Hmmm. As a person who’s spent a good deal of time trying to get her head on straight, I’ve done plenty of introspection, spent way too much time self-flagellating, and come a long way in self-improvement (but still have a ways to go, no question!) What brought this into the forefront of my brain this morning was this post on Pharyngula about Bill Dembski asking his lawyer to make the mean people go away. Specifically, he’s been caught using a video about evolution that was produced by Harvard in his Intelligent Design presentations – by dubbing over the soundtrack with ID-friendly language and eliminating the credits so his fraudulent use would be harder to detect. Dembski has a history of doing things that turn out to be illegal, embarrassing, or both, then being surprised at the negative consequences. He is a public figure because he has made himself so, but he never seems to expect anyone to see through his pseudonyms and make it public that he was behind the fart video, or the public posting of peoples’ addresses for the purpose of harassment, or fan messages to himself on various review sites. He also hasn’t glommed onto the fact that anything that goes on the internet easily becomes public, and that goes for the letters he’s been ccing to other parties who are less than sympathetic towards him. So I said:
I’ve always lived with the attitude that you shouldn’t say anything you’d be embarrassed to say in public, or to the face of a person you say it about. That goes even more for anything written or sent over the internet. Never, ever assume that it won’t be passed along somehow, or that you’ll never be held accountable for it. (I also believe that there’s nothing wrong with apologizing, or admitting you were wrong, so that helps.)
Unfortunately for Dembski, he regularly says and does things without giving weight to the potential consequences, and never apologizes when he’s called on it. His lawyer, no matter how well-trained or well-connected, can’t protect him from himself. Better that he should be a little more contemplative than outspoken, but it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.
Thinking about it, sometimes this has been easier said than done. I routinely get embarrassed thinking about things I said or did, even though I know that there were reasons I let my inhibitions slip. Youth is a great contributing factor to saying or doing stupid things (an excuse I no longer have, unfortunately – nor does Dembski) and now I know that ADD and OCD really did a number on my ability to empathize and to imagine consequences. Still, knowing what has caused a problem and taking the steps to correct it are different things. The “aha!” moment doesn’t make everything better.
So, let me expand a bit with some qualifiers. Back when I said and did more embarrassing things than I do now, I really did say what I thought about people to their faces if I had to. This honed my ability to apologize. As time went on, I learned better what not to say in the first place, whom to say it to to avoid it getting passed on, and how to say it so it was me venting in general, rather than about someone specific. I have always been careful about what I say around people I have to work with, and around people who could hurt me, and would.
The internet will sometimes spur me to let my guard down, but it’s usually because I’m reacting to something. I’ve had people take such offense to one thing I’ve said that they’ll angrily attack something else I say even if I’m agreeing with them. You don’t have total anonymity, but enough is all you need sometimes to allow yourself to get carried away. Here again, though, you have the option of apologizing, retracting, correcting – and you still don’t want to play around the fringes of legality. You also have the option of saving your thoughts to a file and letting them percolate before unleashing them over the web, sort of like writing a letter that you never send.
I’d rather not have to apologize, though, so I try harder nowadays to base my rants on evidentially sustainable stuff, and save my snarkiness for people to whom I can’t imagine apologizing to. Being human, I don’t always manage to do this, but I do try. I don’t try to support my point of view by making fun of my opponents, I don’t try to hide my identity so I can say things and not be held accountable, I don’t try wiggling out of things, making excuses, rationalizing, or hiding behind lawyers if I do something wrong (or I don’t think I would – I haven’t done anything that would give me the opportunity to really put this to the test except for a couple of traffic tickets.)
This attitude, I hope, is common – not something that sets me apart, for certain. However, Dembski doesn’t seem to have it, and isn’t taking his lumps or learning from experience. People who are indicating that it’s somehow unfair that his correspondence is being made public might need a bit more of it, too. Had he not been openly public in his harassment of others, had he stopped trying to publicly discredit people, had he learned his lesson after the first, or even the second or third time, perhaps he’d be entitled to some leeway. However, he continues to exhibit poor judgement and expect special consideration, with no indication that this will ever change. This being the case, he should either use a medium that could remain private, or learn to live with the negative publicity that is a consequence of his actions. Better still, he should think a little longer before he hits the post button – or the lecture circuit.