Casting the first stone
Last week I wrote about the dangers of social media lynch mobs, including how it can cause suicide.
I thought of writing more about lynching to help us understand the psychology behind these hideous acts.
Lynching is collective behavior, involving large numbers of people who mete out punishment without trial or due process. The term is said to have come from Charles Lynch, one of the American revolutionaries who fought against Britain for independence. During that war for independence, he detained loyalists, people who sided with Britain, and later sought approval from legislators for what he had done.
A few decades later, “lynching” came to be used to describe white mobs who went after African-Americans, beating them up and, in many cases, executing them. A Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, has a memorial to remember 4,400 identified victims from 1877 to 1950.
Doing my research on lynching, I found out that while the majority of victims in the United States were African-Americans, there were also other people of color who were victimized, including Chinese and Filipinos who migrated to the United States in the early 20th century to work in farms. Resentment against them grew because they were seen as taking away jobs. Others were offended by the sight of Filipinos having white girlfriends.
Several anti-Filipino lynching incidents took place, with the most serious one occurring on Jan. 18, 1930, in Watsonville, California, involving some 500 white men and youth going on a rampage. One Filipino died during the riots.
We see then the need to be “righteous,” using reasons that get large numbers of people to become very emotional and reinforcing each other’s anger.
Such behavior certainly preceded the American antiblack mobs. We humans are pack animals, quick to arouse for the kill. Worse than animals, who act mainly on instincts, we have the ability to incite each other using half-truths and fake news.
Religious mobs seem to be the most problematic, with many lynchings still being reported today. What better reason to mobilize lynching gangs than to cite God and morality? From John 8:7, we have the account of a crowd who approached Jesus, demanding to punish an alleged adulteress by stoning. To which Christ gave his famous reply: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
Was Christ himself a victim of lynching?
Not quite, if we want to be technical about the definition, because he did get a trial—a mock trial—before Pontius Pilate, who then sentenced him to death by crucifixion. But the mock trial was in fact pushed as well by mobs, manipulated by Christ’s enemies to demand his execution.
We move back to a period closer to our own times, in South Africa, during the struggle against the apartheid regime, where a brutal practice called “necklacing” erupted. Gangs of antiapartheid youth would detain suspected police informers and put a rubber tire around their neck, the tire filled with gasoline.
Winnie Mandela, then the wife of the much-loved and revered antiapartheid leader Nelson Mandela, was quoted as saying: “With a box of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate the country.” Winnie Mandela lost stature because of her association with the violence, but was later able to regain some standing in the postapartheid era. Lynch mobs in countries as diverse as Sri Lanka and Haiti later borrowed the practice.
Perhaps the most terrifying of lynch mobs were those mobilized during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of China, which began in 1966 and did not end until almost a decade later. This Cultural Revolution was part of the power play within the Chinese Communist Party, which had called for an internal purge among its ranks. Hordes of young Red Guards turned the country upside down, supposedly to clean the party as well as rid China of the “Four Olds”—ideas, culture, habits and customs—of the exploiting classes. They destroyed temples, museums and cultural sites, burning books and closing down universities. At least 400,000 Chinese—some estimates run into the millions—were accused of subverting the party or simply belonging to the wrong class, and were executed by the lynch mobs.
In 1981, the Chinese Communist Party declared that the Cultural Revolution was “responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic.”
Self-righteousness, reinforced through mob thinking, translates into a systematic campaign of terror. That still holds true today in our times, on the internet.
Will it work if we remember Christ’s admonition about who gets to throw the first stone?
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