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The Apocalyptic Psychology of Mobs—and Media

Especially during a pandemic, be wary of the need for moral purity.

Author Cynthia Ozick recently noted that “stupid mobs are spurred by clever goaders.” She was referring to historical book burners, but she just as easily could have been describing the media landscape today. At the vanguard of what Abraham Lincoln called a “mobocratic spirit” are now news and other media platforms, which increasingly seem to require ideological tests of purity that most can’t pass without pretense.

“It is now quite common among journalists to think of opinions not as arguments to be advanced, engaged with, and potentially refuted,” wrote Damon Linker, “but as a kind of viral propaganda with the power to convert readers.” That metaphor is particularly apt, but not just because social media has long been known as a method of “viral” communication, or even that it provides opportunities for “viral justice.” Given our heightened concern about viral contagion during a pandemic, our emotional attunement to all kinds of potential contaminants may be amplified, including in the moral realm.

The need for moral purity may seem more urgent now because of our focus on handwashing, mask-wearing, and avoiding viral contamination. But moral purification corrupts public discourse. And it not only expects a culture of conformity, it encourages a pernicious form of pluralistic ignorance — the incorrect assumption that the majority of decent people adhere to a set of ideas and imperatives that they do not in fact accept.

In May of 2020, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, ACLU past president Nadine Strossen, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, and I published an opinion essay in Politico: “The New York Times Surrendered to an Outrage Mob. Journalism Will Suffer For It.” We predicted that unless the Times reversed course and renewed a commitment to accuracy and the search for truth over moral purity and fealty to ideology, we could expect to see mobs, retractions, and preemptive editorial rejections. And not just at the New York Times. “Newspapers risk forfeiting decisions to air controversial or unorthodox ideas to outrage mobs,” we warned, “which are driven by the passions of their most ideological police rather than the health of the intellectual commons.”

Azulino (cropped)/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Azulino (cropped)/Wikimedia Commons

Not even a month later, an internal outrage mob at the New York Times erupted over the publication of an op-ed by Tom Cotton, a sitting Senator, about deploying the U.S. military to “maintain public order and safety” in American cities in response to the riots and looting that erupted alongside nationwide protests. As is now widely known, dozens of staffers tweeted “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.” *

Initially, opinion editor James Bennet, who had been hired to expand the range of views in the opinion section, defended his editorial mandate. “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy,” he tweeted. “We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.”

But during a moral panic, critical thinking and equipoise are in short supply. And when they come from only a small number of people, they are unpersuasive. Within four days of the op-ed’s publication, the paper all but retracted the piece, posting a lengthy editorial note above the online article. The paper’s publisher told staff that the Times would “[take] steps to reduce the likelihood of something like this happening again.” The first step was to defenestrate Bennet.

Mobs, retractions, and preemptive editorial rejections. Check, check, and check.

An apocalyptic psychology is a quest for absolute moral purity and the power to enforce it. In practice, it is the mentality of fanatics. There can be no half-measures, no compromises, and no allowances for cooler heads to prevail. (It is no coincidence that it took only four days for Bennet to be ousted — on a Sunday.)

Where a psychology for democracy requires an impulse to improve something flawed, an apocalyptic psychology relies on an impulse to destroy. Where a psychology for democracy requires a path to reconciliation and encourages forgiveness, an apocalyptic psychology insists on condemnation and public humiliation. On the individual level, where a psychology for democracy requires extending a hand, an apocalyptic psychology pulls out the rug.

“Purity tests are the tools of fanatics,” wrote New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior, “and the quest for purity ultimately becomes indistinguishable from the quest for power.” Once power has been ceded to the mob, fanatics exact revenge.

Following close on the heels of the New York Times debacle, Philadelphia Inquirer staff staged a “sick and tired callout” when the title “Buildings Matter Too” appeared on an op-ed arguing that property damage caused by rioters disproportionately hurts the people the peaceful protests attempt to support.

The editors retracted the title and issued an apology, but not because publishing an incredibly insensitive title was a mistake. Instead, they appeared to uncritically accept the view that the title objectively “suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans.” Except the title didn’t seem to suggest that equivalence to anyone who saw it before it went to print. The editors even noted that “no such comparison was intended.” Nonetheless, they engaged in the self-purification ritual of a certain kind of apology: What they did was “unacceptable.” (Okay.) Their “intent” was “irrelevant.” (When did intent become irrelevant?) They “need to do better.”

What does it mean to “do better?” As with the New York Times, it begins with a moral purge. Executive editor Stan Wischnowski, the 20-year veteran journalist who oversaw the Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series about school violence, resigned.

After Bennet's ouster, in one of her first communications as acting opinion editor at the New York Times, Kathleen Kingsbury let staff know that if they should come across “any piece of Opinion journalism — including headlines or social posts or photos or you name it — that gives you the slightest pause, please call or text me immediately.” Should any employee come across anything that gives them the slightest pause about a potential risk of coronavirus contamination in the workplace, that should certainly be brought to someone’s attention. So why not expect the same in the moral realm?

The impulse to purify our conversational domains and purge those who are willing to consider, discuss, and air views we find morally abhorrent is not exclusive to any one ideology. Remember when Fox News's Hannity used to have a Colmes? And not too long ago, many even bemoaned the excesses of “White Women, Come Get Your People” in the New York Times. But as hard as it is for true believers on both sides to accept, our country cannot and should not become an ideological monoculture. At a minimum, although it is challenging, we must be willing to make good faith attempts to understand our ideological opponents — even when we’re absolutely certain that they are wrong.

It is hard to reject purity tests and moral purges during even normal times. During a pandemic, an unprecedented time of heightened sensitivity to viral contamination, it may be even more difficult. But it has never been more essential. ♦

Pamela Paresky served as primary researcher and in-house editor for the New York Times bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind. Her opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky


* For more on the NY Times/Cotton op-ed, see this, this, and this.