Monday, October 26, 2009

Our Lost Sense of Honor

Since writing my article on Liskula Cohen, I have had many encounters - online and in the increasingly unpopular real world - with people who have condemned her for fighting to unmask her anonymous attacker. Rather than respond to each of these individuals one-by-one, I decided to lump them into three categories and address them here. Dispensing with the first two arguments was easy:

1) To those who claim that Liskula's argument violates the First Amendment: The right to free speech only protects you from being persecuted for your personal opinions; at no point does it guarantee you the right to say whatever you want without having anyone know your identity. Indeed, quite to the contrary, our laws specifically state that those who make defamatory attacks against another human being (such as the blogger in question was doing against Liskula) MUST be identified and held accountable. Otherwise, someone who has been personally harmed by a set of falsehoods being disseminated about them will have no means of recourse. Thus from a purely legal standpoint, the people who disagree with the outcome of Liskula Cohen's case are flat-out wrong.

2) To the people who say that Liskula should have "just ignored" the attacks: It's very easy to be cavalier about how people who are victimized by malicious gossipers and other cyberbullies should "be the bigger person", "not let it get to them", and "try to keep perspective". Yet the people who say this conveniently overlook a key detail - namely, that they have the inestimable luxury of not being the person under attack. Anyone can show superhuman stoicism when fighting a hypothetical battle; it is quite another matter to display those same qualities when you are actually the one being victimized by vicious attacks.

The third argument with which I was confronted would appear, at face value, to have been the simplest to address. It simply consisted of the various people who, after hearing about how Liskula responded to having lies spread about her online, replied with some variation of "Why is she making such a big deal about it? So people are lying about heronline. Why does she care so much about what other people think of her?" In short, their rebuttal amounts to a giant "So what?"

For a while it was difficult for me to identify why this line of reasoning bothered me so deeply. What I soon realized, though, was that the personal philosophy of the people who sincerely offered this response was indicative of a much larger social problem - i.e., the manner in which modern Americans have lost touch with the value of honor.

Defined by Merriam-Webster's dictionary as "good name or public esteem, reputation", the need to have a sense of personal honor is a critical component of the human condition. That is because human beings are, on the most primordial instinctive level, social creatures - i.e., just like dogs, chimpanzees, elephants, crows, and countless other animals, our ability to both live and be happy is dependant on our interactions with others of our own species. While it is technically possible for any one of the aforementioned creatures (homo sapiens included) to "survive" in complete isolation, trial and error has made it unavoidably obvious that living in some form of a pack - be it a pride of lions or a city of humans - greatly facilitates the process of having one's biological needs met. Likewise, although it is technically possible for some human beings to find a reasonable measure of happiness in emotional or even physical solitude, the overwhelming majority of people can only feel happy if they:

A) Feel they are liked and respected by those with whom they directly interact on a regular basis, and;
B) If they are satisfied with the way society as a whole perceives them.

That latter need - the one summed up in Point B - lies at the core of why honor is so important. No matter how high a regard a person may have for his or her personal attributes, most of us feel that those qualities have been wasted unless they have been exposed to and applauded by a larger audience (as the ancient Roman poet Ovid once said, after being exiled to the Black Sea, "Writing poetry without an appreciative audience is like dancing in the dark.") In the same vein, it is extraordinarily difficult for all but the strongest person to not be distraught when a negative perception about him or her becomes widespread, even if he or she knows that that perception is untrue (as Arthur Miller's protagonist in The Crucible famously declared, when declaring why he was refusing to falsely confess to being a witch even if doing so would spare him a horrible death, "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!").

In most other societies - eastern and western, ancient and modern - Liskula Cohen's desire to identify her attacker and repair the damage done to her name would have been not only understood, but considered both appropriate and necesssary. The ramifications of this are not always positive - one need only turn to the death of Alexander Hamilton or the recent honor killing of a Muslim girl for being "too Westernized" to find examples of terrible moral wrongs committed in the name of honor. At the same time, veering off toward the opposite extreme - as America today has done - can be equally detrimental. When a sense of pride in being perceived positively by others is replaced by a mere craving to be famous, one gets incidents like the Balloon Boy hoax or the rise of celebutantes. When shame in being viewed negatively by society is no longer viewed as making it impossible to being considered "successful", it becomes natural for Wall Street's "best and brightest" to engage in unethical and socially destructive financial practices in order to become wealthy, since the only factor that could have curbed their behavior (apart from conscience and a strong financial regulatory system) has been completely removed.

Perhaps most important of all, with honor comes a constant sense of personal accountability. When a high premium is placed on how one is perceived, the act of attempting to destroy someone else's reputation carries with it an implicit requirement that you reveal your own identity, lest you be viewed as adhering to a double-standard (one in which you wish to change the way others are viewed by the public but don't want what you say to be able to affect how the public views you). As soon as that requirement is gone, people who want to lie without fear of responsibility - whether it be by disparaging Liskula Cohen's character, by spreading sex/drug/weight related rumors about whichever celebrity happens to be a fashionable punching bag, by denying John Kerry's heroic service in Vietnam or Barack Obama's American citizenship - can do so with ease.

This is why the last assertion made by those who disagree with Liskula's decision to defend herself is so worrisome to me. In a society that is humanitarian in the most meaningful sense of the term, a person who attacks someone else's reputation should be expected to accept responsibility for what they say or else be condemned as a coward. Instead we live in a time where the impulse is to side with the coward and condemn the person fighting for her honor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kudo's to Liskula for leading the way-God Bless you!xox Steph