The very soil beneath our feet is littered with the bones of souls who were falsely accused and severely punished by social shunning, beating and death. This is not in reference to an historical context of the Inquisition or the European witch trials or the great slander against Jews that made the Holocaust reality, but to the contemporary enlightenment period of just the last 50 years.
Our brave, intelligent, always connected modern world is full of examples of barbarism fueled by a “herd mentality.” Rare is the example of individuals who will challenge the mob — perhaps for fear of retribution or fear of being its next victim or fear of social ostracism. While the presumption of innocence may be the “golden thread” that binds civil society and our culture, it is easily unraveled at a moment’s notice dependent on the salaciousness of the accusation and the media’s thirst for scandal. Abetting this breakdown of skepticism is the speed at which information travels and the ability for everyone to add their 2-cents worth.
I believe it is an 80/20 situation: 80 percent of people form a judgment one way or another fairly swiftly (most within minutes), and 20 percent wait to gather more information. And rarely do the former take a few seconds to consider how their judgment may alter the lives of those they have rendered judgment upon.
After our minds are made up, we then go in search of those who agree with us because that gives us comfort that our judgment was correct. There is safety in numbers. “Everybody thinks this” is an aggressive challenge to “get in line” to those who think differently. And don’t be stupid enough to ask “Who’s everybody?” — that’ll get you in trouble.
The last two weeks have seen the display of the most-wicked human behavior our nation has ever known. The real story is not whether accusations of sexual assault hurled against Judge Brett Kavanuagh are true or false, but the high human drama that accompanied those accusations. Both political parties have used this calamity for fundraising purposes and to rally their base for the November election. Political organizations from NARAL to the NRA have profited from this soap opera. Hollywood celebrities have ignored their own hypocrisy, falling over themselves to be the first to proffer the #MeToo slogan and record video proclamations of their hip, “it” crowd affiliations. And virulent virtual fist fights have broken out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to the point where decades-long friendships have been lost.
What scares me is what could be next. If the hysterical mob mentality has become a norm again in this country, and civility is expendable for sake of political gain, could the next “breaking news” alert send people to the streets? Who or what will become the next sacrificial lamb of groupthink?
Maybe it’s time to have a national discussion about what that golden thread of innocent until proven guilty really means and how fundamental that notion is to the maintenance of civil society.
Bunnie Riedel is the author of “Whispering Happiness”; she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.