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How the Internet Turns Coffee Klatches into Mobs

A philosopher sheds light on how the Covington high school kids became America's Most Hated
Rene Girard
René Girard (1923–2015)

Bishop Robert Barron makes a profound observation about the media frenzy following a confrontation on January 19 between students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky and Native American elder Nathan Philips at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.:

By now the entire country has seen a video of a supposedly racist confrontation, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, between a grinning young high school student and a Native American elder, chanting and beating a drum. The immediate and ferocious judgment of the internet community was that the boy was effectively taunting and belittling the elder, but subsequent videos from wider angles as well as the young man’s own testimony have cast considerable doubt on this original assessment… When the video in question first came to my attention, it already had millions of views on Facebook and had been commented upon over 50,000 times. Eager to find out what this was all about, I began to scroll through the comments. They were practically one hundred percent against the young man, and they were marked, as is customary on social media, by stinging cruelty. As I continued to survey the reactions, I began to come across dozens urging retribution against the boy, and then dozens more that provided the addresses and email contacts of his parents, his school, and his diocese. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, do they realize what they’re doing? They’re effectively destroying, even threatening, this kid’s life.” Bishop Robert Barron, “The Internet and Satan’s Game” at Word on Fire

How can we account for this psychological response from people who are not usually violent?

The internet provides two dynamics that inflame hatred and even violence: obscurity and contagion. By obscurity, I mean that the traditional “one-on-one” nature of personal attacks is circumvented by the anonymity of the internet. On the internet. you can personally attack someone without ever seeing them, knowing them, or being anywhere near them. You can attack people in a way that leads to violence against them without your own identity ever coming to light. The anonymity of the internet and the distance it creates between an attacker and his victim both lend an obscurity to the attack that is much more dangerous to the victim and much more desirable for the attacker. It is even possible to harm others unintentionally through the spread of errors and misunderstandings which are so common to internet communication.

This dynamic of obscurity was noted by military strategists involved in the development of artillery, which is the most lethal weapon on the modern battlefield. Part of the lethality of artillery — in addition to its inherent power to maim and kill — is its ability to maim and kill at a distance.

Even soldiers in the midst of battle have a natural revulsion to the wholesale slaughter of the enemy personally, one on one. Bayonetting is a horror for soldiers on both ends of a bayonet. It is inherently difficult to hurt another human being if you have to look him in the eye when you do it. Artillery removes the attacker from the scene of the attack and dehumanizes both attacker and victim. It renders wholesale slaughter a technological process, shorn of personal horror. It mechanizes and sterilizes violence. The internet is, in a sense, rhetorical artillery. It can be released anonymously, surreptitiously and en masse.

The internet is also an accelerant, a multiplier of attack.  It spreads rage like a disease (contagion). Bishop Barron refers us to philosopher René Girard (1923–2015) for a deeper understanding of contagion in the internet age:

At this point, my mind turned, as it often does today, to René Girard. The great Franco-American philosopher and social commentator is best known for his speculations on what he called the scapegoating mechanism. Sadly, Girard maintained, most human communities, from the coffee klatch to the nation state, are predicated upon this dysfunctional and deeply destructive instinct. Roughly speaking, it unfolds as follows. When tensions arise in a group (as they inevitably do), people commence to cast about for a scapegoat, for someone or some group to blame. Deeply attractive, even addictive, the scapegoating move rapidly attracts a crowd, which in short order becomes a mob. In their common hatred of the victim, the blamers feel an ersatz sense of togetherness. Filled with the excitement born of self-righteousness, the mob then endeavors to isolate and finally eliminate the scapegoat, convinced that this will restore order to their roiled society. At the risk of succumbing to the reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy, nowhere is the Girardian more evident than in the Germany of the 1930s. Hitler ingeniously exploited the scapegoating mechanism to bring his country together — obviously in a profoundly wicked way.

Girard’s theory was grounded in his studies of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and other literary figures, but his profoundest influence was the Bible, which not only identified the problem, but showed the way forward. Take a good, long look at the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel to see what Girard saw regarding both the sin and the solution. It is surely telling that one of the principal names for the devil in the New Testament is ho Satanas, which carries the sense of the accuser. And how significant, thought Girard, that it is precisely ho Satanas, who offers all of the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, implying that all forms of human community are tainted, at least to a large degree, by the characteristically Satanic game of accusation, blaming, scapegoating. Bishop Robert Barron, “The Internet and Satan’s Game” at Word on Fire

Barron’s reference to the parable of the woman caught in adultery is particularly apt. Jesus disperses the mob and elides violence by personalizing and individualizing responsibility: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He insists that, if there is to be violence, one identifiable individual must act first to harm the woman. He implicitly points out the personal responsibility of the attacker for his actions, and he understands the contagion on which mob violence depends. Shorn of both anonymity and contagion, the mob disperses without violence. “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.”

The internet, by contrast, permits us to cast the first stone surreptitiously, from the obscurity of an anonymous and distant keyboard. It facilitates the nearly instantaneous contagion of accusation and hate. It is thus a perfect instrument of obscurity and contagion — of Girard’s mimetic contagion.

As Barron notes in his essay, Girard, a philosopher and literary critic, believed that the scapegoating mechanism—contagious mob violence against an innocent scapegoat—is essentially satanic:

… all forms of human community are tainted, at least to a large degree, by the characteristically Satanic game of accusation, blaming, scapegoating… there is something about social media comboxes that make them a particularly pernicious breeding-ground for Girardian victimizing. Perhaps it’s the anonymity, or the ease with which comments can be made and published, or the prospect of finding a large audience with little effort — but these forums are, increasingly, fever swamps in which hatred and accusation breed. When looking for evidence of the Satanic in our culture, don’t waste your time on special effects made popular by all of the exorcism movies. Look no further than your computer and the twisted “communities” that it makes possible and the victims that it regularly casts out. Bishop Robert Barron, “The Internet and Satan’s Game” at Word on Fire

The chaos and violence rising in our own country and around the world get much of their fuel from the obscurity and contagion of the internet, which is kerosene sprayed on the sparks tossed up by civilization.

If we are to survive this conflagration, we must understand how these fires grow. Rene Girard has much to teach us about the growing violence of our time and about the accelerant sitting on our desktops.

Note: A good introduction to Rene Girard is his 2001 book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.

Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon, professor of Neurological Surgery and Pediatrics and Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, Neurological Surgery, Stonybrook School of Medicine

Also by Michael Egnor: Fetuses not only experience pain but experience it more intensely than do adults.

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In one sense, consciousness IS an illusion… We have no knowledge of the processes of our consciousness, only of the objects of its attention, whether they are physical, emotional, or abstract.


How the Internet Turns Coffee Klatches into Mobs