Friday, November 21, 2008

What happened to 'but words will never hurt me'?

I don't know how I feel about this case. On the one handit goes without sayingwhat transpired here is pretty sick; deplorable. The idea that a functioning adult, a mother no less, would actually go to the trouble of creating a fake online identity in order to befriend a vulnerable 13-year-old girl for the express purpose of turning on her and tormenting her later.... It's hard to wrap my head around it.

It's just that...what, in the end, was the crime? Yeah, I know what they charged the woman with: online harassment or, in vernacular terms, cyber-bullying. But what does it really reduce to? "Being very, very mean"? As troubled as I am by this unfortunate scenario, I am equally troubled by the implication that we are now, each of us, somehow responsible for the overreactions of people we taunt or even torment. Put differently: We will be held liable for the way others handle (or don't handle) the things we do.

More and more each day we are eradicating the bedrock distinction between thought and behavior that formed the philosophical linchpin of the Bill of Rights. I think of all the categories of what was once "protected speech" that are now off-limits. On some college campuses, you can't speak out against such pet sociopolitical initiatives as diversity-mania, women's rights, gay rights, abortion rights, etc., or you'll be accused of hate speech and quite possibly suspended or expelled.* At work, you can't get too familiar with your coworkers, let alone be unambiguously suggestive, without putting your job (and future livelihood) at risk. If you want me to be honest, I don't even believe that stalking should be a crime; leaving aside the emotional reaction to the Rebecca Schaeffer tragedy, I don't understand how that whole movement gained traction. I should be allowed to go wherever I want, whenever I want, assuming I'm on public property. When I make a move to hurt you, that's when you arrest me. Not before. Otherwise we're punishing people's (presumed?) thoughts and intents, desires and feelings, and that's a very precarious road to be driving on. The way I see it, if you're threatened by my presence, that's your problem, not mine, unless I'm standing there buck-naked (which, rightly or wrongly, is already illegal) and touching myself (ditto) while firing warning shots over your head (ditto redux) with an unlicensed (yet again) .357 magnum.

In that same vein: Often these days people are arrested for the relatively new crime of "making terroristic threats." Every time I hear that phrase I have to laugh: If they'd arrested everyone in Brooklyn who screamed something like "You're dead, mother****! You hear me? Dead!", there'd be nobody left to enjoy all this peace and tranquility they're trying to enforce upon us.
At the airport? Fuggetaboutit. You might as well keep your mouth shut from the moment you arrive at curbside check-in till the moment your flight lands; whatever you do, don't make jokes about anything. And Allah-help-you if you're a Muslim taking off at dusk and you decide to get in your evening prayers.

At the same time, I'm reminded of how selective we can be in the types of speech and even behavior that we punish. We're so concerned about a guy telling a woman she has a nice ass
that's textbook hostile environment!but we don't say diddly about the hordes of tyrannical bosses who make everyone's life a waking nightmare by being rude, demeaning, imperious, and generally insufferable. Because that's "just life."

(Cut your host some slack, folks. He's cranky today.)

* And if things are not quite as bad as they were during the height of the early-90s speech-code movement, it's largely because the battle has been won: All of the politically liberal positions on those topics have been institutionalized on college campuses as The Only Proper and Enlightened Way to Think.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - If this is a duplicate, please feel free to delete. Blogger is being squirrelly this morning!

I believe we owe the legal profession a pat on the back for the current environment of political (and social) correctness. There was a time when messing with someone's kids - physically or emotionally - would elicit a time-honored response called an ass-whuppin. Unfortunately, the ass-whuppees learned that when they were unable to prevent such repercussions for their actions, they could always retaliate by suing the ass-whupper. Attorney makes money, ass-whupee gets some satisfaction beyond their own abilities to extract, and the ass-whupper gets a criminal record. What was originally a brief, unpleasant scenario balloons into a life-altering event for all concerned, and a profitable one for some.

Steven Sashen said...

Don't leave out how people confuse a string of phonemes with meaning.

Sadly, according to most, putting certain sounds in a particular order (especially if those sounds start with "fu" and including something with a glottal stop) *IS* "offensive."

Somehow they leave out the part where THEY make the meaning out of those sounds.

Oh, geez, remember all the hoopla around someone using the word "niggardly?"

Steve Salerno said...

How 'bout the Cubs' outfielder, Kosuke Fukodome. He was a great player for Chicago this year, instrumental in their (doomed) playoff run...but a number of area schools prohibited students from wearing his jersey to school, for obvious (if somewhat silly) reasons.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, that sounds like a natural outgrowth of the zero-tolerance / zero-brains policy many schools are adopting nowadays.

Elizabeth said...

Put differently: We will be held liable for the way others handle (or don't handle) the things we do.

More and more each day we are eradicating the bedrock distinction between thought and behavior that formed the philosophical linchpin of the Bill of Rights.

This is not exactly so in this situation, Steve. I.e. the woman who tormented the girl did not just go about expressing her generic thoughts about assorted non-personal matters. She targeted the child as an object of her stalking. That's harassment, at the least. Sick and perverted at that. She was an adult tormenting a child. I think generic and general self-expression is one thing, but targeted harassment should be considered a crime. Especially when it is perpetrated by an adult on a child victim. I'm glad this woman is on trial and hope she is found guilty.

Oh, btw, that saying about "stick and stones"? It is patently false. Words can hurt, more deeply and permanently than sticks and stones.* The scars are not always visible, but they are there, forever affecting people's lives, especially when the wounds when inflicted in childhood. Repeated emotional stress, particularly that experienced in our formative years, permanently changes our physiology, and, in turn, our emotional functioning.

It's about time we acknowledged that there is no such thing as words without consequences, when those words are uttered in the presence of other people (and especially when directed at them).

*I'm surprised you have not taken on this nugget of false wisdom as an object of your criticism, Steve, the way you have dealt with others (e.g., "what does not kill you...", etc.)

"Sticks and stones" is clearly a rationalization invented to lessen the painful and often devastating effect of our verbal dealings with others. But of course the fact that it was invented in the first place suggests the severity of the problem, first, and our permanent vulnerability to it, second, not quite covered up by generic (and false) proverbs.

And note the context in which this saying is usually quoted: it is, typically, by someone who is trying to minimize the jarring effect of a verbal assault perpetrated on another. That someone is too often either a habitual bully him/herself, or a repeated victim of bullying, who has adopted a "tough" persona and cultivated a denial of his/her pain. Whenever we hear "sticks and stones," we get a better glimpse, IMO, into a speaker's psyche than an objective reality as such.

Elizabeth said...

I meant to say, "especially when the wounds were inflicted in childhood."

My apologies.

The Crack Emcee said...

This is the destruction of everything for the sake of idiocy. I saw it during the infamous Don Imus "nappy-headed hoes" incident: Grown women claiming their lives were destroyed, by words they'd surely heard at home, merely because they came from a man of different color on a show they'd never heard.

As a black man (heh-heh) I say political correctness is a soul destroying mindf*ck of epic proportions.

Cal said...

Speaking of Chicago, there is a law that has just been passed by the Illinois House of Representatives that allows hearsay evidence from witnesses who may have been murdered by a suspect. Evidently it's being called the "Drew Peterson" law because one of his wives died under mysterious circumstances and the other is missing (and probably presumed dead) and, in both cases, friends of the women have said if something happens to them that Drew did it.

Cal said...

BTW, his last name is spelled Fukudome. I don't think people will figure out why the schools banned the jersey with the "o" in place of the second "u". I admit when I saw the spelling, it's the first thing I thought of...LOL

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, you're right about the spelling. I don't know how I missed that!

Cal said...

There is something similar to the discussion in the news being reported that Larry Summers is being passed over for the job of Treasury Secretary for Obama. Evidently, his past comments while at Harvard about the aptitude of women in the sciences were deemed a problem. I guess the trial balloon came back that feminist groups would frown upon, if not outright oppose the nomination.

Although my opinion is that Obama needs new blood (i.e., not everyone should be a former member of the Bill Clinton administration) for some of his cabinet positions, I'm disappointed at the reasons Summers did not get the job. Although G.W. Bush turned an almost blind eye to public opinion until recently, I hope Obama does not do a 180 and have to take an opinion poll before every decision.

RevRon's Rants said...

I tend to agree with Elizabeth here. "mere words" can inflict significant hurt, especially when those words are directed at an impressionable child. Saying hurtful things can indeed cause more pain than does a simple slap. Compounding the hurt with embarrassment or even worse, public humiliation goes beyond the realm of free expression and constitutes a form of assault, worthy of appropriate response.

What bothers me is that we have so completely institutionalized our responses to such affronts. Rather than deal with the offending party directly, we hire surrogates (attorneys) to seek retribution for us. The result is that a simple offensive act frequently mushrooms out of all proportion, and the repercussions far outweigh the original affront.

Perhaps if we came to expect a direct and proportional response to our behaviors, we might be more judicious in choosing how we act. By insulating ourselves from the responsibility for - and repercussions from - our behavior, too many of us do something inappropriate, only to find out too late that the response to our actions is well beyond anything we expected or are prepared to face. I'd rather be bitch-slapped than sued any day. :-)

Anonymous said...

I agree about society getting to over involved in people's thoughts, but a lot of people do not know when to cool it and do intimidate/harass others. As far as stalking goes, you can get a restraining order, but it is not easy. No judge is going to sign off on one without proof. You can't go in and say "he/she is scaring me!" You have to prove that person made physical threats against you. Any battered person will tell you that. By the way, people who do get killed and maimed generally were stalked and most people are stalked without even knowing it. That's why the laws got in the books. Now a days people use the term far too loosely and without understanding. I know of a guy who got in trouble for going to the cops to complain about an ex-girlfriend who he stated was "stalking" him. The cops charged him for filing a false police report and court costs. The guy basically wasted their time.

roger o'keefe said...

This is the first thing you've written in a long time that I agree with absolutely without reservation. There is entirely too much official meddling in people's thoughts and feelings today. The "thought police" are everywhere, and it isn't getting any better. I wasn't nearly as down on Bush as everyone else seemed to be, on this blog especially, and even I thought the Patriot Act was overzealous. If it had to be at all, it should have been a temporary stopgap measure at most. But the Patriot Act was a culmination, not an entirely different thing in its own right. People who made it out to be an unprecedented violation of civil liberties were forgetting the groundwork laid for many years by all of the elements you mention here, in speech codes, harassment policies, the stalking laws and the rest. We reap what we sow.

Elizabeth said...

OK, putting my contrarian (and slightly facetious) hat on -- and forming some thoughts about that "thought police."

First, I see no evidence of it. Nobody, as far as I can tell, stops anyone from thinking whatever they want to. And we can express it as well, no matter how stupid or offensive it may be; after all, Rush Limbaugh is still on the air, and will be for a long time, handsomely compensated for saying things that are both ignorant and offensive, interspersed with occasional nuggets of reason.

So "thought police"? Hardly, I'd say.

Second, and I've said it already, there is a difference between free self-expression and harassment. Sometimes it may be blurred (for some), but, really, it's not that hard to distinguish when you think about it.

Third, those who most loudly bemoan the oppressiveness of the "thought police" are people who feel inconvenienced in expressing their bigotry and hatred. (I do not mean anyone on this blog, btw.) They cry oppression because suddenly their bigoted views are considered uncool. No one stops them from having those views, incidentally, it is just that they are expected to think about them before they open their mouths to share them with others. And, as the Limbaugh&Co. example shows, sharing those views is still permissible -- nah, lucratively encouraged.

Fourth, now, what is so desirable about living in a society where every thug and their brother can spew their hatreds left and right? No, really? It does not seem to be a good place to raise a family, for one. By all means, nurture your hatreds if you must, just don't bestow them on others willy-nilly. I, for one, am not interested in participating.

Fifth... Wait, there was a fifth...

Oh, Larry Summers, and nappy-headed hoes. About Larry, first. It's not that he expressed a politically incorrect thought (though it was labeled such and yes, there was "political" correctness involved). It was an intellectually incorrect statement. Not as many women in hard sciences does not translate into "women are not as capable" in those domains. There are other factors that are responsible for this state of affairs, and who if not the preznit of Harvard should know this? Don't they teach thinking skills and stuff at Harvard?

Last, but not least: what does one want to accomplish by calling a women sports team "nappy-headed hoes"? No, really? The purpose of uttering such a statement thoroughly eludes me. There is also a difference between hearing something "at home" and hearing the same bigoted and offensive thing from a public figure of some authority. The words may be the same, but their impact is radically different.

Alright, said my piece. (Thought police, my sneaker.;)