April Kelly-Woessner

April Kelly-Woessner

Donald Trump’s unexpected popularity raises important questions about the kind of society in which we want to live. While there are important policy questions at stake, there is also the basic question of how people ought to treat those with whom they disagree.

The Trump model of political discourse treats disagreement as grounds for insult, mockery and even physical violence. The fact that so many people support Trump despite his angry rhetoric, or perhaps because of it, exposes the vulnerability of the country’s democratic vitality.

Democracy is built on the free and open exchange of ideas. Ideally, we listen to one another and are willing to amend our positions when presented with new evidence or compelling logic. It is easy to argue that we have never achieved this ideal. Yet, there is value in the quest for honest, thoughtful deliberation.

It seems that we are as far from this goal as ever. We now treat each other not as fellow idea traders in a free and open marketplace, but rather as bandits perpetrating an armed robbery.

While Donald Trump appears to enjoy feeding this political blood bath, he did not create it. Rather, the public sphere has become increasingly hostile to debate.

When did Americans become so mean?

The blame may rest, in part, with the increased use of social media. Interacting with others through social media removes a layer of humanity. We dehumanize our political foes, treating them as a symbol of all that is wrong with the world. We set out to demonize and viciously and utterly destroy those with whom we have even the slightest political disagreement.

In his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” British journalist Jon Ronson describes how social media has spawned a “renaissance” in public shaming. In colonial times, one could witness whippings and hangings in the public square, or taunt those sentenced to the stocks or pillories. In some parts of the world, public humiliation and mob justice are still practiced.

For the most part, however, Americans consider this to be cruel and unusual punishment. Some would argue that public humiliation violates the Eighth Amendment, at least by modern moral standards. Yet we now sentence perfect strangers to public humiliation without due process and for offenses that fall short of criminal action.

Take for example the case of Justine Sacco who, on a flight to Africa, tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco later described the tweet as an effort to acknowledge her own white privilege. Yet, those who retweeted her message painted it as an act of vile racism. She was humiliated, bullied, and even threatened. People said that they hoped she would be raped and get AIDS. She was fired from her job. Her life was ruined and those who viciously orchestrated her downfall took joy in her pain.

This behavior is not limited to those on the political left. The same pattern of mob justice led to the undoing of Lindsey Stone, who posted a photo on Facebook of herself flipping the bird and pretending to shout near a sign that read “Silence and Respect” at Arlington National Cemetery. Like Sacco, she was publicly shamed. She received death threats and rape threats from people who claimed they were supporting the military. She lost her job at a charity, where she helped adults with learning disabilities, after more than 12,000 people liked a Facebook page for “Fire Lindsey Stone.” Stone says she fell into a deep state of depression and could barely leave her house for more than a year.

While this type of behavior may have been learned on social media, it is not limited to the realm of the Internet. On college campuses, the same mob justice seems to play out now on an almost daily basis. Student mobs demand that their classmates, professors and administrators be fired or expelled for minor offenses. Often the case against the offending party is made and tried on social media, with little regard for the accused’s perspective, rights or dignity.

The viciousness of theses attacks is fueled by “virtue signaling.” In order to prove that one is virtuous, one must show public disdain for political foes. One must enthusiastically condemn those who offend or challenge one’s beliefs, lest others question one’s commitment to the cause.

Trump and his supporters may live in this nasty world of insult and character assassination, but they certainly didn’t create it.

 April Kelly-Woessner is a professor and chairwoman of the political science department at Elizabethtown College. She also is a correspondent for LNP. Email her at woessnerak@etown.edu.