Brendan O’Neill:

That Neeson’s expression of regret for his past thoughts counts for nothing in the eyes of the new morality police is striking, and worrying. It points to a streak of very anti-human fatalism in the Twittermobbing phenomenon. The new witch-hunters are not in the business of forgiving people — even people who confess to their one-time horribleness — because they fundamentally believe that people cannot change. That if you once had a racist thought you will always be racist. That if you made a homophobic joke ten years ago, you will be a homophobe forever. This is why they engage in the low pursuit of ‘offense archaeology’, as the journalist Freddie de Boer described the trend for poring over public figures’ every past statement and deed in search of something nasty or embarrassing that might be used against said public figure today — because they think people do not change, that their wickedness is ingrained, that they suffer from original sin and it cannot be washed away.

Intellectuals will always, always overvalue the need for theory, but again, there’s no need to ferret out philosophical convictions which likely don’t even exist. The “new witch-hunters” don’t have a robust theory of human nature underlying their actions; they’re motivated by the same base incentives and cynical calculations as ever. Liam Neeson is more valuable to them as a target of their insatiable spite than he is as a political ally. Or, to put it another way, all he is to the Twittermob is an entertainer. The entertainment might entail watching him star in a movie, or it might entail trying to destroy his reputation and career just because they can. Social media is the insane, decadent emperor, and we’re all gladiators competing for its amusement. Apparently Neeson’s latest performance has gotten the thumbs-down. So it goes.

We’re living in an age of social norms being in flux. Many would say t’was ever thus, but I’m specifically talking about the sort of flux facilitated by the rapid expansion of personal technology. Let’s recall that smartphones and social media have only been ubiquitous for ten years, if even that long. The effects, however, have clearly been profound and widespread. For our narrow focus here — namely, the birth of a vanguard of Javerts who specialize in public shaming and mob behavior — it’s enough to note the leveling effect whereby a resentful nobody with too much spare time can now easily attack and humiliate a celebrity. Imagine what a rush it must be to see someone famous or powerful having to grovel and apologize because of something you found and publicized from their social media history. Imagine what a heady feeling it would be to be part of a news story, mentioned in the same sentence with your formerly-exalted victim. If Nietzsche were here, he would instantly recognize it for what it is — a flexing of muscles, a testing of strength, an indulgence of all sorts of normally-forbidden urges as people, free from the old norms and hierarchies, recognize a newly-opened path to status and influence and set about exploring the boundaries. New norms are still evolving, but it will be a while before there are any widely-accepted rules about how to behave on this electronic frontier. It’s a tale of two Williams — Golding was much more percipient than Godwin about what is likely to happen in the anarchic interlude between the decay of old mores and the birth of new ones.

Still, not all of the mob behavior is attributable to a new breed of resentful revolutionaries practicing the same old cutthroat political maneuvering. There’s also a different primal reaction that plays a significant role. Some of the critiques of social-justice fanaticism talk about the concept of moral pollution. The reaction to Neeson’s story of attempted vigilante vengeance was visceral, not philosophical. The absolute refusal to countenance any ambiguity resembles a moral germophobia, a reflexive desire to avoid contamination. The easiest way to stay safe is to culturally quarantine all the bad people with their bad thoughts so they can’t infect the rest of us. It would be useless to explain that you can’t catch racism by sympathizing with a man telling a story of being enraged beyond reason by the rape of his friend. They’re too busy frantically washing their hands for the hundredth time today to entertain any nuance.

Perhaps next time in amateur sociology hour, we’ll consider whether the dramatic increase in diagnoses of Asperger’s and autism has any correlation with this widespread social maladaptation and inability to process ambiguity. Also, Marie Kondo: symbol of the zeitgeist? Maybe the trend of denouncing and renouncing the Four Olds (or the Four Unwokes?) is just a political form of decluttering.