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Shirley Jackson’s devastating 1948 short story “The Lottery” takes place in what might be a provincial corner of America in which an annual, compulsory lottery lends a degree of adventure and meaning to otherwise uneventful lives. One summer morning a man named Bill Hutchinson draws a winning ticket. Bill’s wife, Tessie, whose demeanor has been calm until this point, shifts, and she pleads for a redraw. Instead a second round determines which of the five members of their family will be the ultimate winner. This time, Tessie pulls the marked slip. “It isn’t fair!” she screams, but no one is listening. The townspeople, including her husband and children, close in and stone her to death.

In subtle, ruthlessly efficient prose, Jackson portrays the tendency, surely as old as humankind itself, to find scapegoats—ostracizing, penalizing, punishing, and humiliating individuals in the process. Midcentury New Yorker subscribers were apparently unprepared to find such bleakness in their mailboxes; many canceled their subscriptions in response, and some even sent hate mail to the magazine and to Jackson herself. The story was later banned in South Africa.

This summer, as contagion and protest frayed our nerves and debate around so-called cancel culture erupted in the op-ed pages, I thought often of Jackson’s allegory. (I must not have been the only one; The New Yorker reprinted the story in its July 27 issue.) Mercifully, we don’t obliterate one another with rocks, nor do we burn one another at the stake anymore, but it would be naïve to conclude that these impulses wither from disuse rather than find alternative outlets. While the penalty for transgression has decreased from bodily harm to reputational destruction, the public square has expanded from one’s small town to the global surveillance state—a wicked noosphere of total attention. Until recently, it was possible simply to relocate and start from scratch were one to lose one’s good name. Which is to say that a reputation, once damaged somewhere, might be restored easily enough somewhere else. In the social media era, however, such rebirth can no longer be counted on. “Each day on twitter there is one main character,” reads a 2019 tweet from @maplecocaine. “The goal is to never be it.” Another user elaborated, “It’s a third-grade recess game but with celebrities, the president, and the potential to permanently ruin your life.”

We all remember the case of Justine Sacco, back in 2013, perhaps the Ur-cancellation of the Twitter age. Sacco was an unknown public-relations director who, before boarding a flight from London to Cape Town, tweeted a tasteless joke: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She had only 170 followers, yet by the time her plane landed, her bad tweet had gone viral and her life was in tatters. She had become a world-famous racist—and lost her job. A common paradox of any debate around cancel culture is that those who insist it is not a problem oscillate between dismissing it as a made-up phenomenon and asserting that anyone who has endured such a fate deserved it. If Sacco was in fact canceled, the feeling was, she had it coming.

But consider the lesser-known and far less clear-cut case of Rebecca Tuvel. In 2017, in the feminist-philosophy journal Hypatia, Tuvel published a paper titled “In Defense of Transracialism,” in which she compared the male-to-female transition of Caitlyn Jenner with the white-to-black transformation of Rachel Dolezal. The text was swiftly denounced as both racist and transphobic. “One philosopher claimed that it not only ‘perpetuates harm in numerous ways’ but also ‘enacts violence,’ ” Rogers Brubaker observed in the New York Times. “As in other cases of internet shaming, people who apparently had not read the offending article were eager to display their virtue by condemning it.” Once the article was criticized widely on social media, scholars associated with Hypatia piled on, and a group of associate editors issued a spineless apology on Facebook. An open letter with more than eight hundred signatories, including two members of Tuvel’s dissertation committee, demanded the article’s retraction. Though many academics rushed to the author’s defense, and the article remained online, Hypatia suffered waves of resignations and a subsequent restructuring in which editors and board members who supported Tuvel stepped down; to this day, Tuvel remains tarred as a bigot.

Much has been said about the benefits of democratizing our national (and international) discourse and allowing a variety of voices the chance to object to offensive speech and behavior. Much has also been said about the possible chilling effect that accompanies the vigilant policing of rapidly shifting norms. And yet curiously short shrift has been given to one of the most fundamental aspects of this old culture rendered terrifyingly new by technology: the sadistic, gleeful spectacle of punishment. The self-righteousness and solidarity that derives from not being it produces an obscene joy in many people, who lose themselves in the mob as it exacts its furious revenge.

The French critic and philosopher René Girard’s mimetic theory, and his notion of the scapegoat as a mechanism of social control, provides a framework to make sense of the brave new collision of human nature and technology—as well as the ramifications of this unprecedented global psychological experiment we have willfully subjected ourselves to in the form of social media. Girard’s argument starts with a literary treatment of desire that is rooted in insights gleaned from the Western tradition’s great novels and dramas. For Girard, desire is not linear—I want, in a volitional vacuum, an overpriced, oversized pair of Balenciaga sneakers—but is formed in the context of other people. That clunky footwear is desirable to me because it is desired by others. (This is basic marketing.) It is through mediators that our own desires disclose themselves to us, and this can spur rivalry.

According to a group of scholars of mimetic theory, the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, “mimetic desire leads to escalation as our shared desire reinforces and inflames our belief in the value of the object.” Such escalation holds the potential of “a war of all against all.” For Girard, that escalation is defused by means of the scapegoat mechanism—the community unites against a single, arbitrarily defined target and avoids a broader, chaotic conflict as a result. Crucially, a social order achieved in this way is only possible “if the excluding parties unanimously believe that the person or group expelled is truly guilty or dangerous.” (If this sounds religious, it’s supposed to.)

As Jackson understood, finding someone to blame, someone whom all potential rivals can unite against, does not depend on whether that unfortunate person is actually guilty of anything. What is crucial is agreement on her guilt, so that when she is expelled from the circle of acceptance—whether literally or figuratively—her objections will go unheard. Anyone who has endured hundreds, thousands, or, if extraordinarily unlucky, millions of tossed-off blows on Twitter can easily put themselves in Tessie Hutchinson’s shoes. Cancellation operates with the logic and velocity of a sucker punch: you can’t protect yourself, and don’t even know where the attack is coming from until it has already landed. It is not, as is often maintained, about “accountability”: being held to account implies an opportunity to explain oneself. The scapegoat’s guilt is proven as a result of the peace that is won through the group’s unity against her. This seemingly virtuous peace is necessarily blinding, as the Colloquium explains:

When a community in the throes of conflict obtains peace through the violent expulsion of a scapegoat, they cannot perceive that it is their own unanimous violence which produced the peace. This blindness on the part of the participants with respect to what they are really doing—killing an innocent victim—is the one essential element required for the scapegoating mechanism to work. Girard points out that to have a scapegoat is not to know you have one. In other words, participants in the scapegoating mechanism hold an authentic belief in the guilt of the victim, a guilt seemingly demonstrated by the restoration of peace.

Every day online, outraged, mimetically desiring and heretofore atomized enforcers—on both the left and the right—coalesce to designate enemies, heretics, “main characters” to be tagged it and duly shamed and punished. Girard’s theory is observable in real time as the mob swarms and delights in the destruction of a hapless target.

Two recent videos widely disseminated on Twitter stay with me; both are indicative of yet another novel twist in the same old plot. The ubiquity of smartphones has been an extraordinarily positive tool in illuminating the daily abuse by police that citizens have long endured. But we are increasingly motivated to turn our lenses on one another. The premium on a racist “gotcha” video runs sky-high in today’s outrage market. And the rush to film and share the next Amy Cooper encounter appears to be frantic.

When is pulling out a camera itself an act of aggression and—more to the point, in this era of social media ritual sacrifice—at what point does the introduction of a smartphone pose a threat? I do not mean that hyperbolically. A video of a confrontation that occurred in a Detroit parking lot this summer shows an enraged white woman aiming a gun at a family of unarmed black women, one of whom is filming and narrating the encounter. The scene is particularly unsettling in the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and so many other black Americans at the hands of armed white vigilantes. It seems as if the white woman and a white man in the car with her are attacking the black family. But there is a longer clip that shows a more complicated exchange. When the recording starts, the white woman is outside a restaurant, discussing an apparent bump of a black woman’s fifteen-year-old daughter, attempting to defuse the situation and depart. The black woman follows her to her vehicle, stating for the camera that the white woman is a “racist.” She denies this charge, saying you can’t just go around calling all white people racist, and emphasizing twice that she “cares about” the other woman and that she is sorry the woman has experienced racism.

This would have been an excellent point at which to simply walk away, and I believe the second woman and her daughter very well may have—if they weren’t both filming the spat. If they weren’t already envisioning a Karen-entrapment flick going viral on Twitter. And so the daughter states that this is “on camera,” which is not an empty statement. Just the week before, the nation watched a video of another white woman being pursued to the threshold of her driveway by a black comedian and self-appointed “digilante” named Karlos Dillard (as far as I can tell, a disingenuous troll) who was filming the encounter while narrating that she, too, was a racist. That woman was convulsively shaking, visibly panicking, and trying to conceal her face and license plate as if her life depended on it. She could not have been unaware that if the video started trending, her fate would likely be social death, regardless of whether or not she deserved it.

The woman brandishing a gun in the parking lot may or may not have been thinking about all this. What is clear is that she behaved as someone who felt trapped and, in desperation, produced the firearm. This was a disastrous and lamentable decision, though such a reaction should surprise exactly no one in a nation of nearly 330 million in which there exist more guns than people. I can’t stop thinking how lucky it is that everyone in that parking lot is still alive.

Interactions on social media seep offline into our real lives, and the results are toxic. A culture in which everyone is constantly on edge, waiting to be ambushed, screenshotted, ratioed, dunked on, and potentially fired, is not healthy. Equality in mutual insecurity is a negative equality. Genuine, positive equality can only be achieved through mutual security, which requires maximal tolerance and freedom. The boundary between the infinite and infinitely judgmental internet agora—where individuals become ideas, epithets, avatars of virtue or stigma to be celebrated or cast out—and our local, physical lives has eroded. We are uploading our competing visions into an online pressure cooker, collectively creating an environment that is not at all conducive to transcending division; on the contrary, it actively encourages, in so many little and not so little ways, the deepening of all our preexisting fault lines.

One common dismissal of growing concerns about cancel culture is that—as “The Lottery” or, for that matter, the New Testament might suggest—such regulating behavior is nothing new. To this I would hasten to counter that, in fact, it is a completely novel danger insofar as a large enough quantitative shift becomes a qualitative one. Ordinary human beings are not built to be observed—and, in turn, harassed and punished, even if only verbally now, instead of physically—by a community as sizable, anonymous, and, ironically, unaccountable as that which exists on Twitter.

The loudest and most cantankerous voices on the internet have been for some time now cavalierly and cathartically whipping up powerful feelings of enmity, contempt, and moral superiority in rituals of public shaming that bond us. The result is that we are drawing slips of paper all the time, gambling daily in a lottery that may very well doom us.

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October 2021

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