Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Right to Remain Silent

Some writers seem to write just to get attention.  Obviously, writing for the public presupposes on some scale that the writer wants attention.  Whether posting on a blog or publishing a novel, the writer wants people to read it.

But some writers, particularly on public forums, seem to post things just to get others riled up and to get responses from people with diametrically opposing viewpoints.

Take the newspaper forums.  In New Orleans, we have nola.com. To be honest, even the most innocuous response to a story causes a shit storm of responses on the site.

Some responses are from buffoons, for lack of a better, more technical category– you know, those people who will say anything just to cause trouble, whether they believe it or not.

They will comment on race, sexual orientation, physical beauty, weight, especially if it has absolutely nothing to do with the story. These people never progressed emotionally beyond that sixth-grade logic.  Maybe in middle school, other kids laughed at the comments because they wanted to fit in or maybe 11-year-olds really do think some of those things are funny.

Then there are the politically motivated, the people who believe politics have something to do with everything.  A typhoon just struck the Phillippines? Someone will blame the inclement weather on the Democrats or Republicans. Earthquake? Must be something George Bush did. Or Obama.

The religious zealots also crave attention in the forum world.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to offer prayers to a cause or victim.  What I find annoying are the comments like, “Katrina was a punishment from God.”  Or attempting to justify terrorists' attacks by calling it God’s will.

Do these people think they are convincing people of their viewpoint on God? Or do they just want to aggravate the crap out of everyone else?

The worst, however, are the people who have to argue an opposing viewpoint just for the sake of argument.  As a criminal appellate public defender, my job is nothing if not playing devil’s advocate, but I’ve seen people on list serves or public forums who always argue against what the masses seem to agree, even when the argument is nonsensical and unsupported by any actual evidence or facts.  These people can have no other goal than to get people to notice them.

The U.S. is a great country to live in, in part because of the rights we have.  Consequently, it’s kind of difficult to complain about someone exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.  But the Framers intent in drafting the original Constitution was actually to limit the government’s involvement and intrusion into our daily lives, not necessarily to give us extra rights.  The amendments contained in the Bill of Rights--adopted more than a decade after the Constitution was signed--was designed to enumerate specific rights the government could not infringe upon.

Interestingly, the Bill of rights also includes the Fifth Amendment, which gives citizens the exact opposite right, the right not to speak.  While it involves the invocation of the right of an individual suspected of a crime not to be forced to incriminate himself, sometimes I wish the individuals who relied so much upon the First Amendment would take a hint from the Fifth Amendment.

(As a short aside, if you ever want to get freaked out, watch a British cop show.  When they arrest the suspect, the first thing they do is ask if the arrestee wants to say anything, and advise him that remaining silent can be used as evidence of guilt.  Whoa is all I can say about that.)

Normally, commenting on public forums won’t result in criminal charges so the Fifth Amendment wouldn’t be implicated.  New Orleans is anything but normal, however, and we have had U.S. Attorneys get in trouble for commenting on public forums about pending cases under pseudonyms, so it’s always wise to be careful.

Did the U.S. Attorneys involved crave the same attention the way some buffoons and trouble makers on the forums or Facebook or Twitter seemed to crave attention?  Or did they comment in order to tip the scales at trial time, to give them a leg up in the prosecution?

 At least one federal judge seemed to think the latter was correct when he set aside convictions that he felt were influenced by the U.S. Attorneys' comments on the forums.  So commenting is not always innocuous and not always victimless.

As writers, we get attention whether that is our ultimate goal or not.  Our work should affect people, hopefully in a good way, but not necessarily so.  While everyone might not like what we’ve written, just as we sometimes might not be able to stomach comments made by racists, zealots, or just plain crazy people, it’s important to remember that our words matter, and can sometimes have effects we haven’t anticipated.

While the government prosecutors involved in the posting scheme likely didn’t realize they would eventually get in trouble for posting their comments– mainly because they made up fake names they thought couldn’t be traced– anyone who puts anything in writing, whether in a book, on a forum, or in an old-fashioned hand-written note, should realize that someone on the other end is going to read it.

As writers, we can only hope that whatever it is we’re writing has some kind of positive impact, whether it’s as big as saving the world or as simple as giving someone a break from the monotony of daily life. Otherwise, why write at all?