To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Richard S. Levick, Esq., Chairman & CEO, LEVICK
I get it. We’re angry. Disruption is coming to take our jobs. The future is no longer secure. Iowa can’t hold a caucus without messing up. The presidency and Senate are no longer just dysfunctional; they’re complicit.
Organized religion has let us down, forcing us to question our faith. Democracy is severely tested. All good reasons to be afraid, very afraid. But I keep thinking of the wise words of the late Rodney King, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all just get along? Can we all just get along?”
Having been in Lebanon a few years after the Prime Minister’s assassination and bomb attacks to represent the banks seeking investment from the west; representing Kuwaiti Guantanamo detainees after 9/11; in Sanaa, Yemen, not long before the fall of the Saleh government; followed by spies in the Emirates and sending teams into Islamabad, Pakistan, seeking proof of inert fertilizer to reduce the risks of IEDs; and into Lagos, Nigeria, seeking a way to help negotiate the release of 300 school girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram, my colleagues and I are often asked the question we ask of clients, “What is the thing that keeps you up at night?”
It’s the decline of the civil town square and the anonymous “Internet courage” that Twitter and social media have unleashed, which has turned differences of opinion into an echo chamber of horrors, escalating false accusations and using name calling as a form of prior restraint to eliminate the free exchange of ideas. “You’re a racist, sexist, homophobe, carbon junkie, thief, evildoer, etc.” Take your pick; such slander shuts down all dialogue and becomes a monologue for the pious.
I’ve met with countless executives whose careers and families were ruined under the weight of this Deus ex Machina in reverse. Everyone is now elevated to “public figure” status so that they can be insulted without fear of libel, often followed by self-justified doxing – the release of personal information such as home addresses – fully knowing it will put the person in harm’s way. Death threats and worse follow.
How do we maintain civil discourse in an age of instant rage and Internet bullhorns? Just a few years ago, even in the Internet Age, we could halt the rise of false narratives before they took hold, keeping them on the periphery of conversation. Today, to paraphrase Charles Spurgeon, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”
Since lies spread too far and too fast, it would be easier if social media users re-thought the rules of engagement. Here are 22 rules for the Internet road to help us fulfill Rodney King’s dream.
1. Don’t press send: The Catholic Church argues that it’s a sin even to think it, but better to think it than to memorialize it. If you need to write something nasty, then do it and save it, but don’t send it. President Truman used to throw his snarky notes in the wastepaper basket. FDR would delete nasty passages from the final drafts of speeches.
2. Your pain is not better than my pain: We have represented the plaintiff in one of the largest #MeToo settlements in history. We have also represented many of the falsely accused. I can’t distinguish nor grade their pain on a scale as one ruined life being worse – or better – than another. Can you? When you look in their eyes and hear their stories, you can see and feel the real damage that people can do to one another. You simply cannot decide that one set of victims is better off than another, thereby justifying piling on.
3. The Stop Sign Test: On the roadways, we are all more or less equal, encased in two-ton machines. To the question of “how would you perform if you had equal power?” Now you know. If you regularly run stop signs, then you have lost the privilege of criticism. If you don’t care enough about your neighborhood not to risk the lives of others rather than inconvenience yourself for a few seconds, then you certainly don’t have the right to criticize anyone on social media for whatever their less life-threatening infractions.
4. Judge not, lest ye be judged: You can’t claim bullying after you strike first with vitriolic judgment. Better to look at yourself than judge others as an avocation.
5. Don’t get drunk on Internet courage: If you wouldn’t say it face-to- face, don’t say it on social media. Anonymity has its rewards but also its responsibilities.
6. Seek proof: Rather than assume everything you read is true, especially strong criticism, seek the actual document, article or proof point in question. That’s what the search function is for.
7. Constructive criticism is an act of love: Constructive criticism is someone taking enough time and effort to make you better. It is not a cause of action at Human Resources.
8. The Glass House Test: How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of your post?
9. It’s almost never justified: If you are defending your activity because of your righteousness, look more closely in the mirror.
10. “He made me feel uncomfortable”: The #MeToo movement is long-overdue and deeply needed. But false or careless accusations have ruined thousands of lives already. Understand that “He made me feel uncomfortable,” stems from 20th century white racism in the South and was the sentiment used to justify the murder 14-year-old Emmett Till. “He made me feel uncomfortable.” There is terrible discomfort in sexual innuendo and harassment. This needs to be called out and stopped. There is also discomfort in change and challenge. This is supposed to make us uncomfortable as the first step in growth. Be thoughtful in your accusations as they have consequences.
11. Diversity is a wide net, not a mirror: America needs to be more diverse but most Americans – only a small percentage of whom have passports – have a very limited view of diversity, usually limited to sexual preference, race and a few countries of origin. Seldom do Americans think diversely about diversity. Diversity should never be used as a steppingstone for power but as an ever-open invitation for embracing different cultures and views.
12. Criticism should always be about justice, not power: If you are using brazen criticism for your own benefit, there is nothing constructive or loving in it.
13. The difference between mob rule and democracy is the rule of law: Demanding “justice” without facts, due process, or the statute of limitations is neither just nor admirable.
14. “OK Boomer” is per se unjust: To dismiss entire generations is as arrogant as it is supremely naive. The Boomer generation fought for civil rights, created the environmental and modern women’s rights movements and ended the military draft in response to the Vietnam War, among other historic accomplishments. And it still pales in comparison to the achievements of the “Greatest Generation.” There is nothing admirable in being “a-historical.”
15. Instantly defining someone as “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic” or any other “ism” is a bully’s form of prior restraint: If you decide to instantly label someone for their thoughts without understanding them, you are preventing them from speaking and labeling yourself the judge, jury and executioner. Instead, ask questions and try to understand their point of view. If it is untenable, then advise them. But jumping to labeling at the start is a form of self-righteous censorship.
16. Don’t judge history: If you decide to judge history by today’s standards then you must consent to being judged by the future. If you appraise the visionary but flawed Thomas Jefferson by today’s standards, then your entire life must be judged by a future 250 years from now where you will be criticized for using a cell phone (carbon emissions) rather than telepathy; an airplane (even more carbon emissions) rather than beaming up; and eating farmed food (even more carbon emissions) rather than 3-D printed food. The present, which will soon be history, is always messy.
17. Channel Buddhism: Always put yourself into the center of the mind of your audience. As Stephen Covey wrote, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
18. Calling someone a bully doesn’t eliminate you as a possibility: Calling someone a bully first is often the first act of a bully.
19. Take the Substitute Test: Substitute another race or sex for your favorite criticism, such as “old white males,” and see how it makes you feel.
20. The self-aware are the easiest targets: People who are self-aware will admit to their failures and mistakes. The self-righteous use this as a sword. If you weaponize someone’s willingness to admit to their part of a misunderstanding or mistake you have ensured that the pious will inherit the earth.
21. The Amoeba Test: Did you just judge a person and their entire life’s work from a single quote or text? Perhaps you want to re-think that. Judging a person by a single cell is, to say the least, a paucity of information. It is like judging the universe by a single star.
22. Don’t make heartfelt apologies an endangered species: Often, after people make mistakes and humbly apologize, critics say “It’s not enough.” What is the standard you apply to yourself when you make mistakes? Are your own apologies not enough?
If this article made you angry rather than thoughtful, you’re not getting the purpose of this exercise. We’re all mortal, all flawed, all hypocrites in our own way.
And if we want our beautiful society to survive the Internet Age, we better heed the warning of Rodney King.
About the Author: Richard Levick, Esq., @richardlevick, is Chairman and CEO of LEVICK. He is a frequent television, radio, online, and print commentator and a regular contributor to CommPRO.