Hazards of an Era of Digital Lynch Mobs

September 21, 2018 by Leonard Pitts

“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged.” Jesus preaches that in the book of Luke.

But then, Jesus never had Twitter. Or, for that matter, Instagram or Facebook. He never had, in other words, one of the social media platforms on which millions of us routinely judge other people every day. It’s a habit we might do well to reconsider.

Not that anybody should feel remorse over the online humiliation administered to someone like Aaron Schlossberg, captured on video berating people at a New York City cafe for speaking Spanish. And the social media beatdown Jeffrey Whitman took after following another driver to his home in Columbus, Ohio, to yell racial slurs should make no one’s eyes sting with sympathy tears.

But what about Geoffrey Owens, the former “Cosby Show” actor who was infamously job-shamed for working at Trader Joe’s? And what about Anthony Torres?

He was video recorded by another passenger a little over a week ago, shaving his face on a New Jersey Transit train as it pulled out of New York City. At one point he even flicked shaving cream to the floor. The clip was posted to Twitter — it has since been removed — where it racked up over 2 million views. The reaction was, not surprisingly, swift and brutal.

Torres was called “disgusting,” a “dumb drunk,” a “slob,” — and an “animal.” Then the Associated Press found him and got his side of the story.

“My life is all screwed up,” Torres told the AP. “That’s the reason I was shaving on the train.”

Torres, it turned out, came to that moment from a lifetime of hard knocks: peripatetic years of chasing work from state to state, sometimes sleeping in motels and bus stations, two strokes since 2016. That day, he was fresh from a homeless shelter. One of his brothers had bought him a ticket so he could go to another brother in South Jersey. Torres, 56, was shaving because he didn’t want to look like what he’s been through.

As to why he didn’t do the obvious — shave in the restroom — Torres’ brother Thomas told the AP that even as a child, Anthony lacked the ability to conceive the consequences of his actions. “When he did what he did, that, to him, was normal.”

After all this came out, the response was what you’d expect: lots of recrimination and a GoFundMe account that, as of Thursday afternoon, had raised $37,000.

The internet taketh away, the internet giveth.

In the process, it leaveth an observer ruminating on the hazards of an era of digital lynch mobs wherein one can carp and fault-find without ever leaving the comfort of one’s couch. Problem is, there is something about viewing other people on screens — viewing them at a remove — that tends to objectify them, make them not quite real. And there is something about the anonymity of social media that does not encourage us to be our best and most compassionate selves.

That can be a toxic combination, as Owens and Torres would surely attest. It’s given us a culture of instant, online opprobrium that falls on both the evil and the unlucky with indiscriminate force. Social media empower us to shame the shameful, but they also allow us to victimize the vulnerable. What does it say about us when we can’t — or won’t — tell the difference? What does it say about what we’ve become?

Someone called Torres an “animal.” But he’s no animal. He’s just a guy whose life hasn’t worked out, just someone’s brother who was trying to get home.

And you can’t deny someone else’s humanity without losing a little of your own.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

© 2018 THE MIAMI HERALD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Opinions

A Moral Issue We Should All Worry About Opinions
A Moral Issue We Should All Worry About
March 17, 2019
by Leonard Pitts

If you think you're angry now, wait till you read the court documents. Not that the summaries of a college cheating scandal so massive it briefly bumped Donald Trump from the "Breaking News" chyrons were not enough to make a nun cuss. Indeed, the story offered... Read More

'Game of Thrones' Fans Have Been Warned: 'You're Going to Need Therapy' Opinions
'Game of Thrones' Fans Have Been Warned: 'You're Going to Need Therapy'
March 13, 2019
by John Kass

In just a few weeks, millions of people from around the world will be weeping, screaming, pulling out their hair and issuing piteous cries of rage and grief while eating ice cream on the couch. Because in just a few weeks, HBO's series "Game of Thrones,"... Read More

Foreign-Policy Meddling Has Become a Two-Way Street Opinions
Foreign-Policy Meddling Has Become a Two-Way Street
March 12, 2019
by Rachel Marsden

PARIS -- Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly tore into current Vice President Mike Pence at a retreat on Sea Island, Georgia, last weekend in front of an exclusive audience of Republican donors. The annual retreat is sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, where President... Read More

The Dangers of Big Ideas and Small Tent Politics for House Democrats Opinions
The Dangers of Big Ideas and Small Tent Politics for House Democrats
March 6, 2019
by Anne Kim

Emboldened by their conviction that the national zeitgeist is on their side, the progressive left is taking a harder line against House Democrats reluctant to embrace their agenda. Groups like the Justice Democrats, for instance, have signaled their intent to primary moderate members who don’t espouse signature liberal... Read More

Police Suicide Is the Toll of Unaddressed Post-Traumatic Stress Opinions
Police Suicide Is the Toll of Unaddressed Post-Traumatic Stress
February 15, 2019
by Mary Sanchez

The black silhouettes posted to BlueHelp.org are immediately recognizable as police officers. Nameless and faceless, each outline represents an officer who took his or her own life. Three police suicides are listed for February 11, the day that the Kansas City Police Department announced the death... Read More

Congress: Listen to Young People on Gun Violence Opinions
Congress: Listen to Young People on Gun Violence
February 8, 2019
by Mary Sanchez

President Donald Trump neglected to mention gun violence in his State of the Union address. The following day, the congressional stalemate over what to do about the killing and mayhem played out at a House Judicial Committee hearing on gun violence. Most of the news coverage... Read More

Straight From The Well
scroll top