As everyone knows by now, Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clipper, has been banned from coming to NBA games and team practices. The league has begun taking steps to force Sterling to sell the team. These actions were set in motion by an audiotape of him making racist remarks was leaked to TMZ by his then girlfriend.
As I write this, on 5.2.14, the Sterling affair still has legs. One storyline – the one I am most interested in – is about privacy, and what is the responsible way of reacting to private conversations being made public. This is a welcome development. As I said in a prior post, it is troubling that we as a society allow intimate conversations to be made a part of public discourse, and that a person can be prosecuted for those private conversations.
ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock writes “[A]n angry, agenda-fueled mob provoked NBA commissioner Adam Silver into handing Sterling a basketball death sentence.” I heard an interview he did on Colin Cowherd’s radio show, I thought it was excellent, one of the best I’ve heard in a while. Los Angeles Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has also expressed some concern over society’s reactions to the Sterling tapes. In an editorial for Time Magazine, Abdul-Jabbar expresses some concern over what the media did to Sterling. Abdul-Jabbar writes that the media got “caught big game on a slow news day, so they put his head on a pike, dubbed him Lord of the Flies, and danced around him whooping.”
The rush to condemn has played out several times before. In 2013, celebrity chef Paula Deen was accused of making racist remarks, and brought to court on charges of racial discrimination. Although Deen had admitted to using the word Nigger in conversation, the case was dismissed. But this mattered little in the eyes of the public. In the court of public opinion, Deen had been tried and convicted. She was dropped from the Food Network and lost numerous endorsements. Brendan Eich was, for a short time, CEO for Mozilla – the company that brings us the Firefox web browser. When his support for conservative causes came to light, he was forced to step down. Eich had supported Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul in their presidential campaigns. Further, he had donated to the campaign for California’s Proposition 8, a campaign to ban same-sex marriage. Eich was forced to resign not because of his job performance, but because of his political opinions. These examples, along with Sterling, are evidence of what Whitlock and Abdul-Jabbar call the mob mentality.
Mob mentality might be a serviceable metaphor, but not the best one.
When I think of “mob mentality” I think of peasants in a public square in Paris, angry at nobility who are completely oblivious to their poverty. The queen has reportedly said that if they are hungry, they should eat cake. The peasants get the idea that these rulers should be made shorter by the lengths of their heads. Or, I think of a courthouse in a small southern town being surrounded by white males in overalls carrying pitchforks. They are angry because a black man has committed some transgressions against a white female. They get the idea he should be hanged. In both cases, there is no reasoning with the mob. Individuals, who may be reticent and rational in their daily lives, lose themselves in the midst of the crowd and become rash and irrational. Reasonable discourse is impossible.
For me, a mob is defined not only by its irrationality and rash judgment, but also its physicality. A mob physically confronts the object of its anger, and wishes to do bodily harm. To the guillotine! Moreover, the purpose of the mob’s actions is retribution. The mob has been wronged in some way and things must be made right: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. In the case of the peasants, wealth had not been shared. For the whites in the Southern town, there is a sentiment – rightly or wrongly – that a member of their in-group has been threatened.
These days, where communication is dominated by bits and bytes, tweets and posts, we may wish to describe these public dress downs using a different metaphor.
What happened to Deen, Eich, and Sterling was not defined by its physicality, nor powered by a sense of retribution. These days, these public excoriations are meant to take the person down a notch – to smear, discredit, or otherwise lower the value of the person in the eyes of the public. The person is hurt through the stigma placed on them. It is not a physical beating they take, but a symbolic one.
Moreover, the end game is not retribution. It is so easy for people to join the chorus through social media, it is always the case that the vast majority of people participating in the mob have no real stake in the outcome. The millions of people tweeting about Paula Deen couldn’t have ever met the woman, and any decrease in her fortunes would not result in a corresponding increase in theirs. Similarly, most people who condemned Donald Sterling were not playing basketball for the Clippers or employed by him. The purpose of these public condemnations is to show others what would happen if they think like these people. It is all about thought control.
Given the fact that these events are symbolic, and carried out in order to police the thoughts and opinions of others, a better way to describe the manner of thinking is a Borg mentality. Trekkies know about the Borg. Any casual viewer of the Star Trek series may have heard of these dangerous antagonists.
Here is the definition of The Borg from Wikipedia:
“The Borg are a collection of species that have been turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones of the Collective, or the hive…the Borg force other species into their collective and connect them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation…”
The Borg would use some rather violent methods, but that was only because they encountered resistance. Their ends were assimilation to the collective. Once you thought like they did, no harm would come to you.
And so it is with those who have the Borg mentality. People with the Borg mentality have an unreasonable intolerance towards minority views. If you publicly state that you are against gay marriage, for example, then this translates for those with the Borg mentality to mean you a “bad woman”. This is a mistake, obviously. To have this alternative view, and then be able to place it in the public sphere for debate, is a hallmark of a healthy democracy.
People possessing the Borg mentality are completely unaware that their behavior hurts our democracy. They see their action as just, moral, and essential to the defense of disadvantaged groups. They are not cognizant that they constitute a hive, a collective of like minds that are in themselves causing oppression through their actions.
I suspect that the Borg mentality is not unique to any demographic or political orientation. It is in all likelihood a societal problem. Conservatives have their talk radio and Fox news. If it were possible, they too would stifle ideas contrary to theirs. However, conservatives’ domain is in the traditional media. Rush Limbaugh constructs a particular framing of issues and events and then delivers this frame to his listeners. After this one-to-many communication is over, the lesson is learned.
However, the Borg mentality is manifested through new media – blogs, YouTube, news outlets like TMZ, Twitter, and Facebook. With new media, everyone is a tiny Rush Limbaugh (I mean this metaphorically of course…but a case can be made that most people are literally a tiny Rush Limbaugh as well). Everyone can produce their own version of interpretation, make their own comment, make their own parody video, make their own meme, and so on. New media is disproportionately a space for the young, the tech savvy, the urban, and minorities. These groups are disproportionately liberal. Because new media is dominated liberals, the Borg mentality is primarily a liberal mentality.
It is in the liberal faction of American society that the Borg mentality can most readily be observed. Ironic isn’t it? The group that prides itself on being “open” and “tolerant” – the group I tend to affiliate myself with – is the very group that is most vociferous and effective at stifling different opinions and lifestyles.