I've been disturbed for a long time by the growing anger and ugliness in our public discourse. I'm especially troubled by how ugly things can get online. There are modern mobs who abandon all ideas of "innocent until proven guilty," or other basic aspects of civilization.
I find this so troubling because it seems to me that we are using advanced technologies to rush headlong back to the Dark Ages. Back to Witch Hunts, back to tribalism, and back to a nasty, brutish jungle law where we hunt in packs and savage our ideological foes.
I've been thinking a lot about this because very year at school we show students a clip from To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is a lawyer defending a young black man, Tom Robinson, who was accused of raping a white woman. Knowing a lynch mob will form, Atticus goes to the jail. He brings a reading lamp and a chair and sits there reading a book.
When the mob comes, as he knew they would, Atticus calmly stands there and explains that he won't allow a lynching. His client is entitled to a trial, and Atticus aims to see that he gets a fair hearing.
One man against the mob, who are rushing to judgment. One man standing up for the idea that we ought to have fair trials, that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and that mobs don't execute justice very well.
Atticus can't change his society, even though he sees how wrong it can be. So he does what he can. He stands up and says, "No. This is wrong."
People read or see this scene and think of how wonderful Atticus is. I suspect we also imagine ourselves standing up and facing down bigots just like Atticus. That's nice, but those are cheap thrills and cost us nothing.
In the meantime, mobs run wild all over the internet and, without a thought, savage people's reputations, destroy careers, and lead to terrible suffering.
And I wonder, how can I keep showing this clip to my students and telling them to stand up and stop bullies and be brave and strong and so on when I am quiet.
So I want to try something. It is hopelessly idealistic, extremely impractical, and probably impossible. But I still want to do it. I'm thinking of something called the Atticus Society. A Facebook group of people who find ways to stand up and say, "No. This is wrong."
A group of people who call for calm when feelings are inflamed. A group of people who suggest patience when the mob rushes to judgement. A group of people who send out Tweets and messages of support when people are being savaged. A group of people committed to the ideas of due process, of dispassionate justice, and of civil, reasoned, calm discourse in the body politic. A group of people who interpose themselves between the mob and the victim and who really believe that Free Speech is worth defending.
Such a group can't fix everything, can't be everywhere. But it might be a few places. It might help a few people, soothe a few situations. Imagine what an organized cadre of people calling for calm and civility might do?
It could be quite fun, actually. Quixotic, but fun.
Who's in? If you are maybe willing to join, or simply intrigued, send me an email here. Let's talk and see what we can do.
Or, does it make more sense to wring our hands, lament loudly, and hope things change, or at least, hope the mob will never hurt someone we love?
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