The Hollow Thrill of Viral Justice


It sure does feel like every day a new viral video emerges of a previously anonymous person captured on camera-phone saying and doing something egregiously racist and horrible. These videos are widely disseminated, both via social media and on websites that know all too well that nothing attracts page-views quite like clips showing humanity at its flamboyant ugliest. 

Once the people spewing hate are identified, an aggressive makeshift online campaign is instantly mounted to get these folks fired. In Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he notes that when a woman, like, say, Justine Sacco becomes the target of widespread public hatred they’re almost always subject to rape and death threats whereas when a man becomes vilified on that level the threats are instead almost exclusively professional in nature. This speaks both to the fundamental misogyny of our culture and how inextricably men and their worth are inextricably linked to their jobs and women to their sexuality. 

This often leads to immediate consequences. The person caught in the middle of a racist rant is fired! They lose their positions and the status that comes with it. There’s something exciting, even exhilarating about seeing racists and bigots punished so quickly and dramatically. The visceral rush of rage that accompanies seeing people do and say unconscionable things is replaced by the visceral rush of satisfaction that comes with seeing ostensibly bad people published. 

Win, win, right? People who do and say awful things get punished swiftly and severely, we get to feel like we’ve collectively struck a blow against hatred and bigotry and, theoretically, people will be discouraged from being publicly racist out of fear of ending up the next unwitting contestant on the never-ending game of “Let’s find this asshole and get them fired.”


There are a couple of problems with that. One is that this focus on singling out the most virulent public racists overlooks the fundamentally institutional nature of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bigotry. 

As if to really drive this point home, Donald Trump was the accidental star of the most viral video/audio in American history when he bragged about grabbing women by their genitalia in the Access Hollywood leak heard around the world, and somehow this singularly humiliating piece of audio did not keep Trump from getting elected President, or besting Hillary Clinton at the polls with white women. 

Another problematic aspect of viral justice is that the intense, widespread hunger to see people who’ve done wrong get punished contributes to the ongoing coarsening and cheapening of the public discourse, which is increasingly, rage, anger, punishment and humiliation-based. 

Companies tend to reflect the personalities and ideals of their leaders. The same is true of countries. President Obama’s unflappable cool gave us something to aspire to, if never quite attain, or, in the case of what would come to be known as the Alt-Right, something to revile with a white-hot, burning passion rooted in racism and racist white America’s visceral discomfort with black intellectuals. 

Despite the virulent racism he faced, Obama treated Republicans as colleagues he may have disagreed with politically, and sometimes personally, but who were essential to the business of running a country with a two-party system, however flawed. 

Trump, in sharp contrast, sees the world in opposites and extremes. To him, Democrats aren’t colleagues or collaborators: they’re the enemy in a total war for the hearts and minds and votes of the American people who must not only be defeated, but also destroyed, punished and publicly humiliated. Even more distressingly, he views the press the same way. 

We, as a culture, are quick to anger, rage and judgment and slow to empathize and understand. Ambiguity and context are ignored in the feverish hurry to judge and punish, to dramatically announce that we are through with the artists and entertainers we previously revered because they said or did the wrong thing. 

I’m not immune to these impulses. I’m just as susceptible to them as everyone else. When I see someone behaving abhorrently in a viral video, I want to see them punished. I want them to lose their jobs and their friends and standing in society. But I’ve come to realize that that is an ugly, ugly emotion born of rage rather than a hunger for righteousness. In allowing myself to be continually overcome with anger at total strangers, I’m debasing myself and giving into my uglier instincts and impulses. 

Social media has always been powered by anger but that anger has escalated alarmingly since Trump’s Presidential campaign. Thanks largely to Trump, the temperature of online debate seems permanently pitched at white-hot and scorching. That’s simply not amenable to respectful debate or honorable disagreement. 


I’m not arguing that these people should not be punished. They should. Actions have consequences. I’m merely positing that this fierce, widespread need to see complete strangers destroyed for transgressions real and imagined is injurious to our spirit as a nation, and not just on a personal, individual level.  

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