté, that they believe the only way forward is through violence—particularly against the state, no matter the cost. As the show climaxes, their reign of terror sees Japanese government buildings laid to waste and civilians forced to evacuate in their thousands to flee the devastation that begins to inevitably spiral away from state targets.
It is a parable for our time, complete with clear jabs against a certain nameless, masque-wearing group of cyber revolutionaries, and the ethic of terror shared by some of their number. As the show’s heroes fight the Neo One Hundred and their new dark patron to save both Rui’s affirmative vision and the world, it would be hard to mistake which side #TeamElan might be on. The show’s climax is the perfect illustration of what lies at the end of Gale’s road; the logical conclusion is terror, justified by the idea that the result will be worth the cost. As always, however, such reckless confidence lacks a fail-safe. There is no provision if one’s judgement happens to be wrong.
We do indeed live in a society where traditional order is at best unreliable and at worst outright corrupt, bigoted, and oppressive. The mistrust thus engendered will manifest differently depending on where one stands on the social ladder, but manifest it will. That cynical posture feeds the arguments of those who say only more anarchic solutions can prevail against the petty, quotidian injustices of everyday life. When combined with the power endowed by online interaction, crowdsourcing outrage and street justice is easier than it has ever been in human history—with devastating consequences to match the expanded horizon. The allure of Anonymous-style politics as evinced by Elan Gale is that any of us can dispense justice if only we disabuse ourselves of a few useless niceties. Neither responsibility nor humility need apply.
Anonymous is indeed instructive here as the variety of actions that have passed under that franchise name illustrate both the rich possibilities of anarchic collective action, and the dark potential therein. Some Anonymous actions represent the resurgence of a collective moral fabric that enshrouds and protects those left behind by the sclerotic structures of state and corporate enterprise, such as their instrumental roles in bringing the horrors of Steubenville to light, or shielding women who fought back against Hunter Moore’s misogynist virtual crusade. What these actions have in common is that they were initiated after it was clear civil society had either failed or simply did not meaningfully exist for the people in question; there were people who had committed clear crimes but who had, due to the Byzantine and opaque interactions of the virtual world with older civil institutions, slipped through the cracks. Far from slandering the innocent or inviting cyber mobs on the heads of others, there was a peaceful effort to protect, shield, and cast light upon what others had left behind.
There was no call to dispense extra-judicial “justice,” no call to mobs to attack and put these bad men “in their place”– although limited action was taken against Moore, to be quite sure, and I can hardly condone the publishing of his parents’ information. The clarifying, disinfecting light of their work instead compelled accountable authorities to do what they ought to have done in the first place; in these cases, those calling themselves Anonymous knitted society back together. They did not put out a call to arms to torch what was left.*
Elan Gale, however, took the Neo One Hundred route, demanding that people punish rather than restore– that they bludgeon someone with a torch rather than merely shining a hopeful light on a moral failure.
The approbation Gale has received, even from many on the left, should be nothing short of alarming. It presages a world with no meaningful court of appeal save the ravenous appetite of public opinion; woe betide you if the crowd calls your name and finds you wanting.
This is not the apotheosis of democracy; it is its ultimate perversion.
*The original version of the article was productively critiqued by several friends who encouraged me to expand on, and make more nuanced comments about Anonymous, which I have tried to do with this update; the affected paragraphs are in the final section.
**It was indeed a hoax. Though, as I said in the article, that’s immaterial to the larger point being made. The response Gale summoned up online was decidedly real.