'The Lottery'

February 14, 2023 10:32
Photo: Amazon

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

A story that revolves around a tradition in a small town – “The Lottery”, which, through a purely random mechanism of arbitrary selection, arrives at a particular individual, who shall be stoned. The mob piles on in egging on the ritual – before the frenzy dies down, and the cycle repeats itself once again the next year.

Much like Iago in Othello, there exists little logic to the ritual – save from its being religiously and steadfastly adhered to; the ritual is internalised, normalised, then rationalised as coinciding with a “good harvest”. It is thus through a mixture of trepidation and superstitious fealty to tradition that the villagers opt into this cyclical process – again, and again. The story speaks of a young, innocent girl who perishes whilst screaming into the void, pelted with harsh and cold stones. The mob prevails, and then disperses.

In many ways, the Lottery is an apt analogy for much that we see in contemporary discourse. Consider, for instance, the online lynching of individuals dubbed to have ‘crossed particular lines’ – in the West, this is known as ‘cancel culture’; in the East, this is, I suppose, ‘kangaroo courts’ masquerading as the ‘justice of the crowds’. Justice administered by the crowds seldom is just – though the truth of this claim does not matter to the mob: the mob takes pride and glory in the frenetic zeal, the feelgood warm-glow of having assailed an ostensibly deserving ‘criminal’, and a sense of reassurance that they are “in” the in-group, as opposed to the out-group. Such is the tragedy of mass psychology.

Modernity is as much a product of, as an engine propelling such mass fanaticism. Despite the atrocities and horrors that ensued following episodes of mass mobilisation and revolution throughout history, it is apparent that we have yet to learn our lessons. Gustave le Bon predicted this in “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind”. And so did Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer”. At an age of increasing anomie, the crowd yearns for answers; it yearns for clearly defined and delineated camps of good and evil; it wants stories that it can tell for posterity. And this is why individuals tend to imagine themselves the protagonists, waging war against those with whom they disagree – the antagonists.

Communication is, by definition, messy. To record or to preserve history is, at its core, a political exercise. To teach and to be taught, is to engage in a dialectical exchange and flirtation with power. In watching Tár I am reminded of the altercations between the professor and the student in Olenna – a modern Greek tragedy that pays tribute to the lamentable polarisation across American campuses, and the hermeneutical confusion that results from clashing perspectives, civilisational systems, and conceptions of what is egregious and what is appropriate. One man’s permissible narrativisation and creative integrity, is another’s violations of privacy and sanctity. In the meanwhilst, there is no room for such nuance and reflection on the part of the popcorn-popping crowd, who takes delight in the framing and demonising of convenient targets.

The advent of the social media era has only exacerbated such tendencies. We are driven by an impulse to signal – signal membership, signal moral superiority, signal being ‘in’ as opposed to being ‘out’. At an age where all is laid bare for public consumption, there is no such thing as privacy; not only because we live under constant surveillance by the state or comparable entities in certain countries, but also because we are perennially and frequently reminded that we must perform for an infinite, boundless audience. The audience here, of course, constitutes all who trawl and burrow for whippets of one’s history, of one’s flaws, and of whatever it is that can be weaponised and turn against one.

The mob in “The Lottery” could well be benign and well-intentioned. They mean no harm, and are largely law-abiding citizens. Yet when the annual lottery is trotted out, they all join in on the fun – it’s a part of what makes them human, but it’s also what makes them belong to that amorphously defined, nebulously persisting whole. Netizens should be wary of the monster in the abyss that stares back at them.

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Assistant Professor, HKU