Let’s think back to the last time you’ve looked out the window and witnessed a man or a woman being paraded down the street, displaying a full armor of tar and feathers. Chances are, you’ve only read about this method of public shaming in 19th century literature classes. And younger readers may even find this concept unfamiliar.
Tar and feathering may no longer be an acceptable cultural more, however, it happens all the time in the digital world. One must simply Google ‘Hillary Clinton’ and click on any news article. Find the comment section. Begin to read.
Regardless of your political affiliation to Clinton or any other high profile figure, it’s evident that public commentators have taken their words too far. They spew hateful and sexist ideas. You’ll even find direct threats made to her family. You may chalk this behavior up to an intense election cycle, however, this method of extreme and angry commentary happens everyday to ordinary individuals online. If you’re unsure of why this happens so frequently, you can thank this century-old practice called ‘Mob Mentality’.
How did we get here? From public lynchings to tar and featherings, it’s easy to get swept up with a crowd. Passionate words are spoken. The excitement builds and turns intoxicating. But far too often, this excitement takes an angry turn and punishments are doled how in far more harsher ways than planned.
This is no different online. Social media profiles and comment boards are littered with crass expressions and harsh words aimed at innocent individuals or organizations. And while angry words dissipate in the physical world, they find a permanent residence online. How many individuals plagued with a tarnished online reputation find it impossible to secure a new job? How many businesses suffer from unnecessarily harsh reviews?
A recent documentary from the New York Times suggested that years ago, the internet was seen as the “wild west.” That may have held truth in the late 1990’s, but today, there is far less separation between our actual worlds and our digital worlds. Today, our communities spill out from one and enter the other. We’re online to shop, work, browse, find information, search directions. In essence, today there is hardly a separation. And we need to implement new rules and order. It only makes sense. We don’t ‘tar and feather’ individuals for several reasons. It’s physically and psychologically harmful. It’s also not an attitude we want to perpetuate.
The question remains: if we’ve progressed in reality, why would we tolerate an antiquated form of mob mentality online?
There are several ways to counteract this harmful behavior. First, we must bring awareness to the topic. Second, we must strive to educate all users on the appropriate form of engagement and communication online. Teachers and parents must do their part to help younger generations understand how harmful this behavior can be. And online moderators must be more diligent to flag and remove unfair comments.
They say history repeats itself. And it’s possible it might. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about a young woman’s burden by wearing a Scarlet A and tales of country boys witnessing harrowing acts of tar and feathering. What stories will future generations read about us? Will they be puzzled at our lack of decency? Let’s not forget, Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter was removed each day. We don’t have the same opportunity online.
Let’s take a step forward into progress and moderate our comments. Let’s think before we write. Let’s educate all users on the importance and the permanence of our words.