In the not-too-distant future, the mayhem that unfolded in downtown Vancouver after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final will be the subject of numerous psychological and sociological examinations carrying titles such as Riots in the Postmodern Age: From Rage to Outrage to Grief to More Outrage.
Or maybe someone will come up with a better title.
The social dynamics that accompany riots are undoubtedly more complex today than they once were. Thank the Internet for that. In the past week, we’ve been exposed to several aspects of this new behavioural model.
Just consider how reaction to the Vancouver riot has played itself out. It’s been a fascinating study in the human condition.
The morning after, there was general anger over what had happened, with police and politicians vowing to hunt down the perpetrators. But it wouldn’t be police officers doing the early investigative work – it would be members of the public.
People throughout Greater Vancouver would begin to conduct their own high-tech lynching by “outing” those who could be seen in the ubiquitous photos and videos from the riot that quickly surfaced. And these mostly anonymous posters on the Internet didn’t just identify the rioters by name and sometimes address, but also threatened and denounced them in the most vicious terms.
At the same time, Vancouverites began a very public grieving process that saw sheets of plywood covering the broken windows at the Bay turned into a wall of redemption and hope. People’s love for their city poured out in thousands of poignant annotations scrawled in pen and marker.
Then came the apologies, including from some of those identified in the riot photos and videos that became public. While the statements of contrition seemed heartfelt, they were almost universally greeted with suspicion and cynicism. They were only saying sorry because they got caught or because a high-priced lawyer advised them to, we heard people say. The Internet was soon flooded with more horrible comments about the motives of these people. Some even threatened those who employed them.
Today, we’ve reached a new stage, one that speaks to our time. We’re now seeing outrage over the outrage.
Thankfully, many people are urging a halt to the online vigilantism. The mob mentality that we’ve seen on display in the past few days has rivalled every bit the mob mentality that overcame thousands of people on a warm June evening last week.
I don’t know what this says about us. I do know that I’ve been dismayed by the level of anger, even genuine hatred, out there. And I know, too, that a civil society can’t be led by the instincts or inclinations of an enraged horde, even if it thinks it’s on the right side of what’s fair and just.
The Stanley Cup riot may have been started by professional instigators, but it was fuelled by the drunken excesses of hundreds of young people not usually miscreants and reprobates. How we treat them judicially will be the ultimate test of our patience and understanding.
Do we, as the online mob is demanding, throw them all in jail? Or do we find other forms of restorative justice that might have a deeper impact on them and not stain them for life, professionally and otherwise, the way a three-month stay in jail might?
At some point, calm must prevail. Reason must supersede raw emotion. Rationality must trump the rabble’s knee-jerk cries demanding frontier justice. As a society, we must be better than both the mob that rioted last week and the mob calling for the heads of everyone who took part in it.
This is not about making excuses for anyone’s behaviour or letting them off the hook in any way. It’s about not being ruled by odium and loathing but rather intelligence and reason.