Friday, May 29, 2015

The Outrage Chamber

The Australian Facebook post that successfully
whipped up a vigilante mob. Click to enlarge.
Two online stories this week give me significant cause for pessimism, even though one accords with my personal beliefs. In one, an Australian mother’s Facebook post publically shaming an accused pervert went viral, even though the accused man proved completely innocent. Then, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature repealed the state’s death penalty law on strictly conservative grounds, including cutting needless spending and curbing government overreach. Both stories involved public, anonymous death threats.

The Australian story is remarkable for its extreme disjunction. The outraged mother, who apparently didn’t witness the event she posted about, wasn’t satisfied reporting the incident to store security or police. She posted this guy’s face online, using dark, glowering language about perverts invading public spaces, though she possessed wildly incomplete facts. Apparently she didn’t trust trained professional law enforcement personnel to enforce law with professionalism or training.

Tellingly, though her original indignant post generated 20,000 reposts overnight, news of the official police retraction took two weeks to reach my inbox. That is, outrage, even fictitious outrage, had reach exceeding a quarter million potential views almost instantaneously, while cool, dispassionate exposition of facts required literally weeks to expunge the public mistake. Meanwhile, the vilified subject, who only intended a goofy joke, received death threats from “concerned citizens” after police exonerated him.

Nebraska, an overwhelmingly conservative state where libertarian political ethics have significant footholds, attracted attention for its repeal effort partly because it didn’t use conventional leftist reasoning. Though state senator Ernie Chambers, possibly Nebraska’s leftmost political figure, has repeatedly introduced anti-capital punishment legislation, it usually dies quietly. This week’s repeal succeeded because an intricate conservative coalition inveighed against capital punishment’s great expense, time-consuming procedures, and intransigent bureaucratic immobility.

The (almost) final vote tally to override
the Nebraska governor's veto, which
almost never happens. Click to enlarge.
Consider: since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, Nebraska has executed only three criminals. All three were under centrist Democratic governor Ben Nelson in the 1990s; the last was nearly eighteen years ago. Despite the death penalty’s emotional appeal, it mostly doesn’t translate into actual executions. However, with their mandatory multiple appeals, special housing requirements, and mounting legal bills, Nebraska’s ten Death Row inmates have generated massive expense.

Despite this perfectly reasonable analysis, public response turned ugly. One state senator publicly released the audio of a constituent phoning in threats to rape and murder his family for espousing a position the constituent didn’t share. Other senators reported similar responses, despite keeping evidence private. One wonders whether such citizens would retain their ideological loyalty if their threatened actions netted them capital sentences.

I already understand the appeal behind "kill the bastard." But that plea’s gulf from material action, and the expense necessary to prevent railroading, makes capital punishment inefficient at best. However, conservative state senator Beau McCoy, who voted against both the appeal and overriding the governor’s veto, promises to restore capital punishment by popular referendum. He may succeed, judging by comments like this, from an otherwise libertarian friend of mine:
I cannot imagine how frustrating it would be for the families of the victims to need think of him as breathing, comfortable, and fed, with a long life ahead of him, while their loved ones sit cold in the ground.
Lemme tell ya, my friend Deanna was murdered. Her killer then turned his gun on himself. And him being dead too doesn’t make me feel one goddamn bit better.

But facts matter little in cases like this. Whether pushed from the left, as it usually is, or from the right, as in this case, anti-death penalty campaigns must peddle difficult, fact-based portfolios. Pro-death penalty campaigns simply name-drop Manson, McVeigh, or Tsarnaev and walk away. These emotional appeals have remarkable staying power. But naming outliers doesn’t truly represent circumstances for attorneys and legislators who must actually litigate death penalty cases.

Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers has fought the
death penalty for forty years. His cause has prevailed,
but not his reasoning.
It’s much like the Australian case. The mother’s accusation, though motivated by (possibly) reasonable impulses, was flat damn wrong. The police exoneration, though grounded in fact and bolstered by evidence, lacked the outrage appeal, and therefore didn’t travel nearly so fast. A capital punishment referendum will probably behave similarly. Senators debate issues publicly, and courts keep elaborate transcripts. Voters in their booths are completely opaque, and may have truly awful motivations.

The Internet has proven strikingly bad at disseminating complicated, factual reasoning. Statistics indicate you probably haven’t read this far into my essay. This bodes ill for serious discussions of life-or-death issues affecting everyone generally. If we cannot factually debate executing our own citizens, or mob-rushing innocent defendants, how can we discuss cleaning filthy air, or preventing wars abroad? I grow tragically pessimistic.

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