Daniel Karasik considers the eros of online mobs
IT'S AN INTERESTING experience to be spanked in front of others. Embarrassing, humiliating, erotic—at least to those of us who are wired that way. But if it’s a perversion to eroticize punitive acts, it seems to be, per Freud, a common one. Even if we don’t crave to suffer or inflict shameful punishment, a lot of us sure do seem to like to watch.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about public discipline in the weeks since I was the object of a little social media mobbing, my third or fourth such experience in the space of a year, over a piece of criticism I published in this magazine, an essay about a new production at Tarragon Theatre. This latest mob wasn’t the loudest or largest I’ve conjured—and all of them pale in comparison to the sort of vicious online harassment, with explicit threats of violence, a balls-to-the-wall (female, brown) provocateur like Scaachi Koul, say, has to deal with—but it was fairly naked in its nastiness. Its highlight, for me, was when a local actor remarked: “Speaking of tragic casting, Daniel has cast himself as the whipping boy of Toronto theatre.”
At first I thought, bratty little masochist that I am: how great! And then I wondered: does this actor quite understand what a whipping boy is? Given that he’s angry with me, does he realize how much that image absolves me? For those of you who don’t have Sid Fleischman’s classic children’s novel The Whipping Boy, commonly featured on grade school curricula (at least when I was in school), seared into your brain: whipping boys were an English institution during the monarchies of the 16th and 17th centuries. Because kingship was understood at that time to be a status conferred by God, it was seen as inappropriate for a young prince to be punished by a mere mortal like a tutor. Another child—a whipping boy—was enlisted to receive corporal punishment on the prince’s behalf when the royal misbehaved. The idea was that the prince would be mortified to see his friend and playmate beaten unjustly for the prince’s own sins, and would amend his behaviour as a result. Point is, the whipping boy was a scapegoat.
If he has any sense of history, a Jewish boy like me will tend to be alert to moments of collective moral purging through the brutalizing of a scapegoat. As the Yale historian Timothy Snyder documents with relentless repetition (because the historical record itself is relentlessly repetitive) in his excellent recent study Black Earth, the ethnic Slavs and Balts of Eastern Europe during the Second World War didn’t slaughter millions of their erstwhile Jewish neighbours simply because of some atavistic racial hatred called anti-Semitism. What set genocide in motion was also the community’s need to absolve itself, represent itself as innocent, by assigning its guilt to a social enemy whom the community could slaughter as atonement. For instance, since Jews were widely identified with communism, an ethnic Pole or Ukrainian or Latvian under German occupation could symbolically erase his history of collaboration with the Soviets—declare himself an anti-communist—by killing a symbol of global bolshevism. The act of murder itself confirmed the Jew’s culpability. After all, if the murdered Jew weren’t a social, political, and moral villain of the most insidious sort, the Pole who’d killed him would have to see himself as guilty.
As the greatest Jewish artist-critic in history insisted, for which service he was rewarded with the desecration of his body through tortures culminating in the cross, every living human creature is guilty. Aside from our faults of action and omission, we’re all various degrees of racist and sexist and classist, probably as much as previous generations whose flaws on those scores are more obvious to us than our own. We constantly mistake our individual perspective for the truth of the larger structures of meaning in which we’re embedded. We’re self-deceiving, usually to the end that we’re able to see ourselves as innocent. When it’s suggested that we’re not what we think we are, often we respond with rage. That rage demands a target.
A scapegoat needn’t be as innocent as a Jacobean whipping boy. He may indeed have been a Soviet collaborator as well as a Jew; he may, like Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn—recently mobbed after he announced a theatre season that was deemed insufficiently “diverse”—have made the choices for which he’s flagellated. But the mob’s action remains most basically a declaration of its own innocence. Its members couldn’t possibly be guilty of the same charge they lay. Call someone a racist and, ipso facto, it’s inconceivable that you’re a racist yourself. Call someone a sexist, especially if you’re a man, and you symbolically erase every moment of entitled, arrogant pissiness you’ve ever inflicted on the opposite sex. You claim your place on the right side of history. Because you cast the first stone, you mark yourself as without sin.
Or perhaps, if you find such aggression disturbing, can too easily imagine yourself as its next victim, you don’t participate. You just watch. You sit at the back of the schoolroom and stare as your classmate is dragged to the front of the class, as his pants are yanked down and he’s bent over the teacher’s desk. You’re horrified; you can’t look away. You don’t exactly identify with either party to this ritual, don’t want to be either the punished child or the teacher yourself: you’re not quite a sadist, not quite a masochist. But you can’t look away. Should you feel uneasy that you find these spectacles of “justice” so exciting?
THE AMERICAN CRITIC Laura Kipnis has also noted psychosexual tremors in the battles waged over literary and other social terrain. “You don’t have to be Freud,” she writes, “to notice just how many opportunities for spanking and being spanked persist into later years. No, I don’t just mean in the privacy of your boudoir or the pages of publications with names like Mommy Severest, but deflected elsewhere, into—let’s say—‘higher-minded’ realms. Cultural pursuits, for instance.” She’s talking about the practice of literary criticism, mind you, not social media reactions to it, which raises an obvious question: am I inverting matters if I describe a social media mobbing as a public spanking, when really, in my own practice as an artist-critic passing public judgment on fellow artists’ work, I’m the first spanker? Are we in fact trading blows, with me as instigator?
That’s a plausible reading. But an online public shame campaign usually makes for asymmetrical warfare, aimed to punish behaviours that don’t announce themselves as aggressive: a theatre season devoid of pigmentation; in one instance from my own experience, a production of a play seen to represent outmoded gender politics. Until the shame campaign descends, its target often thinks everything is going fine. The mob may feel that target is, say, unconsciously perpetuating a subtle systemic violence that’s just as bad as the mob’s more obvious aggression. But it’s only the mob that initiates a public performance of punishment. It’s the mob that shakes its target out of his blithe complacency, drags him to the town square, and bares his bum.
The spankers intend to hurt him. He—the artistic director who hasn’t hired enough people of colour, the artist-critic who’s written an impious essay—may not have intended to hurt them. From a certain important perspective, this doesn’t matter. Innocent intent doesn’t change the fact of pain caused or always exonerate the one who caused it. And the mob isn’t necessarily in the wrong just because of its conscious intention to hurt. Corrective spankings, after all, are meant to hurt and may be administered by those who purport to love the spankee. (I know this from literature and adulthood only, I should say; neither my parents nor I believe in the actual corporal punishment of children.)
If there’s an ethics of critical spanking, then, whether such punishment takes the form of cutting literary analysis or the moral panic of online mobs, it seems to turn not on whether there’s intent to hurt but on whether that aggression is justified by—and proportioned to—a higher purpose. Consider the chastisements issued by Dale Peck, a bruising American literary critic whose reviews Kipnis sees as glaring reenactments, transferences, of childhood beatings. Peck’s smacks include, most famously: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” Intentions may often be inscrutable, but can we not recognize this, pretty clearly, as an attempt to hurt that goes well beyond any conceivable benefit to the victim? This is an attack that, if it considers the feelings of its target at all, seems calculated to diminish and not to improve him. It’s true that such onslaughts sometimes justify themselves as “setting an example” for onlookers, but at what point does such a ritual abolish all empathy with the victim and so become at least as great a sin as anything the victim might have done? If we write this sort of criticism, or if we join an online orgy of scurrilous cant, are we absolutely sure we can distinguish where the defensible motives—“I’m doing this for the victim’s sake and/or the sake of our community”—stop, and the vile ones—“I’m doing this to signal my innocence and vent my rage at someone else’s expense”—begin?
A theatre community in a modern North American city, after all, is pretty marginalized. It’s hard to make a living in it. Next to nobody outside it pays any attention to it. It’s structured around legacy institutions that are, or can feel to many like, opaque closed shops. Lots of capable, intelligent people devote themselves to a life in the theatre, dedicate decades of labour to their craft, and find themselves and their professional efforts treated, day after day, as disposable. Their middle-class sensibilities strain under working-class incomes. Add to the mix some deeply felt inequities around the representation of artists from diverse cultures, and you’ve got a potentially explosive situation. Though there’s no excuse, is it any surprise that such a community sometimes feels the need to pummel someone?
Like the blows of a laid-off worker who tends to “discipline” his children after he returns from the bar, such a community’s aggression often patently exceeds the level that could be justified as a tough but loving effort to correct the victim. The community’s violence is an attempt not only to enforce its own norms, but also to let off steam—and to affirm itself as unambiguously righteous. Thus a whipping boy is indispensable.
I offer myself as a whipping boy—guilty, of course, and also a scapegoat—more or less willingly. After all, I quite like to be spanked. But I also know how much you like to watch.
DANIEL KARASIK's play On Top, also partly about spanking, won the 2015 Safe Words Playwriting Contest and runs at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre from March 15-20.