by Pete Mazzaccaro
Back in February, I used this space to discuss moral outrage and its over-employment in daily discourse. Everyone is outraged all the time about even the most mundane things.
A close relative to serial outrage is the high horse position.
One of the funnier Old English phrases still rolling around in the barrels of our vocabulary is “get off your high horse.”
It’s been quite a long time since nobleman frequented the backs of high horses, looking down their noses at the rest of us and inspiring the old saying. But the sort of behavior we like to identify as coming from a position high on a horse is still pretty common. Most of us are probably guilty of it on a daily basis.
The ironic thing is that the high horse – once a descriptor of the position of the feudal lord – has really seen a revival in online commenting. In fact the high horse just might be the default position of the Facebook comment and the Disqus reply.
My recent looks at Facebook have been through a virtual forest of high horse legs. This was in evidence recently while people in Baltimore took to the streets to protest the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody. There were many people I know – most of them safely ensconced in a comfortable suburban home – who took high-horse positions about the rioting in general, and many others who simply posted Gray’s arrest record, a lengthy list of drug possession and intent to distribute charges.
Those posts were the epitome of the high horse attitude – a condemnation of the man in a way that implies he got what he deserved and an implicit statement that such behavior is beneath that of the poster. Only criminals and people of lesser character are the sort who end up in the backs of police vans. Gray had no one to blame but himself.
As the late, great Baltimorean H.L Mencken once said, “Criticism is prejudice made plausible.”
There’s plenty of plausible explanations as to why one might find solace in the high horse position. It’s a position that reaffirms our sense of safety as much as superiority. We like to think we are above that which we criticize in thought and/or action, even if we can’t even really understand the context. And that’s the truth: We don’t really understand the conditions that drove Baltimore residents into the streets. We don’t have to excuse criminal actions by anyone, but it serves us better to try and understand them.
One unlikely source of understanding came from John Angelos, CEO of the Baltimore Orioles who played a game in an empty Camden Yards because of the street protests. Angelos did not use his prominent position to criticize, but rather sought to understand.
“While we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans,” he concluded.
If Angelos can see the ground from his high horse, we all ought to try a little harder to do the same.