There’s this short story called The Lottery (1948), written by Shirley Jackson, originally published in The New Yorker. Basically, there’s this small town, and every year on June 27 the townspeople draw slips of paper. The person with a black dot on her slip of paper gets stoned to death by everyone else.
That’s it. That’s the whole story.
The New Yorker received hate mail left-and-right. That summer Jackson said she received about a dozen letters a day from readers, almost entirely negative. She responded to the criticism in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”
Indeed The Lottery is shocking, but read symbolically it is not so difficult to pick out the people in our own family, community, workplace, or country that we “stone to death.” It’s the person nobody likes, perhaps reasonably. It’s the person everyone gossips about, complains about, and tries to get fired, shamed, impeached, or, in rare instances, killed.
It’s perhaps easiest to see this behavior today on social media: scroll to the first response or quoted tweet you see and you’re likely to see someone getting their reputation and livelihood destroyed. It’s almost as easy to see it on teams and in workplaces, where gossip unfairly destroys others’ reputations and turns them into a pariah. Over and over again we choose violence over love: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
New Yorker readers did not need to send Jackson hate mail–her story is now considered among the most famous of all time in the American genre–they needed to look at their own lives and ask, “How are my own thoughts, words, and actions prohibiting the formation of a community of love?”