EDITORIAL – Internet shaming and our addiction to outrage

“I was young, immature and stupid.”
– Josh Hader

“I am very, very different than I was a few years ago.”
– James Gunn

People may grow and standards may change, but – as we all know by now (primarily because intrepid scandalmongers continually remind us) – the internet is forever.

Once an embarrassing photo, unflattering video or offensive tweet is shared online, it can be stubbornly difficult to delete – offering a handy whetstone to any layperson with a few research skills and an ax to grind.

In this time of bitter political and social divisiveness (not to mention, general tetchiness), the cultural landscape has become littered with the corpses of careers and reputations felled in just this way. Hollywood director James Gunn, most known for his work directing “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, and professional athlete Josh Hader are the two most recent casualties.

Or are they? Despite recent revelations of past public statements that range from the regrettable to the reprehensible, supporters of both public figures have been rallying to their cause.

Friends and colleagues have asked Disney to reconsider its decision to fire Mr. Gunn after the resurfacing of several offensive tweets sent by the director in 2010-11.

When Mr. Hader’s years-old homophobic and racist tweets were dredged up recently, the Major League Baseball pitcher’s teammates stood by him; his fans greeted him with a standing ovation once he returned to the field.

Both men apologized and denounced their past statements. Still, unsurprisingly, the tweets and the backlash (and the backlash to the backlash) have been politicized, with conservatives railing against what they view as Hollywood’s hypocritical “Me too”-defying support for Mr. Gunn (who has been an outspoken critic of U.S. President Donald Trump), and liberals condemning those willing to forgive Mr. Hader’s adolescent intolerance (he was 17 years old when he penned the offensive tweets).

As recent years’ digital witch hunts have clearly shown, the court of opinion does not punish equally. Some “offenders” (perhaps “targets” is more accurate) have emerged unscathed or rehabilitated by a cursory apology. Others have been all but ruined by the surge of public censure – their careers, reputations, personal lives and relationships shattered. Still others have used brash and divisive sentiments as a catapult to greater fame.

One might argue that prominent people bear a responsibility for staying abreast of the zeitgeist – that choosing a life in the public eye demands the careful management not only of present image, but also of past behavior (think Meghan Markle’s pre-wedding social media housecleaning). We would not so argue.

Nevertheless, there is nothing new about a capricious public that punishes some while rewarding others. And, since it appears we are clearly stuck with this phenomenon, the time is past due to grapple with complex issues that arise:

For example, what are the proper sanctions for offensive or problematic written communications? We would argue that “free speech” deserves a wide berth, but, whether online or in print, must not be exempt from traditional legal protections which define offenses such as libel and defamation (be they civil or, in some instances criminal, as is the case in the Cayman Islands).

Almost universally, legislatures and judiciaries have been remarkably lax, if not idle, in ensuring that victims of harmful or hateful speech (especially electronic) have redress through an evenhanded, and readily accessible, court system.

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