Infamy in the Age of the Internet

It seems that random acts of violence are happening more and more. With every incident we have the same conversation about where the media should put its focus.

I wanted to wait a bit and not chime in directly after the recent Oregon shooting because I actually don’t want to dive into the particulars of that event and the debates about naming the shooter.

It’s suffice to say that the young man who killed people that day wanted to live and die in “infamy.” So let’s talk about that human desire: “Infamy.”

What I want to do first and foremost is put these kinds of events in historical perspective. It is not a new phenomena. And so when I hear talking heads trying to ascribe these activities to some kind of modern illness, I fear we are missing the point. I have a general philosophy: The internet doesn’t create new human behaviors/motivations. It just exposes existing ones and puts them in new context.

Herostratic fame

One of the 7 ancient wonders of the world was the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. It was said of the temple by Antipater of Sidon:

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.’”

The ruins of the temple remain in Ephesus and I had the great pleasure of traipsing among those ruins a few years ago.

So what happened to the temple? It was burned down by a young man Herostratus. Don’t let his name fool you. This man was an arsonist in the 4th century BC. Not only did he burn down the Temple of Artemis, he sought credit for it. He proudly exclaimed that he was the person who burnt down the temple. He wanted to become “infamous” for the deed.

In response, Ephesian authorities not only executed him, they made mention of his name punishable by death. “Herostratus” became “he who must not be named.” It was their attempt at seeking justice (a restoration of balance) in response to the actions he took to try and become notorious.

In the end, their attempts failed. The historian Theopompus reported the event in his book “Hellenics.” Today “Herostratic fame” is a rarely used figure of speech which could be applied to many of the people who commit acts of violence in order to gain the world’s attention.

The Questions I’m Left With

I don’t have any talking head statements about how these situations should be handled. I only have questions.

With the hindsight of several thousand years, do we think Theopompus did the right thing? Today we know how one of the ancient wonders of the world crumbled. Herostratus also got what he wanted.

Are modern reporters analogous to Theopompus?

Is the Ephesian technique of scrubbing a perpetrator’s name from history even possible today? An old boss of mine (who I would quote if we weren’t under Chatham House rules at the time) recently said in a conversation that “the Internet is a giant copying machine.” One utterance is all it takes.

Even if the internet makes scrubbing the name from history impossible, do individuals have a responsibility if/how they share the perpetrator’s name.

I noted that I don’t believe the internet creates new human motivations, but it does put them in new context. In a world where people KNOW with certain confidence their “infamy” will be assured (via the Internet) are we setting ourselves up to experience these more frequently.

Is there a difference in how we approach a crazed individual who seeks fame and a crazed ideology or group that seeks attention/power. I’m thinking here about violent propaganda images from groups like ISIS or the KKK’s propaganda from the early 20th century, etc. One could argue that these groups must be noticed and addressed head on in order to combat them. The notoriety they seek can’t be left unchallenged.

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