A man stands with his head bowed before a jeering crowd. The dunce cap he’s wearing, over half the size of the man himself, looks almost comical, but the abject misery on his face drains the scene of any humor. It’s 1966 in Maoist China, and the man is the victim of a “struggle session,” during which victims are publicly humiliated and abused for their crimes, real or imagined. Only after he has admitted to his transgression and asked for forgiveness can the abuse end.
Mao and his fellow revolutionaries understood the power of mob humiliation and used it to terrorize the country into ideological conformity. I fear that this instinct—the reflex to use public humiliation as a tool to purge society of apostates and their ideas—has returned. This time, though, it’s in the United States.
Let me be clear: The horror of Mao’s China was singular. I am not making a comparison to the death and destruction it caused or to the severity of the punishment that the mobs imposed. Instead, I am drawing a parallel (one that various journalists and commentators, including the pseudonymous Chinese-American academic, Xiao Li, have made before) to an instinct—the inclination to humiliate and terrorize anybody deemed guilty of even the slightest transgression. And, as in revolutionary China, the mobs in the United States today are indiscriminate. In their righteous fervor, they go after the guilty, the innocent, and those somewhere in between.
Today, the mob acts primarily through social media, meaning that the pile-on can come for anybody, at any time, with little to no warning. The critics humiliate their victim until the accused issues an apology to end the nightmare. And then the mob either doubles down, or it moves on to its next subject.
In the long run, obsequious apologies for imagined crimes pave the way for a destructive cycle of inquisition. Unless brave people stand up and say, “Enough,” the mob will continue steamrolling victims, leaving behind a trail of careers, reputations, and a culture of conformity.
So, if the mob comes for you and you don’t believe you have done anything wrong, I have a modest proposal: Don’t apologize.
It doesn’t matter where the denunciations come from—left or right, allies or adversaries. If you face public criticism, you should first seriously contemplate if you have, in fact, done something wrong. If so, go ahead and apologize. Acknowledging mistakes is a sign of maturity and can be healing. But if not, don’t. Defend yourself against the mob—and if that is asking too much, log off and let the critics tweet into the void.
Consider the case of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the recent blockbuster film adaptation of his Broadway musical, “In the Heights.” The movie is largely a celebration of Latino and immigrant culture and features an almost exclusively Latino cast. Some critics, however, noted the lack of dark-skinned actors and accused Miranda of colorism. The charges weren’t supported by any evidence and targeted the man who is most famous for writing “Hamilton,” a musical that cast black, Asian, and Latino actors as America’s founding fathers. But Miranda apparently felt that he had to say something, because he soon tweeted an apology for the movie’s lack of “dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation.”
The night after Miranda apologized, the actress Rita Moreno, who is Puerto Rican, appeared on Stephen Colbert’s talk show and argued that he needn’t say sorry. “I’m simply saying, can’t you just wait a while and leave it alone? […] They’re really attacking the wrong person.” But the mob immediately came for her, and the day after the “Colbert” appearance, Moreno tweeted an apology for defending Miranda. It started with the self-flagellation that has become so familiar: “I’m incredibly disappointed with myself ...”
To give such a forceful statement on the nation’s most-watched late-night talk show, it’s fair to assume that Moreno must have understood the “colorism” debate and given her position serious consideration. Why, then, was she so quick to flip-flop, retract her statement, and atone? Occam’s Razor would tell us that her apology, like Miranda’s, was simply a capitulation to avoid the internet’s wrath.
If I am wrong, and Miranda and Moreno truly concluded that the critics were right after serious consideration, their apologies are praiseworthy. But given the flimsy nature of the accusations against Miranda and Moreno, and the hasty manner in which they flip-flopped, it seems more likely that they reacted simply to appease the mob. If that’s true, they should have defended themselves and refused to apologize.
The same is true of the many other public figures who have issued apologies for seemingly contrived controversies. In February, for example, the outrage army focused its ire on PJ Vogt, co-founder and former host of Gimlet Media’s “Reply All,” a podcast with more than 4 million monthly listeners. Vogt’s supposed transgressions were initially aired in a former colleague’s Twitter thread that accused Vogt of contributing to a “toxic dynamic at Gimlet,” opposing unionization efforts at the company, and working “against multiple efforts to diversify Gimlet’s staff & content.”
The mob descended, apparently unconcerned by the accusation’s lack of evidence or specifics. Vogt didn’t hesitate, either, and the very next day he tweeted an apology:
I deeply failed as an ally during the unionization era at Gimlet. ... Reflecting on my behavior, I find it humiliating. I should have reflected on what it meant to not be on the same side of a movement largely led by young producers of color at my company. I did not. Those mistakes belong to me.
In that same post, Vogt announced that he was leaving “Reply All”: “I’ve asked for the team’s permission to step away … I don’t think anyone needs me taking up space right now. I’m sorry to everyone I’ve disappointed.”
Astonishingly, after the whole ordeal—the initial accusatory Twitter thread, Vogt’s apology, a self-reflective episode of “Reply All,” and abundant media attention that included articles in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Vulture, and The Los Angeles Times—nobody has presented evidence of real workplace misbehavior. A second New York Times article even declared that Vogt shouldered “the blame for a situation that was, many people said, ultimately created by Gimlet’s founders.” It appears that Vogt’s worst offense was his staunch opposition to the Gimlet Union.
Is that really worthy of a public apology? I would argue it is not. Given his hasty reaction to the criticism and the lack of evidence showing real misconduct, it seems that Vogt apologized to quell the internet anger and get out of the spotlight. If so, he should have pushed back against the mob and stood up for himself. For the cycle of shaming and apologizing will only stop if innocent, brave people refuse to grovel for forgiveness.
Those who live up to this ideal are a reason for hope.
One such person is Winston Marshall, the former banjoist for the band Mumford and Sons. The mob came for Marshall after he tweeted support for Andy Ngo, a controversial activist who shot to fame by documenting the excesses of the far left. Marshall recounts the experience:
You have a swarm of snakes who come for every aspect of your life ... calling me a fascist and Nazi and all these ridiculous things. And then ... they come for your friends and your associates and their families … It’s a very effective mode of intimidation because it’s one thing when they come for you. But when they come for those you love, you want to defend them.
Marshall earnestly considered the criticism and issued an apology. But he later came to regret it:
I was sincerely open to understanding … what about my tweet was offensive and I wanted to examine that. But I saw more and more clearly, I felt that I had participated in that lie that either [left-wing] extremism didn’t exist or was a force for good. And that began to really bother my conscience.
Late last month, Marshall deleted the apologetic tweet and published a letter explaining that he was leaving the band so that he could speak freely without his bandmates “suffering the consequences.” Remaining and self-censoring, he said, would “erode my sense of integrity [and] gnaw my conscience.”
To stop the cycle of insincere apologies, more people need to follow Marshall’s lead and defend themselves in the face of public humiliation.
If we continue to censor unpopular opinions and censure those who hold them, we will be giving up the knowledge-building endeavor of constructive debate and open discourse. Instead, we should use liberalism’s greatest tools—logic, evidence, and persuasion—to sort fact from fiction and to challenge ideas we oppose.
So if the mob comes for you, ask yourself whether you have, in fact, done something wrong. If so, go ahead and apologize. But if not, be brave and stand your ground.
Seth Moskowitz is an editor at Persuasion.