Monday, June 15, 2015

Natural History of the Lynch Mob

The lynch mob should not be thought of as an aberration. It's more like a natural manifestation of our human nature. Christopher Boehm, for one, has argued that collective punishment of deviance played a key role in the human development of altruism and conscience. The most common and least drastic version is shaming of the perpetrator. It's not a minor punishment for most persons, and in fact was largely abandoned as a legal punishment in the US because it was thought too harsh. Hunter gatherer societies deal with more serious offenders, or those (like psychopaths) who ignore shaming, by ostracism or lynching (murder by the group)

We have near contemporary evidence for group punishments among contemporary hunter gatherers, and highly suggestive circumstantial evidence of lynchings of deviants from thousands of years ago. The lynching was a key tactic of racial oppression in the United States until quite recently, and is prevalent in many parts of the world even today. Civilization has largely tried to replace physical lynching with judicial actions, but public shaming has seen an explosive reincarnation in an age when social media have turned the mob into a global monstrosity.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, has written about the case of Sir Tim Hunt.

Take the case of that great and good man, Professor Sir Tim Hunt. This world-famous British biologist has consecrated his life to the study of cells, and in the early Eighties he was looking at some sea urchins when he made a breakthrough. He discovered cyclins – crucial proteins that help somehow with cell development. He has won the Nobel prize and just about every other award; and last week, at the age of 72, he was giving a light-hearted, off-the-cuff speech to some scientific journalists in Seoul. Those remarks have prompted such global outrage that he has been stripped of honorary positions both at University College London and the Royal Society. In an interview at the weekend, he said that he was “finished” and that his career was at an end.

What did he say, to make the plaster fall off the ceiling? Why did the seismograph yaw so crazily? Well, he was speaking flippantly, ironically – or so he thought – about men and women working together in the lab. Or rather, he spoke about his own experience. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he said. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

Now the first two observations are surely uncontentious. Men fall in love with women, women fall in love with men. It’s been going on a long time, and thank goodness, because otherwise our species would die out. It is the third point – about crying – that has earned him the wrath of the Twittersphere, and the most venomous hatred.

The first question to ask, when someone is accused of saying something unacceptable – even in a semi-satirical way – is whether or not that statement is true. Is there any foundation to this casual assertion, that women cry more readily than men?

How many will be shocked to find that, even though both men and women weep, women do it more often?

In my minds eye I can see the faces of the lynch mob that destroyed Tim Hunt's career and life: they are the faces I saw on a postcard celebrating a mob hanging and burning a young black man 100 years ago. The crazy-eyed fanatics with rope and gasoline; the women in the back, children in hand, cheering them on; the smug town leaders watching at a distance, tut-tutting the mob perhaps but afraid to intervene - they are the cowards and fools that fired Hunt from his positions. I can't see the photographer who took the picture or the men who sold the postcards or those who bought them, but they are legion.

The smugly pious journalists who abetted the modern version of the lynching may fancy themselves liberal or humanitarian, but they aren't nearly so far from the characters in that old time lynching as they think.