1 August

Saturday Diary: A Difficult Day In The Trenches, Coping With The New Morality

by Jon Katz
In The Trenches
In The Trenches

I keep a quote from Harlan Ellis by my computer: “If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”  Today was one of those days when I must have really made people think because they hated me.

I woke up having the strangest thoughts. I felt sorry for Dr. Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who admits to committing one of the stupidest and cruelest things by maiming,  and then killing,  Cecil the lion, one of Zimbabwe’s most beloved animals and popular tourist attractions. I am happy to think he will be punished, and would be even happier to see trophy hunting banned.

But I had this revelation,  I felt as if we were losing our ability to empathize, to stand in the shoes of another. This is the pathway to compassion, it is the foundation of morality. We seem to think that people can never make mistakes, when everyone makes mistakes. When we catch them, we demonize and de-humanize them, we turn them into monsters unworthy of any kind of human consideration. If we can, we destroy their lives. Dr. Palmer is a good candidate for demonization, he has done an awful thing.

But still, he is one of us, and we are one of him. There is not one person sending furious messages on Facebook who has not needed compassion, or made a mistake. Is it the Internet that disconnects us from one another, and makes it so easy to hate?

How curious to be thinking of this very flawed man and feeling for him. I can’t imagine liking him or wanting to be near him. Yet as a broken man myself, as a man who has made many horrible mistakes, as a man who knows what it is like to be assaulted and abused, as a man whose very life was saved by those rare human beings with true compassion in their souls, I was able to put myself in Dr. Palmer’s shoes. I felt some of what he must be feeling – very frightened, very much alone, very much a target with many millions of people all over the world aiming their keyboards at him and his life, determined to destroy him.

And he would never see one of them.

All day long, people were telling me in the most hostile voices that Dr. Palmer was rich, he could easily run and  hide forever, he felt nothing, he had done worse and unspeakable things even than kill a lion, there was no reason to sympathize with him or offer him the slightest consideration or empathy. People swore he was a sex offender, a predator, a thief and a fraud. Nobody bothered with proof, accusations on Facebook are free and without restraint.

Mobs have always driven me to the edge of my own tolerance, they are a scourge on the very nature of humanity, so I wrote about compassion and Dr. Palmer. I touched off a firestorm, I was not too surprised.  I spent the rest of the day going at it with a lot of outraged people on my Facebook page, and yes, some very appreciative ones also. I went to lunch, and responded to ferocious attacks, I herded she sheep and answered a dozen more. It went on  like that for much of the day.

It was like poking a big hornet’s nest with a sharp stick, the idea that this man deserved any passion was a heresy, I can only give thanks I was not living during the Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials,  I would be burned alive or tortured in the rack. I can tell you that the idea of being compassionate to a man like this is now a very controversial idea in our country. It is considered an outrage.

In a country where politicians crawl all over each other to show their piety and orthodoxy, the message of Jesus Christ – compassion and tolerance, love for the despised –  so often invoked, has been lost and forgotten, just another public relations ploy no one is paying much attention to.

I will meditate on it this Sunday, Pope Francis seems to mean it.

The world has already forgotten the two beautiful young women gunned down in a New Mexico movie theater a week or so ago, and no one can name any of the nine people massacred in that Charleston, South Carolina church, already several massacres old. The new morality mostly yawns when children get gunned down in their schools and dormitories and movie theaters, worshipers in their pews, soldiers in their recruiting offices. No Internet mob justice for dead kids, or sane gun laws,  but the mob roars to life when a lion dies.

It is beyond me what arouses the mob and what puts them to sleep, I have this growing feeling it is a cute or poignant image.

Nobody can name a single person who died in Charleston, but Walter Palmer is on the lips of millions of people who say they love animals while angrily rejecting the idea of loving people. This, to me, seems to be a spreading virus in the world of people who are concerned for the rights of animals. “Say what you want about Charleston,” said one furious poster on Facebook, “this was a lion who never harmed anyone. Charleston doesn’t matter.” We haven’t just  lost perspective when it comes to animals, we have moved to another planet.

As the day wore on, and the angry messages poured in, I realized that for the first time in my life, the moral ethics of the world around me seemed topsy-turvy.  I was getting dizzy, spinning in my own alphabet soup. How to speak amidst the great digital din, where the currency is rage and the language is righteousness. Was I really being attacked all day for defending compassion? This was a reality I had not quite grasped. All anyone wanted to hear was how evil Dr. Palmer was, anything else was an intrusion.

As a fallen pilgrim, a former addict, a survivor of an awful breakdown, a lifelong student of moral philosophy, I thought I had a grip on right and wrong. But I realized today that there is a new morality, a new way of looking at justice and the law, a new way of dismissing compassion and empathy from almost every aspect of our public, political and media worlds. We live in a world which is losing faith in mercy and redemption. The mob listens to no one, it has no church, it is not accountable, it talks only to itself.

And it seems to be based on nothing but raw emotion.

So I have a lot of work to do. I am pretty clear on this mob stuff, it is a plague on our public and civic lives, a serious threat to our freedom and well-being. Social media has given this grass roots movement life –  informers and thieves and trolls and hackers and prosecutors and judges, all sitting at their computers. This is part of the mailaise afflicting the animal rights movement – the idea that they are above conventional and traditional laws, that anyone who offends or disturbs them is fair game, they cannot be deterred or disagreed with.

I have been writing on the Internet for more than 30 years, I wrote for one of the very first blogs – Hotwired – and I have witnessed the steady evolution of the Internet Mob Justice, an increasingly vicious and destructive element of the digital world that has decided to take the law and punishment into it’s own hands and dispense with all the messy stuff about due process, the rights of the accused, libel and defamation, privacy, the right to confront one’s accusers, the need for judges to ensure fairness and protect the rights of individuals.

Dr. Palmer is alone in his struggle, he has no rights, he is entitled to no due process.

The Internet has always had elements of hostility and lawlessness, a sense of a new frontier, but social media has created a lawless world, mobs of millions now all over the world, eager to pounce and with the tools to do it. The angry and the righteous are now connected to one another in the belief that if someone or something offends them, it is their duty to destroy the public selves of the accused, their personal property, to go after their families, their work, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, their websites, their phones and computers, their very sense of selves.

it is not only acceptable to steal people’s financial data, hack into their computers, destroy their personal pages, threaten them and their families with violence and death, it is considered a noble and just thing to do. And it is beyond the reach of any kind of empowered justice.

Dozens of people posted enraged messages on my Facebook Page all day, it was a kind of attack in it’s own right,  and it was clear very few of them bothered to even read my post, the bristled at the idea that anyone could possibly sympathize with their new Frankenstein monster.  They just wanted to say Dr. Palmer was the devil incarnate, and if I felt any sympathy for him, I was mean and arrogant, a monster also. I dug out my tattered copy of Frankenstein, one of my favorite novels.

Can we see the monster, I asked and also feel for him? And so it went back and forth. I was told to shut up, go away, people accused me of murdering Orson, of being arrogant. I have been criticized for many things in my life, but never for urging compassion.

It was an Outrage Orgy, they are becoming too familiar.  I can’t say I didn’t expect it, when you poke the bear, you better either stand and fight or run. Nobody wanted to think about sympathy or compassion, destroying someone’s  persona, their personhood, their virtual existence was quite righteous, the mob confers great power and a sense of superiority.   I heard all kinds of echoes of the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the McCarthy era, the purges of Stalin and Mao. And yes, the mob assaults on the New York Carriage Trade.

Poor Cecil has triggered one of the ugliest Internet mobs yet, this one may be the biggest and most destructive ever, a digital Katrina, a Level 5 Internet Mob. It ought to be shown on the Weather Channel map, I think of it as an angry swirling mass.  I am hardly the first one to notice it or write about it, and I gather that anyone who does has had pretty much the same kind of day that I did.

I decided to stay with my Facebook Page for much of the afternoon and then, into the evening. Hundreds of messages. I don’t usually spent a lot of time arguing my opinions on Facebook, but I thought I owed it to people to do it today, I try and do it when the subject is controversial. I feel it owe it to people.  I answered close to a hundred messages. There were quite a few personal attacks, many compliments, lots of intelligent thoughts and observations, plenty of infantile nyaaah-nyaahh and sniping. I am an old hand it, I’m afraid, anger is wired into the Internet. Social media conversations can soar to great heights, they can suddenly descend and crash into middle-school locker room outbursts, what my friend calls “feces-throwing” contests. There was a lot of that too. I got snippy, tired, frustrated at all the people who hadn’t read the piece and didn’t even pretend they had.

When I told people who said Dr. Palmer deserved to get just what Cecil the lion got, I did say then they were no better than he is, and that lit things up for a bit. Someone demanded that I apologize, but you know what? I told them to piss off. A woman said she had no sympathy for Dr. Palmer’s children, they got what they deserved (death threats),  it was their parents fault if they were being threatened. I told her I hoped she had no children.

Perhaps the hardest part of the day for me was seeing this parade of sometimes broken and disconnected people, they seemed lost to me, caught in the labyrinth of anger and victimization.  I wondered if I had true compassion for them, if I will sympathize with them in the morning. Perhaps not.  Can I show compassion for people I don’t like? It seemed that in our worship of animals, we had lost our ability to treat people with dignity. I imagine the two things are not unrelated. My Google typing program  kept changing Palmer’s name to Walker. I heard about that as well.

I am proud of my piece. I do feel a bit like the strange and lonely man pissing into the wind, but it felt good and honorable when I zipped up. Hannah Arendt says the only person you have to please at the end of the day is yourself, and I was pleased with myself at the end of the day. I took the dogs for a long walk.

Then, going over who said what and how they said it, I felt it was one of the stronger pieces I had written and one of the more important, and yes, I was thinking of Ellis, I have never written a worthwhile piece that somebody didn’t hate, and if you can judge the power of piece by the people who hated it, it was a huge success. You can follow this dialogue on my Facebook Page, it says much about the world beyond our screens, and the world within.

Yet I will be honest, I ended the day with some sadness and resignation.  I’m not sure anyone was listening. I’m not sure I was either.

There reality is that there is no moral philosophy surrounding these new kinds of  vigilante communities. Hannah Arendt would starve to death in the digital age.  I never stop learning, the smart man realizes every day just how dumb he is.

I was up last night re-reading Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si,” his beautiful work on climate change and human responsibility. He is catching it for that work, as I am catching it for mine. The corporate and political worlds hate it. Saving the planet would cost a lot of money, and our corporate and political leaders would rather we all perish than for them to lose money.

One of the Pope’s most important passages was about the new forms of social aggression and the loss of identity,  the silent but relentless rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion. Technology, he says, has become a problem in human relations. When the media and digital world become omnipresent, he wrote, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply, and to love generously. True wisdom, he writes, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by data or gadgets. Both lead to overload and moral confusion, a sort of mental pollution.

Today’s technology enables us to communicate and share our knowledge and affectations, yet it also shields us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and joys of others and the complexity of moral reasoning and personal experience.   A deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with intrapersonal relations can arise from this disconnection, says Francis, and a harmful sense of grievance and isolation.

I’m not use to relating to a Catholic Pope so much, but Francis is, I think, my lost brother. I am sorry to tell  him that his prophecy is not a distant threat, it is here. I suspect he knows, he is breaking it to us gently.

Cecil and Walter Palmer have brought this prophesy to the front of our consciousness.

In another world, before he vanished into hiding behind a wall of lawyers and crisis managers, perhaps someone might have sat down with Walter Palmer, you know, face-to-face and asked him just what the hell he was thinking when he went to Zimbabwe, maybe slapped him upside the head a bit, looked him in the eye, asked if he was sorry, challenged to say what he had learned about being a man, dared him to convince us that he understood what he had done.

Perhaps we might understand him better and give ourselves the gift of hating him less, before he is packed off to jail.

In our world today, that conversation can never happen, he has already disappeared behind a wall of lawyers and  prosecutors and crisis managers. In a few years, Brian Williams or Diane Sawyer will get to him and we may finally understand a slick and programmed presentation of who he is. In the meantime he will be our new Frankenstein monster,  until the next one comes along in a few days. The mobs are hungry, they need fresh outrage to stay alive, like a storm needs moisture.

And here is the thing that has bothered me in the night: millions of people are talking to Dr. Palmer all of the time, but no one is saying a thing.

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