Preachy blather alert!
I've been thinking a lot lately about the role of societal standards in encouraging these three extremes:
- the runaway bandwagon effect--"Let's punish people just based on rumors!"
- the victim-blaming effect--"Let's automatically assume that the accusers are liars, because there's no hard evidence to prove that this wasn't really consensual--it's just he said, she said."
- the let-bystanders-be-bystanders effect--"It's none of our business because it didn't happen to us, and who are we to judge?"
It seems to me that these effects are the result of the clash of two societal standards--two core principles of civilization, actually.
First, there's the notion that right doesn't make right, and that the strong should not be able to get away with victimizing the weak. We want to encourage people to empathize with each other, and treat each other with fairness and respect. This is basic Golden Rule and chivalry stuff.
Second, there's the notion that alleged victims shouldn't be automatically believed based on the fact that such crimes have been known to happen, or automatically dismissed based on the fact that false accusations and/or simple misunderstandings have also been known to happen. Each individual case should have due process, the presumption of innocence until proof of guilt, and the idea that justice should look impartially at the evidence, rather than empathizing with either of the parties involved.
Both of these things--empathy, and the lack of empathy required to be truly impartial--are important societal standards. And we assume that societal standards are what puts the brakes on bad behavior.
Unfortunately, the trouble with sociopaths is that they are so good at using societal standards to manipulate society
into allowing them to justify their bad behavior.
The dynamic between bullies and their victims
is only part of the power trips that bullies enjoy when they victimize people. The rest of the power trip comes from the dynamic between bullies and third parties
. I.e., between bullies and wider society.
First, there are the power dynamics between bullies and their toadies
(those who actively admire and empower them, because they wish they could do such things themselves).
Second, there are the power dynamics between bullies and bystanders
(who often empathize with the accused--"Being wrongly accused could happen to me, so I had better give this person the benefit of the doubt!"--more strongly than with the accuser--"Being victimized like that would never happen to me in a million years, because I would be smart enough to handle it the right way, defuse the situation, go to the authorities with solid evidence instead of encouraging people on social media to pile on based only on hearsay, etc."
A sociopath like Trump brags, because he cares more about impressing toadies than about persuading less admiring people to remain bystanders. To impress a toady, he infamously bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. And he bragged that he wouldn't even lose his toadies' admiration if he were to publicly murder someone
. To Trump-style sociopaths, social standards matter because they are a yardstick
to measure how much more powerful he is than ordinary mortals, who are not allowed to transgress those standards.
A sociopath like Nassar doesn't brag, because he doesn't care about cultivating toadies. Instead, he makes PowerPoint presentations to persuade others to remain bystanders, because it's perfectly reasonable that young girls might misunderstand a bona fide, complicated medical technique...but you're much smarter than those young girls, and you can understand it when it's explained to you. To Nassar-style sociopaths, social standards like the presumption of innocence matter because they are tools that can be exploited
to leverage their own transgressive behavior and allow it to continue.
Now, about that bandstand effect to rush to punish sociopaths like Trump and Nassar...
The people who are most bloodthirsty about the vigilante justice of social media crucifixions based on rumored accusations (and about the vigilante justice of, ahem, punching Nazis) are, I suspect, themselves
Trump-style sociopaths and toadies. Think about it. They get a power rush from doing or advocating things that transgress the usual social standards against vigilante violence, and they play to a crowd of likeminded toadies happy to cheer them on and say that the usual social standards don't apply in this case. Isn't this just what Trump and his ilk are also doing?
We have to be careful not to become the thing we're battling.