Man. It’s been a very busy couple of days for me, and then having to post bail on top of that…
crime and punishment
The researchers believe such youngsters tend to congregate with peers who have similar musical tastes, creating cliques that are cut off from mainstream influences and behavioral norms. “In peer groups characterized by their deviant music taste, norm-breaking youth may ‘infect’ their friends with their behaviors,” they speculate.
If they’re right, it isn’t the music per se that leads kids into delinquency (although anti-social lyrics could conceivably play a role). It’s more the fact that kids who gravitate to other nonconformists at a young age miss out on the benefits of being part of mainstream society—including the positive influences of popular peers.
So if your preteen is listening to Metallica, some early intervention may be in order. On the other hand, if he or she is into Mozart or Monk, fear not: Such kids may also be outside the mainstream, but this isolation does not manifest itself in a negative way.
In other words, if your kids are already displaying self-assuredness and independence of thought and taste by age twelve, there’s perhaps a slightly greater chance that they may end up coloring slightly outside the legal lines as they continue to mature and experiment with the boundaries of their free-spiritedness. Now, I realize that this is just one of those baked cheez-puffs of ephemeral news you can’t use, the sort of study from the Institute for Stating the Staggeringly Obvious that constitute three-quarters of the posts on sites like Pacific Standard and Big Think, but I found it particularly funny for a couple reasons. One, the earnest tone, which makes me imagine the author going up to a group of misfit teenagers to ask them if they’ve heard the good news about the benefits of fitting in with the popular kids. And two, the idea that, almost twenty-two years after the release of the eponymous Black Album, Metallica can still be considered by anyone to be outside the mainstream.
At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsighted—and which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carré figure. As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.
It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.
…And here’s where Lanier says something remarkable and ominous about the potential dangers of anonymity.
“This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeal—like social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.
“Social lasers of cruelty?” I repeat.
“I just made that up,” Lanier says. “Where everybody coheres into this cruelty beam….Look what we’re setting up here in the world today. We have economic fear combined with everybody joined together on these instant twitchy social networks which are designed to create mass action. What does it sound like to you? It sounds to me like the prequel to potential social catastrophe. I’d rather take the risk of being wrong than not be talking about that.”
It seems like two different things are being conflated here. I mean, I agree with the general sentiment in that last paragraph, as I’ve said many times. But in each one of those infuriating instances, it hasn’t been some anonymous sociopath instigating flash mob rule; it’s been a famous film director, or bloggers who post under their own names to an enormous audience. Even if most hateful trolls are anonymous, it doesn’t follow that most anonymous commenters are hateful trolls. The grease on the skids to this particular hell is the fact that social media is designed to remove the onerous burdens of reflection and effort, the very things that might prevent people, during a rush of blood to the head, from retweeting vague rumors or attempting to casually wreak havoc with an opponent’s job or personal life. People are the same stupid, impulsive primates they’ve always been; the problem is that so many of them now have the personal tools to drastically magnify, amplify and accelerate whatever petty thought or emotion flits through their mind. Sign your name to your opinion or don’t, but much more importantly, stop and take some time to think before you start a snowball rolling.
Sure, you can force people to provide their full name, address, place of employment, etc. if they want to express an opinion online, but all you’re going to do is create an anodyne environment where no one dares express anything remotely controversial (i.e., actually interesting) for fear of attracting the crusading attention of the Internet’s Erinyes. Personally, I’m more scared of those who feel empowered to act by virtue of representing conventional, moralizing wisdom than I am of those who express subversive opinions under a cloak of anonymity.
Crowd-sourced reporting via social media can be invaluable, particularly in situations like the Arab Spring, the Haiti earthquake, or Hurricane Sandy, in which critical, actionable information about what’s going on is widely distributed among the populace. But as we also saw in the immediate aftermath of the Aurora shooting, we tend to expect too much of the Internet when it comes to quickly pinpointing the identity and motives of the perpetrators of crimes. In those cases, information is usually concentrated in the hands of a few, and most of them are already busy talking to authorities. Nice as it would be to have immediate answers, jumping to the wrong conclusion only compounds the damage. The truth may be out there, but it’s not always just a click away.
There’s this friend of mine. Years ago, her teenage son was accused by some friends of being the mastermind of a plot to carry out a Columbine-style attack on his school. A politically ambitious prosecutor got wind of this and took the opportunity to make a criminal case out of it. As it turned out, there was no plot, there were no weapons; there was nothing but some cryptic remarks on MySpace and some adolescent rumor-mongering. Nonetheless, his name and picture ended up on the front page of the newspaper under the shrieking headlines, despite his being underage. A year or so later, the court case had come to nothing, but the subdued retractions, of course, didn’t rate the front page or even the slightly-larger font.
Even the relatively-glacial pace of “old media” didn’t necessarily protect against that sort of potentially-disastrous misinformation being disseminated.
Most of the shiny-object fascination with social networking is a harmless, if intensely annoying, kind of stupidity. But these increasingly common gestures in the direction of flash mob justice make me want to take those whose myopic self-absorption is far out of proportion to their actual presence and grind their stupid fucking faces into their smartphones.
I’m bothered by the fact
You cannot take it back
It goes on record and multiplies at that
— Virgos Merlot
In theory, the right to be forgotten addresses an urgent problem in the digital age: it is very hard to escape your past on the Internet now that every photo, status update, and tweet lives forever in the cloud. But Europeans and Americans have diametrically opposed approaches to the problem. In Europe, the intellectual roots of the right to be forgotten can be found in French law, which recognizes le droit à l’oubli—or the “right of oblivion”—a right that allows a convicted criminal who has served his time and been rehabilitated to object to the publication of the facts of his conviction and incarceration. In America, by contrast, publication of someone’s criminal history is protected by the First Amendment, leading Wikipedia to resist the efforts by two Germans convicted of murdering a famous actor to remove their criminal history from the actor’s Wikipedia page.
European regulators believe that all citizens face the difficulty of escaping their past now that the Internet records everything and forgets nothing—a difficulty that used to be limited to convicted criminals. When Commissioner Reding announced the new right to be forgotten on January 22, she noted the particular risk to teenagers who might reveal compromising information that they would later come to regret. She then articulated the core provision of the “right to be forgotten”: “If an individual no longer wants his personal data to be processed or stored by a data controller, and if there is no legitimate reason for keeping it, the data should be removed from their system.”
Link via this roundup. I’m honestly not sure what I think about this. Even when in doubt, I usually err on the side of being a free speech extremist, but part of me also feels like there’s something uniquely insidious about the inability to escape the all-seeing, all-knowing judgment of the Borg.
“What happens to you here is forever,” O’Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover.
Coen said it didn’t matter that those targeted in the articles were minors.
“So they need to learn, everybody needs to learn here that there’s no divide between real life and online. What you say online is just as important as what you say in real life. So I don’t think it matters what actually happens to the kids at the schools per se. We’re not acting as judges or juries. Our responsibility is just to the story.”
I’m so old, I remember when it was conservatives who were in favor of expanding the scope and severity of punishments for minors. That’s cute, though, the way she invokes journalistic neutrality when convenient. Does working at Gawker Media make you a soulless pageview whore, or does the job itself just naturally select for such people? Kind of a “chicken and the egg” argument.
Public shaming is an integral part of our criminal justice system, although its prominence rises and falls periodically. Many cities have posted the names of drug offenders, deadbeat dads, or public urinators on billboards. Some have required people convicted of drunk driving to affix fluorescent license plates to their cars once they start driving again. Kansas City experimented with broadcasting on a government-owned television channel the names and addresses of men arrested for solicitation. The “perp walk” is a pre-conviction public shaming ritual. Individual judges have ordered offenders to wear signs and shirts, or go door-to-door apologizing to victims of their crimes. Legal challenges to such shaming sanctions typically fail.
I was just reading something about this last night, in David Berreby’s excellent book Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. Seriously, this is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year:
With all the evidence that stigma is powerful and dangerous and the historical record showing how it has been put to such bad uses in the past, the law should be careful about invoking human-kind emotions. Yet there are legal scholars, lawyers and judges who think stigma is a fine tool for the legal system to use. They are all for “shame punishments” like chain gangs, prison cams, and license plates that tell the driver’s crime to the world.
A better argument is that stigma — as a historical phenomenon and as a psychological and medical experience — is far too dangerous to invoke. Stigma is, as Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago elegantly points out, inherently counter to the spirit of law because it acts on irrational, unconscious parts of the mind. An understanding of how human-kind psychology works shows why shame punishments are a terrible idea. These are devices that the law should not use.
On a related note, the perils of instapunditry. Maybe it’s a cognitive bias on my part, but I haven’t noticed anywhere near the same number of bloggers who originally hurried to make some sort of creepy-Elmo joke correcting their casual condemnation of the poor guy, by name, as a pedophile. You know, as before, perhaps it wouldn’t fucking kill us to wait just a goddamned minute before using the power of the Internet to facilitate mass shaming and mob justice.
In Russia, Pussy Riot’s newfound Western fans are taking a serious issue (Russia’s degrading political freedoms and civil liberties) and turning it into a celebration of feminist punk music and art. Feminist punk music and art are great, but they are not the solutions to this particular problem, and pretending that they are takes attention away from more worthwhile efforts. Pussy Riot might have made punk music, but they got themselves imprisoned for an act of political dissent. Their unjust imprisonment doesn’t necessarily make anything done in their name — or, particularly, in the name of their punk music — a step forward for Russian political rights.
…Pussy Riot are part of a larger movement within Russia to demand political freedom, one that Putin’s regime thugs are literally, physically beating back. American celebrities are right to be outraged about Pussy Riot’s treatment, but it’s a shame that so few seem to have investigated what happens to the activists who aren’t Western media darlings for their all-women punk bands with sexually suggestive names. Rather than the Pussy Riot trial catalyzing a broader Western awareness of Russian authoritarian backsliding or even a popular movement to pressure Moscow to loosen its restrictions, it seems to have inspired little more in the West than outrage about how sad it is for some punk rockers to go to jail for a silly little church concert.
Yeah, Pussy Riot’s okay, but he’s supporting less-mainstream Russian activists now. They’re pretty obscure; you probably haven’t heard of them.
Not that he’s wrong—most of the writing in the blogosphere about this case is useless. The authenticity-envy of so many American smartphone-revolutionaries is embarrassingly palpable in their naked desire to vicariously experience punk rock as something other than a safe career choice. (Personally, I prefer vintage Chris Bowers when it comes to vapid morons who think dabbling in revolutionary politics makes for an impressive CV, if you’re into ironically appreciating that sort of thing, but I digress.) But let’s not pretend that feminist punks and Free Tibet stickers are distracting serious people from practicing the “awareness” and “attention” that would, uh, somehow cause democratic upheaval in authoritarian states.
Both young men pled guilty to felony sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism charges, receiving what Dietrich called “a slap on the wrist” as punishment for sexually assaulting her.
…Because Dietrich’s rapists were tried in juvenile court — and because David Mejia, an attorney for one of the young men, reported that their motion to hold Dietrich in contempt was an effort to enforce the law that protects juvenile actions from disclosure – I strongly suspect that the specifics of the plea deal classified the boys as juvenile offenders. The details of the young men’s plea deal have not been made public.
…Like other acts of vigilante, social-media-fuelled justice, Dietrich’s actions assure that the names of her rapists will be available to anyone with a search engine.
…Chris Klein, an attorney for one of the young men, said publicizing their names may create problems for them in the future. And that’s the point. There is a sector of society that believes that publicizing the names of sexual predators denies them of their rights and future opportunities. But this point of view only reflects the relative flippancy with which our culture views rape itself. It’s only when individual survivors of sexual assault and our society as a whole can hold rapists accountable for their actions that we can begin to confront the prevalance of sexual assault.
The Internet is proving to be an important means for survivors of sexual assault to reaffirm their own narratives and to hold sex criminals responsible for their actions. An entire cultural structure and, subsequently, the very court system in which she sought justice put pressure on Savannah Dietrich to stay silent about her rape. I’m so glad she didn’t.
I’m feeling very Socratic today. All I know is how little I know, but I’m surrounded by people who know just as little, yet are convinced that they have certain understanding of huge, complicated issues. So, yes, there’s a lot that I’m ignorant and unsure of in this case, but then again, that’s true of every other idiot with a broadband connection and ten minutes invested in reading possibly-incomplete and misleading news reports of it, so, what the hell, here’s what I’ve been thinking:
As the bolded line above reminds us, we don’t actually know yet what their punishment will be. It would be perfectly understandable if anything less than drawing and quartering would feel unacceptable to Dietrich, but, harsh as it may sound, we might want to take her opinion on the severity of punishment with a grain of salt for now. Maybe they are getting off lightly. We don’t know yet. Christ, I have yet to even read an article that makes it clear exactly how serious a juvenile felony conviction is, and whether that alone will cause immense educational/employment obstacles for them.
Some reports I’ve read have indicated that the gag order only holds until sentencing anyway. But even if that isn’t the case, there wasn’t any immediate need to convene an Internet tribunal. The boys weren’t going to escape or be forgotten in the next few weeks. We could have afforded to wait until their actual sentencing before deciding to trumpet their names across the web. And to continue the above point, perhaps we should wait until we know what that sentence is before deciding that they won’t suffer enough and casually doing what we can to increase it. Are they remorseful? Are they the sort of kids who might be humbled and changed for the better by community service rather than prison? I don’t know, and I doubt anyone else does either.
If, as a general rule, progressives see the “get tough on crime” push toward trying juveniles as adults as lamentable, perhaps they might want to think carefully before deciding that cases like this constitute an exception. And on a slightly related theme, do we really want to crowdsource serious legal matters? It feels like a significant step in the direction of Idiocracy to make American Idol-style online voting a factor in punishing criminals.
Spike Lee’s vigilante, social-media stupidity should have served as an object lesson on fanning emotions into mob action within a medium where consequences can easily and quickly multiply beyond expectation. Here’s all I’m really saying: what they did was terrible, and they should be ashamed. But I can easily imagine the possibility of a time, maybe a few decades from now, when circumstances will have changed enough, when they will have changed enough, that a fair-minded person would agree that they don’t deserve to be hounded mercilessly by self-styled Erinyes anymore. But we don’t know yet to what extent such inescapable scrutiny may preclude such a turn of events.
I’d like to know the names of the two boys who took advantage of an inebriated minor who was passed out at a party: they apparently assaulted her while she was unconscious, took pictures of the attack with their cell phones, and sent them around to their friends. I guess this was their idea of bragging. I’d like to know because I never want to have anything to do with them, ever.
You know, if you feel they got off too lightly and want to do your part to keep the option of vigilante justice alive, whether it take the form of social shaming or actual violence (it’s hard to predict what exactly will happen once you tickle the Internet’s amygdala), have the guts and honesty to just fucking say so. Don’t disingenuously pretend that your only concern is that two Kentucky teenagers might somehow end up in rural Minnesota one day where you might accidentally hold the door open for them and wish them a good morning instead of spitting in their faces.