Lost Souls?

Trying to Explain the Difference Between Commentary and Vandalism

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Why do people kill themselves? Schizophrenia. Depression. Despair. Agony. Shame. Who can say?

I didn't know Paul Tilley, the DDB creative executive who committed suicide a week ago, and I would never presume to divine what was going on in his life, much less his head, when he jumped from a Chicago hotel room to his death. But I do know this: In his last days, whatever else was tormenting him, he was also under professional and personal attack from persons unknown -- most of them, presumably, subordinates -- who used the shield of internet anonymity to mercilessly disparage him.

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They called him untalented. They called him autocratic. They called him ugly names. And, with a bitterness and sanctimony unleavened by human tragedy, they continue to do so. Because they can.

They can because the blogosphere is immature and uncivilized, subject to none of the norms of decorum, ethics and basic human decency that govern conduct in polite society. Yes, of course, it is also a revolutionary medium of expression, the ultimate free market of ideas.

'Lord of the Flies'
Unfortunately, what it may be freest of, in its formative stages, is conscience. What passes online for opinion, analysis, criticism and commentary too often lacks logic, coherent argument, evidence, intellectual rigor or even simple honesty. It wallows instead in snide cheapshots and ad hominem bile, scurrilousness and schadenfreude, free-floating hostility and bullying disguised as wit. We'd like to imagine the internet as a tool for democracy and Platonic justice. But the blogosphere isn't exactly Plato's "Republic." It too often "Lord of the Flies."

When Hannah Arendt spoke of the "banality of evil," she was speaking of Eichmann, of the capacity for ordinary men, under circumstances of impunity, to commit acts of barbarity on a monstrous scale. But the term is equally applicable to man's capacity for barbarity on a petty scale. Cruelty and cowardice are tragically human. Unchecked by the opprobrium of society --either because of mob psychology or the cloak of anonymity or both -- they are not so easy to tamp down. What is civilization but the suppression of our worst instincts?

So what are we to make about the cultivation of our worst instincts? If the blogosphere were simply a free-for-all, a Wild West of speech both considered and ignorant, the situation wouldn't be quite so demoralizing. But how to reconcile a virtual society that actually facilitates and rewards anti-social behavior? Character assassination is not only a subculture of the internet, it is an industry; Gawker and its many churlish imitators have turned it into cheap entertainment. They may see themselves as shining light on hypocrisy, deflating pomposity and other time-honored justifications for satire, but the supply of stuffed shirts and hypocrites simply doesn't meet the demand, so everybody is at risk.

Binary Code vs. the Golden Rule
The victims are too many to count. The rationalizations come down to a few. One is freedom of expression, which is all well and good, but not absolute. Under certain circumstances, for instance, it is criminal. (Think of Oliver Wendell Holmes's "crowded theater.") Beyond the law, though, is the moral responsibility for honesty and fairness. Online, for the sake of vengeance, catharsis or simply snark, that basic moral imperative too often goes begging. It's as though binary code somehow negates the Golden Rule.

Another common refrain is the cultural difference between the blogosphere and the archaic, hidebound, corrupt "mainstream media." The argument goes that the internet has its own ethos, unconstrained by traditional journalistic canons of conduct. That rationale is simply idiotic, in every sense of the word -- along the lines of "all content wants to be free" to justify downloading pirated music. Sorry, glib Brave New World talk just doesn't wash. Stealing is stealing. Lying is lying. Bullying is bullying.

Morality is platform-neutral.

I've been thinking a lot about this subject lately, well before Paul Tilley's death, because I had myself been in the gunsites of various ad-industry bloggers and their mainly anonymous commenters. It has been a frustrating experience. Not because I haven't set myself up as a big, fat target -- obviously, I have -- and not because I can dish it out but not take it. Over 30 years as a journalist, and 20-some years as a critic, believe me, I've done a lot of taking it. But lately I have been stunned by the recklessness and nastiness of the sniping. In some ways, as I responded to one of the bloggers, I take umbrage less as an offended ad critic than as an offended media critic, disgusted and discouraged by the bizarre imputations and juvenile tone in the attacks.

I think I'm more saddened than pissed off, but, as long as we're discussing honesty, I've also been plenty pissed off -- not just at the name-calling and not just at the twisting of facts, but at the dismal reality that all of the trash talk will be cached for immediate retrieval by anyone for all time. Gossip is not new. Venom is not new. Lies are not new. But perpetuity is. Andy Warhol said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. How does that compare to being ridiculed, belittled, slandered forever?

Once again, I have no insight into what motivated Paul Tilley to take his own life; correlation is not causation. Suicide is a dark, desperate, often unknowable act, and those who believe the man was essentially blogged to death believe so knowing virtually nothing about his non-professional life, much less his inner one. But it is easy to see why his suicide has triggered such a backlash, with ad blogs at pains to account for their treatment of the man. I surely can't but wonder whether the vicious public assaults on his competence and character -- assaults destined for digital immortality -- did not pain his tortured self at least as much as such things have pained me.

The ad bloggers (after, of course, offering gushing condolences to the grieving family) have been quick to dismiss such connections as asinine -- and maybe they're right. But as Tilley's worst detractors continue to use these blogs to posthumously slime the departed, the lords of the flies could do worse than to think about the loss of the human soul. Not Paul Tilley's.

Their own.

They should also face a truth that is immutable online and off: Words matter. To write them, to host them, to hit "send" is easy. To take responsibility is hard.
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