Unquestionably, in it’s day, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, brought attention to a shocking aspect of human nature which — from time to time — rears its ugly head.
Horrible things — crowds of ordinary people gathering together for one malevolent purpose: to destroy an “enemy”. And by “enemy” what we really mean is “outsider”. They are a blight on human society. Horrible as it was, by no means should we think that it is unique in human history, or relegated only to the remote past.
Still, today, such scenarios recur around the world. Groups of armed thugs pick out an outsider, killing, harassing or harming them some other way.
The obvious worst offenders are ISIS, and their “fellow travelers” like Boko Haram. Footage of civilian captives beheaded, forces even the most willfully blind to acknowledge that bad men continue do unspeakable things.
We can’t dismiss this as a diseased feature of Radical Islam, either. Short years ago, mobs of villagers in rural India rose up and attacked “outsiders” (in this instance, targeting Christians), burned their homes and businesses, cut down young and old alike with machetes, and chased survivors into the jungles.
Since they have body counts, these are obviously extreme varieties of aggressive mob behaviour.
But, to be brutally honest, the root of these murderous instances of “mob justice” is not limited to people distant from us in history or geography.
If we look deeper than the slaughter in these examples, the underlying motive taps into something which — in varying degrees — is socially acceptable even among “civilized” society.
Long before arriving at the murderous rampage, a shift has to take place. In the murderer’s mind, the victim must be stripped of any privileges and compassion society naturally gives other people.
To destroy someone, you must be convinced that they are so completely different from you that his or her life doesn’t really matter.
This can be done by cheapening all life together — or else just one class of people. Nihilism cheapened all life in 20th Century Europe. Similarly, the blurring of lines between animal and human life elevates animal lives (ie: Cecil) at the expense of the distinctive worth of human lives.
Clever use of formal language or slang can also keep harsh truths at arm’s length. Example:
Saying “The legal Abortion of 57 Million fetuses in America” has a far different tone than saying “The 57 Million American Babies murdered in their mother’s wombs since Roe V Wade”. (Which statistically is at least 2.5x the death rate in Nazi Death Camps.)
The second method of stripping away humanity is to apply adjectives to groups. To invent flaws, and magnify them until that’s all you can see. Refuse to believe that group might be composed of some mix of decent people and nasty ones — instead paint them all with the same brush. Make them cruel. Make them dangerous, and out to destroy everything you value. Make them into a problem that needs to be solved.
From there, it’s easy for people to be mobilized into destructive action. Someone first justifies their actions to themselves, and then sways others to accept his views.
Because of our own history, we tend to associate these things with race or religion. (And it is true that these have — at times — been leveraged to incite violence.)
But these are by no means the only offenders.
We’ve seen it with political rivals, their supporters and with economic class warfare.
Recent news events have fueled “justified” antagonism toward Law Enforcement. Guilt is assumed, long before evidence is examined. (This leads to public outcry or worse.)
Remember the bagful of Chick-Fil-A on the shooter who targeted the Family Research Council?
FRC was targeted for having the “wrong” opinion in LBGT issues. (Maybe Dan Savage could try telling the unarmed security guard that “it gets better”?)
A dentist goes on safari, and hires a guide to hunt big game. He came back to America, and had to go into hiding. Why? Death threats. These were incited by some who take issue with the killing of “noble beasts”.
Let’s let that irony hang in the air for a moment.
We saw incitements and threats for the Zimmerman case. Riots and threats in Baltimore. People taking law into their own hands.
Guys like Farrakhan literally incite crowds to violence, facing no consequence, but “Thought Crimes” (like holding a politically unpopular view) can be grounds for firing, or sometimes even legal action.
If we truly wish to maintain a (defensible) moral high ground over lynch-mobs in those white sheets, jihadis, and the mobs with machetes, we will have to resist any urge to name ourselves judge, jury and executioner (figuratively, or actually) over the people we take issue with.
Judges exist precisely to avoid these sort of escalations. Crowds become mobs very easily. Mobs don’t presume innocence and they are irrational by nature.
Trial by media is already an epidemic in our culture.
If someone brought up charges against you, which would you want? Rules of evidence in a courtroom where you could face your accuser? Or some nameless, faceless, unaccountable mob?
And if you would want it for yourself, you must insist on the same for everyone else, however distasteful the mob makes him look, or how serious his alleged crimes.