More Adventures In The Court Of Public Opinion

With the new charges of sexual assault now being belatedly hurled at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, we are sailing once more into well-charted and exceedingly choppy waters. Allegations are publicized, advocates for both parties line up to assert guilt or innocence based on both their political beliefs and “gut feelings” derived from their own life experiences, and the process quickly degenerates into name-calling and recriminations. We all know the script by now.

Neither side, in fact, has all that much interest in the truth, which is sadly sometimes elusive due to the passage of time, the unreliability of memories, or the consumption of drugs and alcohol at the time of the alleged incident. Given that definitive proof is likely lacking, the battle lines are drawn yet more sharply, the one-liners grow more caustic, and the episode becomes yet one more damaging facet of culture wars that continue to fray the fabric of our society.

It is, of course, the case that a good fight attracts a crowd. Just think back to everyone racing toward the latest punch-fest in your middle school lunchroom. Not much changes with the advent of adulthood; the fights just don’t involve actual fisticuffs. Those who are now carrying their own lifetimes of pain or a sense of injustice can now, thanks to 24/7 news coverage and social media, vicariously seek vindication—but never closure—by taking sides. Often driven by their own anger and sense of betrayal, the many voices add deafening noise—but no clarity—until the bitterness and bile on each side of the issue finally chokes off any possibility of reasonable or respectful dialogue. The accusations will instead grow wilder and more conspiratorial, and the damage to all concerned will be both deep and lasting.

A good deal of our outrage is driven by our crushing lack of faith in both our traditional social institutions and our government. Having little or no faith that justice is readily available in the public sphere, private retribution becomes the focus of our attention—and we gain whatever meager satisfaction we can from adding our own words to the toxic mix.

Moreover, given that many now identify so strongly with total strangers as an antidote to their own loneliness and social isolation, the shouts of others are an irresistible temptation for some semblance of personal engagement. We may be physically and psychologically alone, but we can gain an illusory sense of community and comradeship by sharing in the rage and frustrations of others, which is a poor substitute for personal relationships but is perhaps all that is available. We would certainly be far better off simply learning the names of our next-door neighbors or joining a softball league, but the ease of ranting through our iPhones makes the choice obvious for many.

Ironically, by seeming to make connections we facilitate the many disconnections that now afflict our nation. Angry words do not evaporate like the morning dew. They hurt actual humans, and we all know the hurt of words lingers for a very long time. The anonymity that comes with posting on social media disinhibits whatever sense of propriety regarding our interactions with others we still retain, and we are often further encouraged to savagely attack by reading the clever ripostes of others. The results are words that we would typically not say straight to the faces of our worst enemies—but which we are perfectly content to inflict on total strangers through the keypads on our handheld devices.

Perhaps we need to revisit our libel laws in order to create some consequence for those who rejoice in inflicting wounds and the online media that enable their fact-deficient—or entirely baseless—attacks. Perhaps we need to require that all online comments feature the name, address, and workplace of the senders in order to create some accountability for engaging in egregious personal insults because of differences of opinion or judgment. Perhaps we simply need to remember that our own anger or pain does not excuse defiling the ideas or reputations of others.

It has been announced that both Judge Kavanaugh and his accuser, Professor Ford, plan to publicly testify regarding the details of their high school encounter. This will solve nothing, harm many, and satisfy few—but you will be able to watch it all on CNN and immediately post your comments online.

Please carefully consider the content of what you write.

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