Recent, intense expressions of animus against the law enforcement community by a vocal minority appear to have served as a motivating influence in the execution-style murder of two NYPD police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, by Ismaaiyl Brinsley. Brinsley was known to have posted messages on social media that clearly conveyed his anger and frustration over the failure of juries to indict police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men in recent, high-profile altercations, and his expressions were part of a crescendo of ugly public rhetoric against cops, one that has surely played some role in the deaths of Liu and Ramos, as well as in the other incidents of assaults against police officers in recent days and weeks. Representatives of the San Francisco Bay Area police union said recently that the “devolution” of the rhetoric from “legitimate free speech” into “tasteless vilification of officers,” including very public chants calling for dead cops, has clearly resulted in a much more dangerous climate for cops…and we are reminded once again of the tremendous influence that simple expression can have throughout society, as well as prompted to consider if our stewardship of free speech is as good as it should be.
Social media has served as a resource for much of the protest, and in the same way that horrible, ugly things have been said about cops by groups gathered on street corners, so has much of that ugliness been expressed at digital locations like Twitter and Facebook, as well. As with so much else, social media can be both wonderful and terrible, simultaneously. The recent anti-cop talk is by no means the first evidence we’ve seen of this, but it may be, with the murders of Liu and Ramos, the most potent reminder of just how uncivil we’ve become, as well as the degree to which this lack of civility may drive some to commit heinous acts. On this note, do you spend much time on Twitter? If so, you’ve undoubtedly seen how so much of the expression on there is representative of something quite separate and distinct from the “better angels of our nature,” to quote Abraham Lincoln. While it’s not clear how “evolved” Twitter ever was, it so often seems to exist at the level of a 140-character free-for-all, where people openly tweet the most disgusting, hateful things imaginable. Who would have thought that so many sociopaths lived among us?
Yes, part of the problem has to do with human nature; human beings are simply more “turned on,” for lack of a better expression, by ugliness than by beauty – in psychology, it is well known that those things that are negative tend to be characterized by a stronger force than those that are positive. An article published back in 2001 in the Review of General Psychology (Dr. Roy F. Baumeister et al.), “Bad is Stronger than Good,” re-affirms the truth that, “Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.” The idea that bad is, indeed, stronger than good is surely evidenced throughout much of social media, where the ability to express oneself freely seems to be revealing more ugliness than beauty, and that the nature of people is that we tend to find ourselves sucked into it more wholly than we do positivity.
It has, however, always been this way, and yet the amount and volume of crude expression toward one another was not remotely this substantial decades ago…or maybe even a few years ago; that is, human nature is a component, but the rest of it boils down to a free-will choice on the part of so many to happily splash around in the septic tank, rather than remain above ground.
Free speech exists, as it absolutely should, but, increasingly, people are indulging the right less to make the kinds of expressions envisioned by our nation’s Founding Fathers, and more to verbally vomit on those around them. While there are many among us who undoubtedly have a legitimate grievance with some element of law enforcement, condoning, let alone encouraging, the execution of police officers in these United States cannot be regarded by broad society as acceptable if we endeavor to live in a country characterized by the rule of law, as well as even a semblance of decency.
Too often we see that having the right to do something is confused with the idea that doing it is right. It may not be against the law to publicly proclaim how pleased one is that two cops were executed while sitting in their patrol car, nor, frankly, should it be against the law in America, as reprehensible as most among us find that sentiment to be. However, that for which we should be striving is a society in which each of our own moral compasses achieves a level of soundness such that none among us would ever find it appropriate to make such statements outside of one’s own head.
The answer, ultimately, is that it is going to be up to the “good people” to prevent the broad, social narrative from being co-opted by the ugly ones. It’s going to take the preponderance of us, regardless of our personal political and social persuasions, to ultimately decide that disagreement with one another must remain within boundaries beyond which ensues only social madness.
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