BEWARE MOB RULE
Mob rule has never been good.
And it hasn’t gotten any better in the modern era.
Used to be, mobs raged with rocks and rifles, tar and feathers, ropes and trees. Now they use press conferences and YouTube videos, protests and social media.
Human disorder and anger rise up and demand justice, and impose injustice to get it. Rights and common sense are swept away, the emotion of the moment rules supreme, and a lot of people get hurt.
What is mob rule?
It is the opposite of rule of law.
In rule of law, as practiced in our Republic, and established in our Constitution and culture, the representatives of the people pass laws and those laws govern the society. Violation of those laws brings pre-established penalties. Outside of government, the notion of rule of law manifests itself in procedures and rules. Workplace codes of conduct, for example, with established consequences for obedience or disobedience.
Mob rule is different.
The rules and the consequences are made up on the fly.
Something happens, a dynamic develops within the society, and an ad hoc punishment is imposed.
That’s how they came to burn witches in Salem, and lynch blacks in the South.
Instead of a structure of rules, laws and order, you have a herd mentality, a stampede, driven by the loudest voices and the basest emotions. There also develops something of a competition, in which ever louder and more extreme voices take the fore. Extremism becomes piety in an exploding cult of condemnation.
Invariably, blood is called for, be it literal or metaphorical. Mob rule knows no half measures or moderation. It demands that heads roll. That fact is recognized, and attempts to mollify mobs invariably involve sacrifice. Someone or something must be thrown to the dogs, and that leads to scapegoating.
With rule of law, you have reflection and deliberation. With mob rule, you have bigotry and fear. Rule of law preserves and strengthens society, mob rule endangers and perverts it.
Human history shows that people become blind to the obvious weaknesses of mob rule as they are consumed by populist and popular sentiments. Mob rule is a temporary reversion to tribalism, an abandonment of modern civilization.
And it as much a trap today as it has ever been.
That might not be obvious, but it is true.
Just as it is still true that opposing mob rule can be dangerous. Those who question it, or defend its targets, become targets themselves, swept away in the raging tide of public upset.
Often, mob rule can seem to be addressing some legitimate social wrong. At its base, there can be something worthy of being upset about, and something truly needs to be done about it. But mob rule is an example of trying to do the right thing the wrong way.
If someone is suspected of molesting a child, for example, something must be done. But that something is call 9-1-1, not gather a bunch of neighbors and go beat the person to death. Even murder, in those states where there is a death penalty, is handled properly by rule of law – a trial, conviction and imposition of sentence – not by mob rule – a rope and a tree.
That’s easy to see in those examples.
But it may be harder in the examples we see every day.
Like the press statements demanding people be fired, or suspended, or otherwise driven from their livelihoods. A misspoken word, or a new videotape, or some punishment that seems inadequate. A cop who fires a shot, a commissioner who makes a decision, a radio host who goes on a rant.
And then it’s blood in the water.
And the mob is loose.
And we forget the basic premises of our society – due process, reasonableness, rule of law. Instead, we go on a feeding frenzy in which we make up the rules and the punishment as we go along. We focus without context on the offense – real or pretended – and forget the process.
We ask if the offense is good or bad. If we socially judge it bad, then we unleash the fires of hell, without proportion and without process. We gather up the torches and the pitchforks and the TV cameras and we become a mob.
We wreak vengeance in the name of justice.
And often, just like in the past, there is an invisible hand, a special interest or instigator who foments and uses mob upset for personal or philosophical gain. The mob often gets played, and becomes an unwitting weapon in someone else’s hand.
Rule of law protects freedom; mob rule can’t do anything but threaten it.
We must embrace the one and reject the other.
It remains to be seen which one our modern day will choose.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2014