Ryanair and modern justice

On Friday October 19th, David Mesher boarded a Ryanair flight to Barcelona. While getting to his seat he lost his temper at a black passenger, Delsie Gayle, who he ordered to get up and called a “black bastard”.

The video of this incident has since gone round the world. Twitter and Facebook has teemed with denunciations and exhortations to identify the man, and ever-increasing numbers of articles about what the incident says about our society have only fuelled the outrage.

This incident certainly does say something about our society. In fact it says several things, one of which is that we remain a society in which someone can think it appropriate to ever call someone a “black bastard”. We have a long way to go before we are equal.

It also, however, says something — quite a lot, in fact — about social media, and how it is pushing us towards an ever-more outraged, impulsive, and vindictive state that gets the allocation of its anger all wrong.

Consider for a moment David Mesher’s offence here (and there certainly was one). He was on a flight, was rude and abusive to a passenger, and used racist language. What is a proportionate response to this sort of offence?

Your answer may vary, but I would say he should have been kicked off the flight, or banned from using the airline. That, of course, didn’t happen, which is probably a factor in why the story went viral. But the focus of the online reaction was not on why Ryanair’s staff felt unwilling or unable to stand up to a disruptive passenger. People seemed much happier to focus on the individuals — on David Mesher, but also to a lesser extent on his fellow passengers who should, apparently have stood up to him (why? Why does that duty fall on them, and not on the flight crew who are paid to maintain safety and order?).

What does not seem proportionate in any coherent sense of the word is for online masses to have delivered their verdicts to the point where David Mesher felt obliged to appear on a major UK breakfast television show to defend himself from accusations that he had not only said something racist, but that he was a racist at heart.

And in a move that would impress any judo fan, his apology was not only not accepted, but used against him for being insufficiently contrite. He was not being asked to sincerely apologise, or to make some sort of reparation to Mrs Gayle, but to accept — publicly — that he is a racist, a term that is rightly as close to meaning “evil” as can be. And only this self-flagellation would suffice.

I don’t know David Mesher. I don’t know whether racist is a good term to describe him. Perhaps it is. But the test for convicting someone of racism is not “did you ever say something racist in a fit of anger?”. A racist incident does not prove the corruption of a person that is racism; it’s evidence that points in that direction, which should be weighed against other evidence.

Huge amounts of effort have been made — and are still being made — to uphold the principles that state justice systems should be fair in process (a judge cannot simply declare guilt on the basis of appearance) and proportionate in punishment (a guilty thief doesn’t have his hands cut off, at least in Europe or North America). We have entirely lost that when it comes to non-state justice, delivered immediately on social media, by thousands of strangers, none of whom deliver the verdict individually, but who by each momentarily indulging their inner sadist deliver an entirely disproportionate punishment in aggregate.

We can see these violations in common responses on social media to people who attempt to defend themselves. “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences” violates the proportionality principle by making no effort to match the right consequences to the right offences, while “If you don’t want to be called a racist maybe don’t be a racist?” violates the process principle by refusing to consider that the person might not be racist (or indeed may not have said anything racist). Spend any time on Twitter and you’ll see variations of both quite regularly in relation to a wide range of issues, not just as occasional comments. Again, in some cases the accused will be entirely in the wrong. But the responses do not allow for the possibility. Silence is taken as an admission, while defence is either dismissed or taken as a sign of guilt. This is nonsense. It’s true, sometimes the lady doth protest too much; but sometimes the lady just protesteth.

In violating these principles, the social media judges damage a vital pillar of our society. And in doing so, they focus on the wrong people. We will never have a society in which no-one crosses the boundaries that we set in law and culture, so we need state and non-state institutions to regulate that behaviour. This failed here: Ryanair didn’t step in to remove Mr Mesher from the flight. Why wasn’t it Michael O’Leary in front of millions, defending the fact that his staff were some combination of unable or unwilling to deal with a disruptive passenger? In part, I’d suggest, because people were not calling on him to be held to account with nearly the same volume or vehemence as they were hounding David Mesher.

Remember, too, that until October 19th David Mesher wasn’t a prominent person, nor did his outburst come in a public forum — both factors that could reasonably attract greater degrees of scrutiny and a less forgiving response. He only became prominent because someone happened to film him; a perfect example of the modern panopticon. Marshall McLuhan was half right: technology hasn’t given us our 15 minutes of fame but our 15 minutes of infamy.

And it is hard to believe that the immediacy and level of vitriol he’s faced is unrelated to his identity (albeit secondary to his actual actions). Because David Mesher is not just a person — he is white, male, and older. Rightly or wrongly, we’re used to considering particular motivations as aggravating factors in crime. But are we now considering characteristics of the offender as aggravating factors, and treating offenders not as individuals who may deserve sanction but as emblems of patriarchy or white supremacy (who in which case deserve far greater sanction for the wider crimes of their groups)?

David Mesher, clearly, is not the primary victim in all of this. But it’s possible to feel huge sympathy for Mrs Gayle, and anger that she had to endure this abuse, while also feeling a sharp pang of concern for the manner and degree of punishment that was then meted out (and which may yet include a criminal sanction on top of the social sanction), as well as the reasons for this.

Ultimately, this article is not about David Mesher. There have been plenty of other incidents that fit this pattern: think of James Damore, the Google engineer who sent a memo that was widely condemned for being sexist. This also led to a two-minute hate, which in his case led to him being fired. In some particularly twisted logic, the fact that he appeared to defend himself on some right-wing Youtube channels was used against him as proof he must always have been a sexist, because only a sexist would ever appear on such channels (the alternative explanation, that these were by this point the only places he might have felt would let him put his side of the story across, was apparently never considered). Or think of the Dove advert that was decried as racist on the basis of an out-of-context few stills. Or the fashion chain H&M’s use of a black child model in a hoodie proclaiming him “The coolest monkey in the jungle”.

In each case the judgement is made before the trial, and everything else flows from a cemented premise: that everything must be seen through the lens of this person or company having been unmasked as truly racist or sexist, rather than simply wrong, knackered, or having a bad day.

And again, in doing this, the judgement will sometimes be right. The decision to kick Alex Jones off Twitter, for example, was a good outcome, even if the fact of a dominant network for speech taking a unilateral decision in the absence of a conviction for his offences is alarming. But processes matter too. We need to distinguish between the appearance of guilt and actual guilt, and the fact of guilt and the appropriate severity of the punishment. Social media justice does neither, and leaps from the appearance of guilt to delivering an extremely harsh sentence.

And sometimes the judgement will be wrong. It has long been a lodestar of the left that we would prefer ten guilty men go free than an innocent man jailed. But at least on social media that has been entirely usurped: we want to condemn anyone who appears to be condemnable, regardless of whether they are in fact guilty or innocent of the charge.

Justice in society is not only delivered through the state apparatus of the police and the courts. It is also, and increasingly, delivered socially in a way that the internet and social media makes possible. And just as we care about the operation of state justice, we should also care about, to coin a phrase, the operation of social justice. It’s time for liberals on the left and right to start taking it seriously.