'Mobs' come in several forms, and all disrupt rational discourse

'Mobs' come in several forms, and all disrupt rational discourse
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People who ignore or destroy history may not realize it, but American icons James Madison and Abraham Lincoln were keen thinkers and astute observers of the human condition. They warned fellow citizens of their respective eras about the dangers created when mobs (their word) determine a society’s direction, thus overwhelming rational deliberation.

Today’s mob activity is more multi-faceted than what Madison and Lincoln considered. They were worried about physical mobs imposing political or judicial will. Mob action today arrives on three fronts. There is still the concern for behavioral mobs, of course, but contemporary hordes include rabble rousing from the mass media and what amounts to riotous activity through social media. The three-headed combination makes mob movements of today even more dangerous than what the nation’s early leaders feared.

Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers about the threat of what he called factions, groups “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Madison later helped design a government intent on resisting societal knee-jerk reactions, allowing for deliberate consideration of citizens’ long-term interests. This approach, Madison reasoned, would prevent factions from imposing policy or disrupting individual liberty.

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Lincoln channeled Madison a half century later with a speech delivered to a lyceum in Springfield, Illinois in 1838. He was just 28 years old at the time. Lincoln condemned the “wild and furious passions” of “worse than savage mobs” that “pervaded the country from New England to Louisiana.” He said mobs sought the “total annihilation” of government and that innocent citizens eventually fall victim to the “ravages of mob law.” Lincoln urged that bad laws should, indeed, be changed, but cautioned, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”

Americans today witness the chaos and cultural disintegration that happen when mobs erupt. The physical assaults, destruction of property and toppling of monuments are quite distinct from the recent political protests and peaceful assemblies guaranteed in the Constitution. These brazen acts should remind startled and disappointed Americans that, as Lincoln explained, the only ultimate danger to the United States comes from within, or as he termed it, “suicide.”

But the physical mobs of today extend well beyond whatever street they block or business district they damage. That’s because wide swaths of the news media serve as accomplices in disrupting order, essentially serving as publicists for disrupters. Civil unrest is certainly newsworthy, but the media’s role has been less about reporting and explaining than about enhancing and rationalizing. Face it, much of the civil unrest in this era is designed specifically for television news cameras. News organizations are all too eager to display sensational video of angry protesters, assaults on statues, and police cars aflame.

News producers should well consider at what point they are disseminating information about protests versus providing fuel that facilitates more mobs. Emotion is easier for news outlets to cover than any nuanced analysis of underlying sociopolitical forces. Thus, the news industry has, either wittingly or unwittingly, become a player in disruption rather than a detached, measured disseminator of events. Journalism as activism is an approach catching on in news organizations, but exacerbating turmoil is a corruption of long-held professional journalism standards.

Then there is the mob activity that emanates from social media. The happy place that social media once was for sharing photos to friends has descended into its own sort of mob rule where intimidation, insults and threats roam unhindered. Social media mobs inflict a special kind of psychological damage to individuals and the culture at large, stoking fear, promoting conspiracies and dehumanizing people. Social media sites, for their part, now chase their own tails posturing that they can manage the unmanageable, when they really only seek to manage whatever content prompts mob outrage.

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The ultimate effect of these combined, multi-faceted mobs destroys any principle of reasoned and deliberate political and culture change into a frenzied convulsing of a society responding to fear and chaos.

Lincoln and Madison feared majority mobs imposing their wills on subsections of society, but today the subsections impose their wills on the majority, implementing what 20th Century philosopher Kenneth Burke referred to as the “rhetoric of hysteria.”

The structured order of American government and western style civilization was designed to let reason overcome such hysteria. It would help if the media and social media apparatuses would do more to support order and less to promote hysterics.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.