It was the summer 1980 or thereabouts. It's hard to remember, but I know it was hot because I was wearing a soft white cotton dress with shoulder straps. I wasn't that interested in clothes, but when I'd seen this dress, it had beckoned because of its unconstricting beauty and flow, and I needed dresses that I could stand inhabiting for eight mind-numbing hours a day doing temp work in New York City offices. I was headed back to one such office and in a hurry because my hour lunch was almost up.
Madison Avenue and Fifty-second Street or thereabouts. A midtown torrent of people and vehicles. I don't remember if the walk light was green when I stepped off the curb. It might have been. It might not have.
The week before, the light had definitely been green—the green "Walk" sign solidly radiating permission as I stepped off the curb on quiet Central Park West. No cars even stopped at the red light, so I didn't bother to look to my left to see the cyclist hurtling toward me. And when she slammed into me, I was too stunned to do more than gasp, "The light was green!" To her credit, she leapt off the ground and checked that I was unhurt before speeding away.
But on this day—this hot summer day a week later on Madison Avenue—I not only saw but I heard the cyclist coming, screaming at me to get out of the way, and in a kind of frantic flashback of the previous accident, I stepped right into his path as he heroically tried to avoid me.
What happened next is as vivid as right now:
As I sprang to my feet, yelling, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. It was my fault," a crowd almost magically materialized around me and the bike messenger, a young black man who had not budged from his position on his side on the street, still holding his bike.
"It was my fault, I'm sorry," I repeated and hysterically babbled about getting hit last week when it wasn't my fault, but this time it was my fault, and oh god, oh my god. And as the guy lay there breathing, the mob leaders around us—a burly white man and an older black man—began yelling:
"Don't say that!" ordered the white man. "You got hit. It's his fault."
"Speak the truth!" countered the black man. "She's speaking the truth."
Ignoring both of them, I looked down at the guy on the street. His weary eyes stared straight ahead, and it knocked all hysteria out of me. "I'm sorry," I said more softly. "Are you all right?"
Slowly he crawled to his feet.
"I'm so sorry. Is your bike okay?" I said, reaching out to caress it.
And as the mob around us dispersed as quickly as it had materialized, he looked at me. "I hate my job too," he said. And he pedaled away.
I was a white girl in a white dress, and I hated what had just happened and that I'd been the cause of it.
We are now in an era that the late poet Leonard Cohen called a time of the "tyranny" of social media mobs—an era that has been weaponized by Russian trolls to cause maximum chaos, thereby derailing our democracy. But mobs are an ancestral human characteristic.
In 1939, published in his collection of essay observations, One Man's Meat, E. B. White wrote: "The cells of the body co-operate to make the man; the men co-operate to make the society. But there is a contradiction baffling to biologist and layman alike. On the same day last spring that I saw a flight of geese passing over on their way to the lonely lakes of the north (a co-operative formation suggesting a tactical advantage imitated by our air corps)—on that same day cannibalism broke out among my baby chicks and I observed the brutality with which the group will turn upon an individual, literally picking his guts out. This is the antithesis of co-operation—a contrariness not unobserved in our own circles. (I recently read of a member of an actors' union biting another actor quite hard. I believe it was over some difference in the means of co-operation.)"
My first literary introduction to mob mentality was Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," and it shook me to my core because, even at age sixteen, growing up in a peaceful little village, I knew it was true: the power of being in a self-empowered mob is too seductive for most of us to resist. When you're part of a self-righteous mob, you don't have to think, to discern, to pay attention to nuance. You surrender your conscience to the group energy and thereby derive a "high" of superiority.
Shirley Jackson's description is chilling because of how ordinary it is:
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. "It isn't fair," she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, "Come on, come on, everyone." Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.
"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
I'm haunted by the energy of the white man and the crowd of mostly white people, as lingering and volatile as a storm cloud about to burst, hungry for me to blame the bike messenger.
"Let's get her!" I've read progressive people comment on the latest Facebook story about somebody acting egregiously, instantly triggering a movement of public shaming.
"They're an angry mob!" declares our fearful leader, and suddenly millions of people are reduced to an unthinking herd—whether they've been personally hurt and are taking action, whether they've been horrified out of comfortable complacency and are attending their first political demonstration, whether they've grown up with a legacy of bias and have had enough. No matter the millions of stories driving people to resist and vote, suddenly the opposition sees them as merely an angry mob, triggering an equal and opposite vision of their side.
Group action is absolutely critical to any kind of change. But must these groups be chick-pecking mobs?
Group language is pivotal to quickly communicate and take action. But must the language become clichéd memes that are used anytime we are miffed because somebody is acting "improperly" according to group-think standards?
In her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama talks about the common public perception in the beginning of her political life that she was "an angry black woman" because she expressed her ambivalence about basically throwing off a cliff the life she'd known and loved in order to support her husband's political career.
"Angry black woman/man" reduces a human story to a cartoon. As does "white privilege" and "white male privilege" when they are the instant diagnoses for many behaviors devoid of knowledge of the people involved. These names absolve us from feeling the complexity of empathy, which makes us all vulnerable in the grey area of identification, compassion, and the opposite.
I loved Michelle Obama's Becoming. It is a discerned story from a discerning master of understanding nuance. And the thing I loved most was her message at the end: If you don't like the narrative, change it, she said. If you don't feel as if you are part of the story, tell your story. Tell it publicly. Tell it compellingly. Tell it honestly.
So here it is:
What happened in 1980 with the messenger on the bike was completely my fault. I regret it to this day. I often think about the man and wonder what became of him. "I hate this job too," he told me, acknowledging what I silently shared with him: I hated being seen as a white girl in a white dress; I hated being surrounded by a mob, screaming in support of me and largely ignoring him. We were two people with histories that went deeper than being black or white, or a bike messenger and a temp, or anybody's split-second perceptions. We were two hurting people flattened on a street corner—two sad, weary people. And, even though I don't know the man's story, I wager that, to this day, we share a loathing of the mob mentality and would rather pause to root out a nuanced, complex, possibly contradictory truth than act in hasty delusion.