Last week, on our final day in Williamsburg, we got to witness Benedict Arnold arrive in town to declare it “liberated.” Arnold is the most notorious traitor in US history, and truth be told his vanity was his own undoing, but many of the reasons he had for turning coat ring eerily true.
Williamsburg, like many locations in the new country before and during the Revolution, had a post set up to threaten tar and feathering for any who dared to speak their mind against the patriot cause. The irony was not lost on the Arnold portrayed at Williamsburg. The supposed cause was “liberty,” but the very people who shouted the most for it were those who were most likely to deny it to those with whom they disagreed. If one stayed loyal to the crown, then their life and property and general well-being were threatened. Arnold wanted to know if this was the type of “freedom” the people of Williamsburg were fighting for.
It’s eerily applicable today. In our world, there are clearly right and wrong opinions to be had. And sharing a thought in the wrong social networking circle will lead to the virtual equivalent of tar and feathering. Call for reasonable gun control in a pro-gun crowd and prepare to be eviscerated. Call for marriage equality in a conservative thread and you will be attacked. Make a stand for the theology of your conscience among those flying rainbows in their profile pictures and a good number of folks will identify you as an enemy. Make any comment on gaming as a female gamer developer and prepare to receive death threats. Oh we put salve on our consciences when we take part in the mob as it heats up the virtual tar. We say things like, “Oh yes, they have the freedom to say whatever they want. And they have have freedom to deal with the consequences of what they say.”
Arnold’s question to the people of Williamsburg was, “Consequences from whom?” Tar and feathering, much as it is in it’s virtual equivalent nowadays, is the act of the mob. Who appointed the virtual mob as judge and jury of the people who dare to offend us? Instead of respectful and reasoned discourse we shoot out the gate in righteous fury all too often, not caring who we trample as we avenge trampling.
This is not to say that I believe all speech is “good,” or that it’s perfectly fine for people to run around spouting hate speech or lies. Yet the more I read American history the more I realize the reaction of the mob is engrained in our very psyche. And it makes me sad.