Your Worst Mistake on the Front Page

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?  The biggest mistake you’ve ever made.  No matter what it is, regardless of how significant in the grand scheme of things, I’m sure it’s not something you like to think about, let alone discuss.  Whatever it is, hopefully not many people know about it.

Not everyone is so fortunate.  Thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones equipped with state-of-the-art cameras and social media we are treated almost daily to the worst behavior of people, both the famous and the ordinary. 

Scenes of people behaving badly generate views, lots of them.  As a society we can’t seem to get enough of watching people implode.  So much so that it seems that the first instinct of many people is to record and post the moment as opposed to getting involved to prevent or defuse the situation.

Early in my career, in an era long before smart phones, an older, wiser colleague advised me never to do anything that I wouldn’t want to read about on the front page of The New York Times.  While this was and remains sage counsel, in truth it’s an unattainable standard.  No one lives a life free of actions that wouldn’t embarrass or shame them should they be featured in a 4-column headline story on the front page of the Times. 

Still, that advice I received decades ago takes on even greater significance in today’s world where cell phones and social media give all of us the potential to be news reporters and publishers with instant, free access to a global audience.  And while there certainly is room to be concerned about the negative impact this can have on our culture, it makes us more accountable.  It is impossible to have a truly just society without accountability.

Our collective examination the past 18 months about how law enforcement interacts with minority communities versus other segments of our population is a perfect example of how technology can catalyze important cultural and political conversations. 

So, when people pull out their cell phones to capture a moment and share it with the world, I like to think that their underlying motivation is to advance the cause of justice.  The extra accountability this provides makes us all better.  The fear of exposure and the resulting consequences hopefully will incentivize better behavior from all of us.

But the easy and often anonymous access social media provides to these moments also creates a mob mentality.  Justice is never served at the hands of an impassioned, enflamed mob, as anyone who has studied history understands.

Mobs seek to take justice into their own hands.  In social media this takes the form of exposing a person’s entire life for the mob to tear apart.  In the rush to “cancel” the guilty party, the collateral damage often is extensive and disproportionate to the offense.  Mobs feed on themselves and often move on from the just act of exposing the guilty party to relentlessly attacking that person’s family, friends, employer and colleagues, even though they had no part in the offending event. 

Let me be clear, actions have consequences, sometimes severe ones, and our laws and rules must be enforced.  But I I don’t think ensuring the just enforcement of consequences for one’s actions is the same as the rush to “cancel” someone that fuels social media mobs.  No matter how satisfying or just it may seem in the moment, it is not the answer.

What the mob too often forgets is that true justice can never be achieved absent the counterbalancing virtue on the other side of the scale – mercy.  As Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution and justice without mercy is cruelty.”

Finding that balance can be an unenviable and excruciating challenge for those in positions that require them to render justice, regardless of the setting – courtroom, boardroom, or classroom.  Often, we on the outside are rightly dissatisfied with the results.  But as flawed as the process can be, one place you will never find an appropriate balance between justice and mercy is in the middle of a social media mob. 

Mobs forget that justice is meant to promote stability and change behavior, not just impose sanctions.  Nor are mobs interested in mercy or redemption.  But without either, there can be no hope.  No hope for individuals to learn from and rise above their bad actions.  No hope to become better people.  But if we fail to have hope for individuals, how can we expect our communities to improve?

This is a complex topic; I certainly don’t pretend to have greater wisdom or all the answers.  Like I said, the increased accountability and transparency technology provides is a good thing.  Our laws and rules matter and must be enforced, no matter where, how or by whom they are violated.  But our pursuit for a more perfect justice will be for naught if we forget that all of us are more than our worst mistakes and eliminate any hope of redemption.  The only thing worse than an unjust culture is one without hope for a better tomorrow.

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