A far more demanding court presides in America, however. The Court of Public Opinion reigns over all in America as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835. The mass of popular consensus rules as judge, jury, and executioner. It directs all things in our country, a necessary implication of the American devotion to equality above all. Do you really presume to know more than at least 51% of people? In the digital age, this more supreme Court issues rulings on everything from dress colors to cat videos. Often, these rulings are not unanimous. Rather, they break neatly into concurring and dissenting opinions, rather like the (less-)Supreme Court. Unlike that court, with the advent of social media, the number of cases presented are increasing daily as hashtags trend. The polemics are ever-more fiery. Judges all at once bemoan the polarization of rhetoric even as they write seething denunciations indicting dissenters. Behind it all lay the pressure in each new case for the judge to issue a ruling. No justice may be absent form the bench. Social media have created an environment where all voices may be heard... and now those who have ruled expect to hear them. The judges tell the others that there is no time to stand idly by. "You have a voice, now use it!" No more. I refuse to speak up and speak out. I have the right to remain silent, and so do you.
We're told by one recently-viral facebook post, "What my black friends taught me is that the ancillary offense, where grief is compounded and loneliness sets in, is when their friends and colleagues outside of their tribe say NOTHING... Don't say nothing." Somehow, I sincerely doubt that my personal friends--the only people I know on social media--are in any way put at ease by my stating the obvious. If they are, then I shall say what is so evident. The slaughter of 50 people, regardless of race, gender, or national origin is abhorrent. If we're close enough to talk, you know how to make far more intimate contact than a hashtag justice article. I also assume we know one another well enough that you didn't need me to broadcast my deepest lamentations to several hundred family, friends, and acquaintances for digital validation.
There are several reasons I exercise this right. And before we get into those, I must acknowledge the irony of speaking out for silence and against speaking out... okay, acknowledged. The most fundamental reason I exercise this right is humility. Plato's Republic is a long book relating a thirteen hour conversation about justice. By the end and after 2,300 years of discussion, no one is quite sure what Plato thinks justice is. St Thomas Aquinas wrote the landmark of medieval theology the Summa Theologica--such a landmark that it is the official theology of the Roman Catholic church. Thomas had a divine vision and dropped his pen forever, claiming all he had written was straw. Edmund Burke made this political, saying that the world in its infinite complexity could not be remade anew by the radical vision of the French philosophes no matter how thoroughgoing their legislation. G.K. Chesterton even suggested that the competing systems claiming an all-seeing lens to explain the paradoxical minutiae of reality drove men to madness. It ought to drive even the haughtiest Marxist or Freudian to more thought than action.
Color me skeptical, then, whenever another trending hashtag pretends it can fix everything. When it comes to social justice, I get the adjective, but I find myself stuck back there on the noun with Plato. To say nothing of this simple truth: despite your most devoted friends' or social media's demands, you really don't have to have an opinion about everything. Some things are beyond my intellect or free time to understand. I'm just not conversant on everything, and I protest any and all attempts to "educate me" (read: "Show up to my rally/protest because I did all the thinking for you").
Second, I have the right to remain silent because of the performance component social media. "All the world's a stage," said Shakespeare. Shakespeare would have learned a new and horrifying connotation to this phrase had he lived to see Twitter. With our digital avatars we become our own public relations firm, not unlike the actual PR professionals that run corporate social media pages. Likes and re-tweets equal affirmation. I admit to this candidly. My social media page become an avenue for funny bits or sentimental tributes. I don't think this is necessarily bad, particularly if you're self-aware of what it is and the monster inside all of us that craves approval. But the sick twist comes when we take up some mantle as a source of validation. We buy the notion that we're somehow being courageous. We think we're "spurring a dialogue." And lots of people will click a button that notifies us of their affirmation of what we've said. But how much courage does it really take to share an click-bait-titled op-ed with a comment like, "This. So much this."? I spent several years running in seminary circles with misguided men who proudly proclaimed a good and true message with such abrasiveness that they regarded rejection of tone and method as persecution. Never once did the awful reflection occur to them that perhaps they'd mistaken courage for rashness. They got reactions that fit right in with the deluded self-portrait they had painted. Some theology dorks would praise them for their courage to preach, others would denounce them as hatemongers. Exchange the word "sinner" for "bigot" or "wacko hippie" and I'm not sure I could tell the lay slacktivist from the soapbox preacher. Same tactic, different gospel.
Thirdly, I have the right to be silent because I'm considering my end goal. Cicero said that all rhetoric aims at something, either to inform, to persuade, or to entertain (ideally all three). Cat videos, one-liners, and pictures of your baby are entertaining. The irony here is that the most entertaining performances are somehow the least synthetic. The honesty of sadness or devotion to deceased loved ones, even the lamentations over public tragedies, belong to moving. Trouble is, outrage culture feeds more on anger than fact. Rather than inform, it hardens our opponents and inflames our allies. And that's assuming they even read the article. In my experience, most don't. Did you before you shared it?
Is it any wonder then that subsequent discussion become so incendiary? How many digital "friends" or "followers" have told you how much you completely changed their entire political orientation because you found just the right HuffPo article? How many more were driven to a blind tirade? And did you follow them down the hole? Did you forget the person behind that opinionated Breitbart link? Wasn't that the guy who jumped your car off in the rain eight years ago? Did she cover your tab when you forgot your billfold? Is all that warm camaraderie gone when you see those stubborn words on the screen? How could someone be so stupid and ignorant? The descent feels so natural. you forgot the whole point was to persuade. Considering your end goal, your failure is complete.
Fourth, I have the right to remain silent because my outrage belongs to me. As comedian Chris Hardwick pointed out, sites thrive on clicks. Traffic. Views. The media companies that produce this content engineer it to go viral. That means they can sell advertisers spots on their sites, generating ad revenue with punchy titles. It's the very same technique tabloids have used for years. The new advertising strategies change the ballgame though. Imagine the National Enquirer got paid every time you glance at its headlines in the supermarket checkout line. When the rage boils over and you share that story that confirms all your biases, the looking and the clicking spread. If a service is free, you are the product. Feed the digital media beast in your indignation and you'll miss how big it can grow. (Don't worry about sharing this post though. At Artery Bloggage, the content quality is as low as the ad revenue--zero!)
Fifth, I have a right to remain silent when a man is on the digital pillory. A year or so ago, a student of mine was in a fury before school. A Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera cast a convicted sex offender to play the Phantom. Her anger flared hotter when I suggested she should calm down. "Calm down?!! Why?" she demanded. "Because you live hundreds of miles away and have seven hours of school ahead in which you have no access to technology and an algebra test to ace." I can only assume this actor was convicted and sentenced, maybe released on good behavior. But this sentence was insufficient, you say, the system is broken! Maybe, yes, a particular court far away misdealt justice (there's that word again). But as St. Augustine reminded us, no court in the City of Man is or can ever be perfect.
This is no problem for our increasingly-empowered Court of Public Opinion. If you find any judge or jury anywhere has not ruled to your liking, you can declare guilt or innocence, sentence the defendant, and execute the punishment all through your social medium of choice. Shame that mom who left a dog in the car and only got community service! Make sure no one ever forgets that rapist's face! And to be frank, there's a good chance your target deserves it. But as for me, I can't help but think that but for the grace of God go I. In my trips to Colonial Williamsburg as a kid, I was always struck by the pillories and stocks. Groups of horrified tourists shook their heads that such a punishment could be considered just. My classmates in American Lit thought the scarlet letter on Hester Prynne was impossible to understand. I get it now though. What offends us and how we express it have changed, but the impulse is the same. Two weeks ago some guy I've never met or will probably ever meet got his mug slapped all over my newsfeed when the Court of Public Opinion decreed his rape sentence was too light. "This is the face of a rapist!" sprawled across his smiling face in capitalized Impact font. Maybe he deserved more time than he got. Maybe sexists who perpetuate Rape Culture will think twice before spreading it explicitly through demeaning women or implicitly through microaggressions they can never be adequately conscious of. I kind of doubt it though.
Sixth, I maintain my right to silence because of James 3. There the apostle writes, "For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body... So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so." Are Christians supposed to "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:5)? Yes, but “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 6:5). I strongly suspect that Christ did not have "weepy emoji" in mind when he said one should weep with those who weep.
We used to believe in a sort of Stoical, dignified silence. we called it the Culture of Dignity. It essentially adopted the attitude of the old Stoics. You were born into a particular set of circumstances. Some can be changed, others cannot. This includes the perception of others. Some people were sexist. By accomplishing great things in spite of disapproval, women could change some opinions. Others would remain entrenched in misogyny until they died. In this culture, people were encouraged to put the minds of small, miserable people to shame by their ability to live well in spite of bigoted opposition. The understanding was that such bullies were beneath even your contempt. Best to ignore them. Our culture may well have shifted to a culture of victimhood. Now, you must bear the mantle of ending prejudice by turning the tables and shaming oppressors! Odd choice. As Socrates asked in The Republic, "Do you make bad men good by exacting revenge? Or do you just make them worse?" As a very humble woman (who also has a lot to be proud of) recently said to me, "Sexists aren't worth my time. People used to think there was dignity in ignoring them, but now they think that's not good enough. They won't get rid of it thought. I just wish my friends would stop pressuring me into dissing them. Woman-haters aren't worth it." Maybe silence doesn't aid and abet. Maybe a defiant silence does the should better than a digital diatribe.
Or as my Uncle Frank once told me, "Never argue with an idiot. They'll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience."
This is to say nothing of the most magnificent of all silences, Reverence. Some tragedies are so atrocious in the scope and scale they leave good people dumbstruck. This is how it should be. Maybe a moment of silence should be longer than a moment, and social media harping does in fact count as noise. It's noise just like the guy smacking gum at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Do you remember that dignified and reverent silence we all treasured so dearly? It is much harder to come by these days. Beyond the ears, even the body now twitches with phantom buzzes. Have you ever been alone in a moment of pregnant thought, the thrones of soulful birth pains perhaps on the verge of some meaningful thought, only to feel an electric tingle. Did someone just text me? No... how odd. Well, might as well check facebook...
I close with our Digital Miranda rights. If retaining these rights causes me to somehow further a cause destined to bring ruination on the globe, then I will chisel my recantation into the walls of my prison cell as I await execution for not sharing that article on Monstanto.
- You have the right to remain silent and refuse to trend hashtag justice.
- Anything you say will probably be used against you in the Court of Public Opinion.
- You have the right to consult a digital attorney before engaging that troll. Unfortunately, you can't keep an attorney on retainer pro bono.
- If you decide to engage without a social media attorney, you waive the right to delete your bone-headed comment before someone screenshots it and puts you in a digital pillory.
- Knowing and understanding your rights as I have explained them, are you really willing to post that without an attorney present?