Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 is a long way from Vancouver, BC in 2011, and yet there are some alarming similarities emerging in the wake of the Vancouver riots. The Salem witch-trials is “one of the most famous cases of mass hysteria, and has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of false accusations, lapses in due process, and local governmental intrusion on individual liberties”. The ‘witch-hunts’ that preceded these trials involved moral panic, public accusations and lynchings of individuals (mostly women) who were deemed to be guilty of the ‘devil’s work’. In the historical and religious context of Medieval times and the Reformation, it comes as no surprise that the dogma of Puritan Christianity would seek to persecute those whose behaviour might in any way be interpreted as ‘heresy’ or a violation of the ‘divine majesty’. Since then, the metaphor of ‘witch-hunts’ has been used to describe similar phenomenon, such as public smear campaigns and the infamous McCarthyist search for communists in the USA during the Cold War. Over the past few days, a very disturbing ‘witch-hunt’ has been unfolding in the realm of social media, in relation to the Vancouver riots.
In modern terminology ‘witch-hunt’ has acquired usage referring to the act of seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence. It is used whether or not it is sanctioned by the government, or merely occurs within the “court of public opinion”. (Wikipedia)
Four hundred years ago, individuals were publicly hunted and persecuted with no chance of a fair trial. On the rare occasion that they were found to be ‘not guilty’, they would still experience humiliation, violation and degradation at the hands of their peers. If they managed to escape a public hanging, they would become outcasts, condemned to a life sentence of stigma, banished from their communities. If we look closely, we are witness to this same public denigration of those who participated in the riots following the Stanley Cup Final last Wednesday night. Understandably, the good citizens of Vancouver feel justified in taking the moral high-ground and passing judgement on those who desecrated their city. However, there is a fine line between calling for justice and the obsessive vigilante ethos that has dominated social media networks over the past four days.
As the news of the riots broke on twitter and tumblr feeds, people were simultaneously establishing facebook sites requesting identification of the culprits who were rampaging on the streets of Vancouver. This happened prior to the official invitation from the Premier and Chief of Police. I have no objection to the request for public assistance, in fact, I condone the submitting of photographic ‘evidence’ to the authorities and applaud those who are ‘turning themselves in’ to authorities. However, I strongly object to the manner in which this ‘investigation’ has been conducted online, the attitude of surveillance and the wanton ‘naming and shaming’ by those who claim to be acting out of civic responsibility and national pride. There is an ethical difference between submitting evidence to police and assuming the multiple roles of detective, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. It is becoming shamefully apparent that the behaviour of a massive amount of ‘decent law-abiding’ people in social media world reflects a similar ‘groupthink’ and disregard for the rights of one’s fellow citizens that these ‘do-gooders’ were so quick to condemn.
A few cases stand out in my mind as examples of scapegoating and vilification of young adults who were caught up in this mayhem. The most infamous of these being Nathan Kotylak whose public apology was not enough to stop a barrage of public backlash that was so threatening, it drove his family out of their suburb. Here is a teenager who made a grave mistake, has shown remorse, has been reprimanded and will be punished. It is not the role of the public to determine those sanctions and the ongoing public persecution of this young man and his family is morally reprehensible. Another recent case is that of Camille Cacnio, a UBC student who impulsively decided to steal some trousers during the looting spree that enticed hundreds (many of whom were not caught on ‘not-so candid cameras’). Yesterday she turned herself into police, and has since published a blog post containing a lengthy apology, analysis of the incident and her feelings about the aftermath (see addendum below). In part, some elements in her intelligent and courageous act of contrition moved me to write this commentary. Yet in the eyes of many, she continues to be beyond redemption, now criticized for her “wordy diatribe” and accused of being “in denial’. The ongoing public outcry against these young people confirms my original thesis about the unreasonable, misplaced judgements, demonisation and labelling of rioters as being ‘un-Canadian’. Let me be clear, I am in no way excusing or condoning the behaviours of these young adults. As I have already argued, their disregard for community and their sense of ‘privilege’ and ‘entitlement’ is disturbing, a sad reflection of prevailing societal attitudes. However, in the case of these two in particular, their acts are misdemeanors that pale in comparison to violence and crimes against humanity that are not subject to such extreme forms of public scrutiny and vengeance.
A cursory glance through online forums and facebook pages reveals a plethora of aggressive abuse targeting those individuals whose trial should be held in law courts, not through public exposure. Many have already lost their jobs and the respect of their communities. And this is prior to the official ‘objective’ assessment of evidence. Yet they continue to be recipients of vitriolic assault from those whose behaviour is not being subjected to any moral scrutiny. Perhaps these vigilantes have never heard of the biblical tenet: ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. Or maybe they have nothing better to do with their time than hurl criticism and abuse at others and establish repositories of the ‘guilty’ suspects. Certainly they are devoid of compassion, empathy and the capacity for forgiveness. Holding people accountable for their actions does not necessitate the level of persecution being delivered. This is by no means a new phenomena. It is a modern witch-hunt of huge proportions, played out on a new stage, a ‘Social Media Salem’. The repercussions have only just begun and Canadians stand to lose more than they might gain in the ‘healing process’. If I were more than an ‘honorary Canadian’, this entire debacle would make me sad and ashamed, yet determined to learn from the unfolding events in order to make my country a safer, more harmonious nation. Granted, many good citizens of Vancouver have devoted time and energy to the clean up operations, writing messages on the ‘citizen wall’ and trying to resurrect the reputation of their city. Perhaps they should now direct some attention to those ‘uncivil’ citizens who are continuing to tarnish this reputation by public condemnation of their neighbours and fellow Canadians. They might as well be burning the ‘rioters’ at the stake or hanging them in the town square.
Addendum: A few hours after reading Camille’s apology, it had been significantly edited, with her explanatory and analyses section removed (no doubt self-imposed censorship in response to public wrath). In addition to the ‘profiling’ of rioters on public blogs, a number of celebrities such as Michael Buble are initiating campaigns to “circulate the faces and names of those guilty parties. Let’s get them lots of publicity so that the police can make some arrests.” I guess this (along with the clip below) further reinforces what it means to be a true Canadian.
“Let Vancouver be judged not by the shameful act of a few but instead by the overwhelming and heartfelt response of her true citizens.”
You might also be interested in https://cinova.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/lessons-from-atticus-post-vancouver-riots/