In Defense of Accountability: Taming the Angry Beast

December 14, 2014

I haven’t read the grand jury transcripts.  I haven’t followed the news coverage.  What I know about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, I’ve learned from reading what others have posted on Facebook.  Which is why I haven’t said anything about it—because I know that I don’t know.  I know that, before I’m qualified to issue an opinion as to whether Michael Brown’s death was the result of institutional racism versus the result of a police officer exercising his honest best judgment based upon his training and experience, I should educate myself thoroughly as to what actually happened.

Since I haven’t had the time to do that, I don’t think I have anything even remotely intelligent to say about this issue, because anything I could say would be based on nothing more than sheer speculation.  As a litigator, it’s a fundamental tenet of my work that “evidence” based upon speculation should never be considered by a jury because its probative value is so vastly outweighed by its potential for confusion and mistake.  I think this is a pretty good rule outside of the courtroom as well, so I try not to expound upon things I don’t know about.  Which apparently sets me apart from 98% of people who post things on the Internet, all of whom are certain (based upon re-tweets, Fox, Huffington Post, or wherever else they get their “news”) that their opinions are entirely accurate and utterly unassailable.

I don’t know what happened in Ferguson, except that a young man—who may or may not have been at least partially responsible for creating the situation that lead to his death—is dead, and a police officer—who may or may not have placed less value on the life of a black man than that of a white man—has now resigned (some would say in disgrace), his life forever altered.  But I think it’s important that I know what I know, and what I don’t know, because to the extent that there’s anyone in the world who gives a fig about what I think, I believe I have a responsibility to make sure that what I say is actually informed by verifiable facts.  Based upon what I see every day when I peruse the Internet, however, this would seem to be a minority view.

We’re roughly twenty years into the Internet era, and for all that this remarkable, amazing creation could be—a vast source of limitless information, enabling just about anyone to learn just about anything they might wish to know, from how to make an apple pie to the gross national product of Jakarta—what it has actually become is one part porn, one part cute-baby-animal videos, one part selfies, and one part uninformed opinion—and the more uninformed, the louder the opinion.  It’s distressing to me that something that has the potential to disseminate information worth having or connecting people across the globe in a positive way has mostly degenerated into one massive pile of wildly misinformed invective.

I’m not speaking exclusively about the “trolls”—those pasty-faced, under- or unemployed men moldering in their parents’ basements playing “World of Warcraft,” eating nacho-cheese flavored Doritos, and picking fights, for sport, on their laptops about things they don’t even care about—although one can easily conjure up thirty or forty thousand things that add greater value to the world, including infomercials and KFC.  I doubt there’s much disagreement that the hate-filled diatribes that litter the “comments” section of just about every online article that’s ever been posted diminish society in general and have rendered intelligent discourse virtually non-existent.  There’s no question that people say things online that they’d never, ever say at work, at a church social, or standing on line at the DMV.  But since the Internet provides as much or as little anonymity as we like, people feel free to express whatever they think, certain that the consequences of their words will never catch up with them.

What if that anonymity was gone? What if your user name was your actual name, along with some other identifying information, something that would make it a relatively simple matter for anyone so inclined to figure out that the guy who wrote that unmarried women who use birth control are whores is actually that seemingly nice fellow who owns the insurance agency on the corner, or that the woman who thinks President Obama is an “N” word fascist communist socialist who should be executed is actually your son’s second grade teacher?  Do you think people would ever say such things if there were a chance that they would have to look their neighbors, co-workers, or family members in the eye and admit that yes, in fact, those words were theirs?

The Internet makes it possible for us to say things we’d never say “in public,” but maybe it shouldn’t.  After all, most newspapers and magazines won’t accept for publication “letters to the editor” unless the author agrees to identify himself or herself.  That’s called accountability; it’s also called putting your money where your mouth is.  If you’re not willing to stand behind your opinions, maybe you should keep them to yourself.  At the very least, your convictions can’t be all that strong in the first place if you’re not willing to take ownership of them.  And while I guess people have a right to their opinions, whatever they may be, the older I get, the more I ask myself, before I let something negative, nasty, or hurtful slip from my lips, does this add beauty or value to the world? We all have to say difficult things from time to time, usually to people we care about very much, but is this one of those times? Is there a truly compelling reason for expressing something that may cause pain to some (or many)? I submit that, unless you can answer that last question in the affirmative, it’s probably better for everyone involved not to say it in the first place.

So maybe the Internet shouldn’t be anonymous. Maybe it should be impossible for people to drop their heaps of anger and spite and bile under the cloak of a user name that makes it impossible for the reader to determine the identity of its author.  Maybe when we make a sweeping generalizations based upon unfair and hateful stereotypes, or when we call people racists without ever examining the underlying facts or circumstances, we should have to take ownership of those words.  If nothing else, it would probably give people pause, and perhaps cause them to engage in a moment or two of reflection.  Would that really be such a bad thing?

But we live in a country founded, at least in part, upon the principle of free speech, a nation in which we are all guaranteed the right to express our opinions, regardless of how repugnant or stupid they may be.  Of course, the First Amendment does not confer an unfettered right to say whatever you want, whenever you want; our Supreme Court has imposed certain restrictions on what type (child pornography, for example), or under what circumstances (shouting “fire” in a crowded movie house) some speech may not be protected.  As well, when our Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment, they likely assumed that the exercise thereof would be informed by the inherent accountability attendant to most forms of expression available at that time.  Stated differently, I doubt Ben Franklin or James Madison ever imagined that it would be possible to blast one’s opinions all over the world in a matter of seconds without ever having to accept any responsibility whatsoever for those words.

But it’s not just those who spew their nuclear vitriol that concern me—in fact, they concern me a lot less than those seemingly “innocent” users that look just like you and me—the mild-mannered accountant, the sweet-faced Sunday school teacher, the innocuous co-worker, the pleasant-enough distant relative you see at a Fourth of July barbecue—a person of apparent credibility, a reasonable person, a person who generally exhibits good judgment in what they say or do.  I’m talking about when that person clicks “like” or reposts/retweets or forwards something that they maybe did (but probably didn’t) read thoroughly, without ever bothering to find out if it is actually accurate, or considering the agenda of the person who wrote/posted it in the first place.  All too often, if it conforms to our world-view, we “like,” or re-post, or re-tweet, never troubling ourselves with whether it’s true, or fair, or even grammatically correct.  It makes me crazy.

Why should I care, you may be wondering, what anyone says on the Internet? It’s easy enough to ignore the nonsense people post on their Facebook pages, or on Twitter, or on the comments section following a Huff Po article, so why does it matter? Well, in part because those unchecked tirades have fomented an atmosphere of downright hostility that has seeped into what used to be an unbiased news media that dispensed the facts and allowed viewers/readers to come to their own opinions.  These days, most “news” programs don’t even try to hide their agendas (I blame both Fox and MSNBC equally for this), and any sort of media “roundtable discussion” usually ends up devolving into a bunch of loudmouths screaming over each other, where it probably doesn’t matter that no one can be heard since there’s precious little worth listening to.

It also seems to me that there’s a direct correlation between the fact that it has become possible—and acceptable—to say despicable and/or unsupported things without fear of consequence and the extreme divisiveness we see in our government and in our society.  It’s a sign of my age, I guess, that I’ve lost all confidence in elected officials to work collaboratively, regardless of political affiliation, and I’m beyond discouraged by the manner in which we as a society have become so aggressively intolerant of any viewpoint that doesn’t precisely line up with our own.  Even our judiciary—the branch of government that is supposed to be free of political agenda or bias—has become the subject of much speculation in recent months as some Supreme Court justices appear to be nearing retirement, sparking concerns that whomever is elected to the presidency in 2016 will have the opportunity to stock the Court with politically like-minded jurists.  It’s offensive to me that an otherwise qualified Supreme Court nominee may be rendered unfit merely because he or she has espoused viewpoints which are contrary to the Congressional majority, but that’s the country we now live in.

I wonder how this nation will ever survive the vast gulf that now exists between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, whites and blacks, Christians and anyone who isn’t a Christian (and even men and women where reproductive rights and equal pay are concerned).  Perhaps one small step in the right direction would be for people to think before they speak, and then take responsibility for what they say.  That’s a wildly Utopian ideal, one not likely to take hold in today’s environment, but it’s one I’m urging, quixotically, certain in the knowledge that this blog is likely to generate comments along the lines of “shut up, you crazy liberal bitch.”  But it’s an ideal I’m going to try to adhere to myself.

So, I’ve got nothing to say about Ferguson, except that it’s tragic that a family has lost a son (just as it is tragic when any family loses a child, for any reason), that an entire community feels that their lives don’t matter simply because of the color of their skin, and that a police department that is probably made up of mostly good people and which probably does most things right is now subject to relentless scrutiny that may or may not be fair.  It’s tragic.  What’s more tragic, however, is that we don’t seem to be able to talk about or process what happened without resorting to name-calling and demonizing those with opposing viewpoints, but we have to try.  We have no apparent ability to feel compassion for whichever “side” we’ve identified as contrary to our own, but we need to start.  Otherwise, we’re all a bunch of trolls.


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