Batman is pretty great and social media, as infected as it is by selfies, is a remarkable force.
However, Batman at his core is an embodiment of one thing: vigilante justice. If you’re a questionable drug lord, Batman will come burn your warehouse to the ground, throw bat shaped knifes everywhere and perform gold medal-worthy gymnastics rather than call the police. This is the kind of justice that takes place outside of the law, courts, is extrajudicial — and is definitely illegal.
Why is our world set up to criminalize Batman? A dead British guy named John Locke — whose political writing inspired leaders of the American and French Revolutions — argues that we choose to use good courts and lawyers because it’s the cleaner way of figuring things out. I give up my right to fight someone if they annoy me, and nicely enough other people won’t fight me either. Instead we go to court to figure it all out.
In the past few months, unless you’ve been under a rock that didn’t have WiFi, you’ve probably come across a social justice outcry of some sort on social media. As a young progressive student, I usually I agree with the sentiment of those posts. But we have a disturbing tendency, strengthened by social media, towards “crazy animal people” in how we demand an issue be resolved.But what happens when we don’t go through an established judicial system? Well think about how gangs settle their turf disputes — violently. As Thomas Hobbes, another dead British guy, elegantly put it, without strong political institutions we end up back in a “state of nature”, a.k.a “crazy animal people”. The apocalyptic world of the recent film, Mad Max: Fury Road , is an excellent example.
Let’s just consider the case of the McKinley, Texas pool party. A police officer arrives and breaks up said party in the worst way possible — pushing a teenage girl to the ground while pointing a gun at another teenager. It’s a painful example of how real the abuse of police power is, especially against people of color.
The police officer resigned from his job — expected. He screwed up his job tremendously.
A local woman who was involved in a fight before the police arrived and was yelling racist comments was put on administrative leave by her work at the demand of social media campaigns. I don’t like this lady, but this is a bit less expected. She works for a digital finance and analytics company and I’m not sure if its Core Logic Inc.’s job to manage her behavior when she’s not at work.
A principal in Florida who posted opinions in favor of the wild police officer on Facebook was forced to step down. Not expected. Do I completely disagree with the principal’s opinion in that online post? Yes. Should he lose his job because we disagree — I’m not so sure. His ignorance of social issues does not translate to being a total failure as a principal.
It does translate to a failure of being a more informed person. That’s a hard thing to prosecute someone for; we all are less informed than we could be. The information age is happy to be reminding us of that 24/7.
Does this new trend mean we will burn, fire and shame the whole lives of everyone that isn’t as informed as we are?
None of these are isolated incidents; I just cherry picked the latest news stories.
As this article is being written, Tim Hunt, a nobel prize winning professor from University College London, is facing a social media backlash for his sexist comments at a conference. Much like the other scenarios, he has resigned from his post at the college and been forced out of his other public involvements. Was Tim Hunt actively malicious or a dork whose words could cause real harm? We never asked. Will his resignation solve the problem of sexism in science or just terrify others into our political line? We never thought about it.
Social media is often effectively used in such situations all the time — it is the best mobilizer of the masses that ever was. And while massive positive change can and does emerge from this, like peaceful protests or calls to action on important issues, so can ugly mob justice and vigilantism.
An astute social critique would now politely jump in to remind us that courts or traditional channels of judgement, like law enforcement, are extensions of those in power and can’t necessarily be trusted to carry out justice. Remember To Kill A Mocking Bird from English class? Well said dear critique.
And so for better or worse, we live in a world where social media is part of the justice system. A piece that at its best can be used to fight systemic bias, but at its worst can lead to painfully poor definitions of “justice”.
Social media in its marriage to social justice has become Batman.
We are the first generation to have the power to become judge, jury and trial on our phones so remember another superhero cliché, “with great power, comes great responsibility.”