by Greg Mayer
Brian Leiter has drawn attention to a “working paper” by Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and former Obama administration official. Entitled “Lapidation and apology“, Sunstein’s paper argues for a reinvigoration of the figurative usage of a rather obscure word: “lapidation”. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The punishment of stoning to death”, it has been used figuratively since at least 1864, and Sunstein proposes a figurative usage of it as apropos for the digital age’s twitter mobs, pile-ons, and ‘cancellations’. As Sunstein begins,
Groups of people, outraged by some real or imagined transgression, often respond in a way that is wildly disproportionate to the occasion, thus ruining the transgressor’s day, month, year, or life.
His abstract continues,
To capture that phenomenon, we might repurpose an old word: lapidation. Technically, the word is a synonym for stoning, but it sounds much less violent. It is also obscure, which makes it easier to enlist for contemporary purposes.Lapidation plays a role in affirming, and helping to constitute, tribal identity. It typically occurs when a transgressor is taken to have violated a taboo, which helps account for the different people and events that trigger left-of-center and right-of-center lapidation. One of the problems with lapidation is that it often accomplishes little; it expresses outrage, and allows people to signal their identity, but does no more. Victims of lapidation might be tempted to apologize, but apologies can prove ineffective or even make things worse, depending on the nature of the lapidators.
According to Sunstein, a lapidation is always wrong:
Can lapidation be justified? As defined here, it cannot be.
The reason is that lapidation, even if not based on an outright falsehood or misconception, is characterized by the excess and disproportion of the reaction. Thus, one might disagree over whether a particular case is a lapidation, but it would be incoherent to ague that a lapidation was deserved.
Sunstein also introduces the delightful term “lapidation entrepreneur” for those who promote lapidation; HuffPo is “lapidation entrepreneur” central!
Sunstein lists five paradigmatic cases of what he considers lapidation: Ronald Sullivan‘s non-renewal as house dean at Harvard’s Winthrop House; the dismissal of sociologist Noah Carl from Cambridge University; death threats against Ilhan Omar; Elizabeth Warren being called “Pocahontas” by Donald Trump; and Al Franken‘s forced resignation from the Senate.
As the links to the names on these examples show, all of them have come to our attention here at WEIT. I’m not sure that I would concur with Sunstein’s evaluation of how well each exemplifies his usage, though. Franken’s life has been ruined; Carl’s academic career has taken a serious hit, from which he may or may not recover; and Sullivan has suffered publicly at the hands of Harvard, but he is of sufficient stature and accomplishment to weather these insults. All these fit what I take to be Sunstein’s point, but the cases of Omar and Warren seem different. The death threats against Omar are intolerable, and ‘disproportion’ doesn’t even begin to get at what’s wrong with such threats, but she seems not to have experienced any loss of political influence or support. And the crude insults of, and uninformed attacks on, Warren seem not to have derailed her campaign. Perhaps they do fit Sunstein’s schema if we take note of the lower end (“day, month”) of his temporal scale, and as he rightly notes, “Even if a few stones are thrown, people might hurt.”
A note on where Sunstein posted his working paper, SSRN.com: I gather from Sunstein’s paper that it is an unreviewed draft of something he might eventually publish. It contains what might be charitably described as infelicities of wording (and less charitably as errors), and his account of Franken, one suspects, would be different were it written now in the light of Jane Mayer’s reporting. There’s also some briefly described survey research, which might be more interesting or compelling if more fully set out, as one would expect in an academic paper. I’ve seen similar sorts of not-quite-ready things on this website before. I hope Sunstein will finish up his paper and get it published.