Thursday, July 5, 2012

An Ode to Technology and to Gossips

"Going against the virtue of selflessness. Being unreasonable. Using evil intentions to guide your actions. Being cruel and destructive.Taking advantage of kind people.Talking secretly against your parents and elders. Showing disrespect for your teachers. Engaging in rebellious actions. "Framing" the innocent. Slandering your co-workers. Being deceitful. Lying to your relations. Being aggressive and resentful.Taking things for yourself whenever you wish. Not knowing right from wrong. Talking behind people’s backs." --Treatise on the Tao, by Lao Tzu

When we, for a long or short period of time due to anger, envy or other resentments, speak out about others in ways that are false or misleading about that person, we commit character assassination. Gossip has the same effect, and that is the reason many, if not most, spiritual traditions either ban it or take a dim view to its practice. It is corrosive and damaging to community.
For this discussion assassination is defined as: to kill in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons; to gossip for same or similar personal reasons (Webster's Dictionary).

Today the overwhelming presence of technology in our lives and the easy access to the internet makes the opportunities for character assassination, gossip or outright slander easy, and increasing. Even when things are posted are untrue, oddly over time people's beliefs may be swayed and their former good opinions altered to a more negative tone. How does that happen?

Lori Andrews writes about this subject in her new book, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did,  primarily about privacy issues and the internet. She discusses at length the 1890 legal briefs written by then young Boston attorneys Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren in a chapter titled Technology and Fundamental Rights. Recounting the young Brandeis' life, author Andrews talks about his concern for his family when in 1889 his first child was born and the Kodak Brownie portable camera simultaneously made its first appearance. No longer was it necessary to go to a photo studio to be photographed with large, cumbersome cameras. Now they were portable and increasingly every where. He was concerned about the indiscriminate photographing of his children while in public. Doesn't a person have a right to "their own face?" he mused. Surely there must be a legal answer to this new question brought by technology.

Prior to portable cameras a person could hardly be photographed without their permission, largely due to the limits of the technology. After 1888 when the Brownie appeared, all changed. These photo enthusiasts were called "photo fiends" by the popular press. As Warren and Brandeis assessed the impact of the portable camera in modern life, their instinct told them several things: people should be able to have control over their images; they also should have the simple right to be left alone, and the right to control the information others could collect about them; in short theirs was a conception of the privacy rights, and rights of due process that today we all now enjoy.

Their 1890 legal brief advanced these ideas:

"The intensity and complexity of life attendant upon the advancing civilization have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; modern enterprise and invention have, through [various] invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury."

They continue their thought that there
is indeed an essential right for individuals to be simply left alone, like the legal protections against assault, beatings or malicious prosecution. The right of a person to control what is said or written about him has long had a place in law. The suits of slander and libel address traditional wrongs to others committed by would be character assassins when in public speech or in traditional publications such as books, newspapers or magazines. One's reputation is among the very first of property rights an individual must, and ought to protect. It is indeed the very first form of property rights possessed by individuals. Brandeis and Warren later went on to become members of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

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