It’s not as if it’s gonna kill anyone
If there’s no victim then there’s no crime
Just draw another if you think we’ve crossed the line

We are Scientists – Rules Don’t Stop

We fast approach an age of ubiquitous trial by media.  Trial by media itself has of course been with us for a while, but what’s becoming different now is that, due to the increasingly social blog-style nature of news reporting and commentary, it’s entirely possible to round up an online posse, whip them into a frenzy and set the neighbourhood into an uproar relatively easily.  Stories whose entire purpose seems to be exactly this seem to be becoming more common and the nuanced truth of the matter in question is no barrier to a good rage, and once it begins, the comments section will let the rage go on and on.

I first noticed this when trying to find out more information about the trial where Robert Colover now infamously used the word ‘predatory’  to describe a 13-year old girl.  What I found during my search was a lot of outrage, a lot of “how dare he?” and very little actual reporting of the facts of the case.  This is significant because Colover was the prosecuting barrister and, as this post on a law blog explains, in English Law the prosecution’s duty to present a case is not a straightforward ‘take one side and leave the rest out’.  This is the archetype of the Outrage Bandwagon:

  • Sensational or controversial topic
  • Indifference to (or misrepresentation of) facts
  • ‘With me or against me’ rhetoric, often in the form of an online petition
  • (In the UK) David Cameron gets personally, publically involved in matters that are undergoing official procedures

The outrage in this case was not that Colover’s description was wrong on the facts (none have really been reported), but that somehow the description could not be true by definition, which makes no sense to me whatsoever.  Certainly, such a claim should need signifcant, or even overwhelming evidence, but to dismiss it as logically impossible smacks of faulty ideology.

The worst part about the Bandwagon phenomenon is that anything that happens afterwards is suspect.  After the Prime Minister personally condemns something without the faintest clue of what actually happened, it’s hard to take any subsequent official action as being nothing more than an exercise in mob-placating scapegoating.  Once truth becomes secondary, all hope of proper justice is lost.

The next installment for me was Dr. Phil’s public flogging for conducting a survey.  Why asking people for views on a topic makes one a moral monster is beyond me, and the petition‘s assertion that the #teensaccused hashtag is evidence that Dr. Phil was planning to whitewash the topic is, at best, flagrantly speculative.  The facepalming irony of all this, though is when the petition calls on Dr. Phil to:

produce a show that shines a light on survivors of rape and sexual assault and begin a national conversation about the specifics of consent – which includes not raping people while they are drunk or otherwise unable to consent.

Yes, because of course Dr. Phil’s producers will now be totally willing to touch this topic with a bargepole.

Nice going.

[I was just about to hit publish on this post when it occured to me, maybe I should check this, and it turns out they did touch it with a bargepole.  Twice.  And it turns out the case they discussed is still awaiting trial.  So Dr. Phil was the subject of a Trial by Media while creating his own Trial by Media.  I guess that bit should have been obvious, in retrospect!]

The last thing I’ll talk about here is the Bradley Manning case, even though the Bandwagon status of this one is slightly questionable, because I find it strange to hear people talk of his being a whistleblower.  None of the defenses of Manning that I have seen have even attempted to challenge the description of how he got the data and the indiscriminate nature of his selection of it.  That what was released to Wikileaks included evidence of governmental deceit appears to have been mostly accidental and certainly didn’t justify the release of much of what was.  Whistleblowing is an action, not an effect.

Contrastingly, while the Edward Snowden leaks aren’t over yet and we don’t know everything that he took, this does seem prima facie to be a case of a targeted release to expose specific wrongdoing.  I don’t know whether US law as written would recognise his activities as legitimate, but so far I would be happy in a moral sense to consider Snowden a whistleblower.  However you cut it, though, whistleblowing by definition changes the life of the whistleblower forever.  It takes a special kind of courage to do, and we dishonour it when we apply the label seemingly without concern for what actually happened.

Anyway, believe it or not, this was actually intended as a couple of introductory paragraphs for post on another controversy entirely, that of the proposed boycott of Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’ film that came out recently.  If I’m speedy, maybe I’ll have that post done tonight too. (Ok, you can stop laughing now!)