I haven’t watched The Simpsons in years, but it used to be among my fave shows ever. One of the things I like best about the show is how it perfectly illustrates out the madness of crowds. From Snake Whacking Day to Homer being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, I’d go so far as to call that one of the overarching themes of the show. Irrational mobs form at the power plant, on the playground, at church. Groupthink infests the police department and the Mafia alike. The crazed populace calls both for the saving of Timmy O’Toole from an old well at any cost and the firing of Principal Skinner at Timmy’s behest, and later the abandonment of Bart down the same well when it turned out that Timmy didn’t actually exist.
These episodes take one of two forms. Somebody – usually Bart or Homer – does something stupid and even though they’ve learned their lesson, the reaction that follows is so heavy-handed and/or ridiculous that in the end the townsfolk themselves become the bad guys. Or, succumbing to mob-fueled hysteria, the majority makes an idiotic short-sighted decision leaving everyone living with legalized gambling or a Monorail or no television violence or a bear tax or a mass deportation of immigrants to justify the expense of the bear tax.
Even more than Mr. Burns, torch-bearing mobs are the archnemesis of the people of Springfield.
No one is immune from the temptation. While often Marge is the sole voice of reason in the crowd, other times she’s carrying the biggest torch of all. Lisa is usually sensible, but even she can fall under the mob’s spell, putting her personal politics and philosophy above her normal reticence to join the feeding frenzy. In their finest episodes, The Simpsons perfectly demonstrates how sometimes the mob may be right, but they’re still a freaking mob, and that everyone is vulnerable to become not only victim but villain, because we all feel so darn justified.
The Simpsons as it was, would have been the ideal show to tackle the issue of Apu and political correctness thoughtfully. https://newrepublic.com/article/147980/epiphany-problem-apu-simpsons
But The Simpsons hasn’t been “The Simpsons” for ages. So when it comes to Apu, they basically shrugged their shoulders and said “It is what it is”, an approach that satisfied no one. I can’t really even blame them since I suspect the reason they did things that way was because they were scared to make an attempt at being thoughtful and risk missing the mark completely.
Because mobs are scary. There’s probably something innate in us that fears a mob and rightfully so. Most of the evil that humanity has done was at the hands of a big group of people utterly convinced they were doing the right thing. The mob is justified, surely; if it wasn’t, would there be so many people in it? No one ever rode out into the dark of night on a mission to destroy thinking that they were wrong and the person they were going out to get was an innocent victim. They rode out thinking “These people are bad people, sinners, rule-breakers, criminals, degenerates, possibly inhuman, and we have to GET the bad people.” Mobs are willing to punish transgressors at any cost. Any cost to the transgressors, not to the mob, of course. Mobs are willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to achieve their desired result, as long as it is the other guys.
And just like Lisa and Marge, even though we’re mostly noble, mostly good-hearted, we remain forever susceptible to getting sucked up into the torch and pitchfork mentality, especially when the people who are the “bad people” are those we actually think ARE the bad people.
I don’t like it that the character of Apu has ever made anyone feel upset, offended, hurt, or angry. I understand completely why people feel that way. I even remember the first time I noticed Apu and I was uncomfortable from minute one with the way he was portrayed. But nowadays I mostly feel like Lisa, looking at an awful lot of people and thinking, “yes, you’re right, these people made a stupid mistake, they’re wrong and you’re right, but you guys are a freaking mob here”. Yet it feels safer to say nothing, to let the mob do what they’re gonna do, as long as it isn’t me. It’s easier to just stay a face in the crowd. I mean, it’s just a dumb cartoon, is it really that big a deal?
But people burn books, don’t they – and for far less noble reasons. “As long as it isn’t me” and “is it really that big a deal” is what gives the mob its power. It the nature of the mob to force complicity on us all, to silence our consciences, to make us hold our tongues over the small things and then when the big things start happening, it’s too late.
When the torches and pitchforks come out, the mob-ers become worse than the mob-ees and it doesn’t matter how stupid or wrong someone was to begin with. The mob is worse. It doesn’t matter if Bart cut off the head of Jebediah Springfield, it doesn’t matter if there is child-harming violence on the Itchy and Scratchy show, and it doesn’t matter that Apu started off as a terrible stereotype and is voiced by a white actor. All the foibles and failings that humans have, the shitty things that people do to each other and say to each other – the mob is ALWAYS worse. Because the mob thinks like a mob and acts like a mob and mobs are irrational and insane and they always go too far and yet the people within them still have all the same foibles and failings and willingness to do shitty things to one another that they had to begin with.
You can’t reason with a mob because when you try, they turn on you, and each other, and everyone in their line of sight. And it’s so easy for even the very best of us to get caught up in them, let alone the very worst of us, who often seem to find their natural homes in the center of a large and angry horde. Mobs are like a force of nature, an avalanche or a wildfire or or a mudslide. Once they get going, they destroy everything in their paths until a rainstorm or a flat piece of land eventually stops them. Only inertia + time stops a mob, so it’s better to never create one. I can think of no other show but The Simpsons that has portrayed this truth so accurately.
It feels both ironic and inevitable that The Simpsons was attacked by a PC mob. Well meaning, well-intentioned, thinking, no doubt, of the children. And they’re totally right. The mob is right. The people who created the character of Apu were stupid and wrong. Full stop. There’s no defense. But I don’t like this world we’re creating where idiots (and we are ALL idiots on occasion) no longer have a little wiggle room to be mistaken without risking having the mob grab them by the scruff of the neck and rub their nose in their transgression like they’re a naughty puppy, then punish them for it in perpetuity.
Our world these days is looking an awful lot like Springfield; every day someone new is in the hot seat and the mob already has their pitchforks sharpened. I don’t like this world. In the words of Stephen Hawking voicing himself on The Simpsons “This utopia you’re creating is a lot more like a Fruitopia”.
Paradise on earth is not an option; no matter how many folks get strung up, we will always have to negotiate a world in which people are idiots and do and say the wrong thing. We can’t control that. All we can ever control is our response to that. We can form a mob or we can choose tolerance and understanding, if for no better reason than that next time, it could be us. It’s time to put our torches and pitchforks away because even when the mob is right, it’s wrong.