Yesterday, AIG’s CEO Robert Benmosche told the Wall Street Journal that widespread criticism of his company’s distribution of employee bonuses in 2009—shortly after AIG received a government bailout of $85 billion—was “just as bad” as a lynch mob.
Let’s review: a “lynch mob,” in American culture, is a group of people who extrajudicially captured, murdered, and mutilated thousands of men, a majority of whom were black, in the 100-year-long period following the emancipation of African slaves in the 19th century. It is a particular, historically contingent phenomenon, an outgrowth of white Southerners’ anxiety about maintaining the social and economic order slavery had enforced.
It is not “people who are criticizing me.” It is not a metaphor.
And yet: otherwise intelligent-seeming people keep deploying “lynch mob” as a rhetorical device! Below we’ve assembled some recent offenders. Bookmark this page for future reference.
Lynch mobs are not...
1) People who criticize AIG
The uproar over bonuses “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that–sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.
2) People whining about Verizon Wireless
Verizon at least had the wherewithal to realize it had an Internet lynch mob on its hands and claimed that it’s just a matter of certification, honest! They totally weren’t trying to keep Google’s cheaper and better hardware away from their network! Really!
3) People who criticize former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner
Now I have to caution the Council about one thing, and I guess the city. You know, I started my political career facing lynch mobs. And I think we have just faced one here in San Diego. You’re going to have to deal with that. In a lynch mob mentality, rumors become allegations, allegations become facts, facts become evidence of sexual harassment, which have led to demands for my resignation and recall.
4) People who ridiculed Sean Parker’s LARP-themed wedding
The mediums I dedicated my life to building have all too often become the very weapon by which my own character and reputation has been mercilessly attacked in public. [...] I have also witnessed these mediums used to form massive digital lynch mobs, which I have been at the mercy of more than once. I guess it’s only fitting that I would be; the universe has a funny way of returning these things in kind.
I fully appreciate that there is a systemic sexism problem in the technology industry, and that allowing such behavior to go without being criticized encourages that to continue. But at the same time, this case produced what seemed like an orgy of outrage that at times felt like the beginnings of a lynch mob — if only because of the speed and aggressiveness of the response.
6) People who ridicule an anonymous troll
As Boyd points out, the more we become a networked society and live a large chunk of our lives online, the more we will run into these kinds of dilemmas. Each one becomes a kind of slippery-slope problem, where drawing the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior becomes harder, and the risk of lynch-mob type activity becomes greater. And in some cases, the penalty could turn out to be severe.
7) Writers who want to be paid for their work
Authors can also be a roadblock when it comes to lending, and we’ve just had a classic example of how that can happen with the brouhaha over LendInk ... The site has effectively been put out of business by a virtual lynch mob of authors claiming it breached their rights, even though what it was doing was perfectly legal.