Empathy for the Thought Criminal

"Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again."
— Leviticus Chapter 24, Verse 20

This ancient law from Judaism is perhaps the first written expression of a principle informing justice in all civilized nations to this day—the punishment must fit the crime.

If the Old Testament introduces this concept of reciprocal justice, the New Testament might be a very early expression of restorative justice. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to Leviticus, but offers a revolutionary twist:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

The concept of restorative justice, introduced by leftist intellectuals and now spreading across America, regardless of whether or not it is inspired by Christian precepts, rejects imposing consequences proportional to the crime. Violence is a product of oppression. Looting is a consequence of poverty. Rather than punish offenders, we should give them counseling, give them money, and forgive their crimes.

This leniency toward crime, central to leftist ideology today, does not extend to cancel culture. People who commit thought crimes against values sacred to the Left are shown no mercy. They are not only denied the empathy that thugs and thieves are granted, they are typically punished in ways that are vastly disproportionate to alleged crimes.

A new website, CanceledPeople.org, provides a database of people who have been “canceled” for exercising their right to free speech. The database already has over 200 entries, with many recognizable names including James Damore, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jordan Peterson, Charles Murray, Megyn Kelly, Nicholas & Erik Christakis, Bret Weinstein, Chris Matthews, Roseanne Barr, Gina Carano, Roger Pielke Jr., and, of course, Donald Trump.

On their About page, the site creators explain what they look for when considering who to add to their database. They write:

The canceled person has been targeted for behavior that falls within the boundaries of “reasonable expression” (see more on this below). The “offense” may not be recent, and it may not even be their own action.

The canceled person has lost their job or position (this includes forced resignations). Their future professional opportunities have been limited. If they are self-employed, they have suffered financial losses from a boycott or sabotage of their company.

The canceled person has faced a coordinated effort to silence them. The effort seeks to render their person or their ideas unfit to discuss.

The canceled person has faced a coordinated effort to shame them and destroy their reputation. The effort seeks to damage their self-worth and will likely target their personal or professional relationships.

A strength of this well sourced, no frills database—they don’t even have a logo!—is the “Offense” column, where a lengthy explanation of exactly what happened is provided. Reading these explanations will trigger recollections in many cases where the event gathered national or international publicity for a time, but the name of the person canceled was forgotten. There is a common thread—the punishment is, almost always, far out of proportion to the crime.

For example, consider the fate of James Damore, an engineer at Google who “wrote a memo on the Google ‘echo chamber,’ saying male/female disparities can be partly explained by biological differences.” Read Damore’s essay here, which the biased editors at Gizmodo characterize as a “screed.” It is nothing of the sort. It is a reasoned exploration into forbidden territory, and for this trespass, Damore was fired. Fired. Is that a proportional response?

The CanceledPeople database, for all its value, doesn’t entirely illustrate the level of disproportionality that exists between the offense of thought crimes and their consequences from the cancel mob. In their definition of “reasonable expression,” they write, “Hate speech is not considered ‘reasonable expression’ although it is technically protected in America under the First Amendment…” and “Intent matters. Saying a racial slur in an academic context (for example, reading from a book) is very different from using a racial slur in a way intended to harm another person. Intent and context are important when judging a person’s actions.”

It’s perfectly acceptable if CanceledPeople wants to refrain from including on their list people who were canceled for “hate speech,” or, in plain English, for uttering words that people find offensive. But should people who—even in a moment of passion, or intoxication, or both—utter forbidden words, find their lives completely destroyed as a consequence?

This is an ethical question that deserves more consideration, and empathy, now that smartphones and the internet have made nearly every offensive public utterance a candidate for viral condemnation. A man has a few drinks too many and voices some anti-Asian slurs at a restaurant in California. There is no violence. There is no context; perhaps the man was provoked. The moment quickly passes. But thanks to YouTube, the video of his lapse goes viral. ABC anchor David Muir, perhaps the most contemptible hack in the world today, joins his colleagues across every major network and every major newspaper to treat this as a national news story. And the man’s fate? Fired. Career destroyed. Of course.

In a rational society, this incident wouldn’t even have made the local news. It would be unpleasant, it would be condemned by anyone witnessing it, but that would have been the end of it. And one may hope the man might feel some regret; that the parties to the tension might even find room to forgive each other. But not in wired, woke America.

What about transgressions that appear clearly wrong? Grossly offensive behavior? A recent incident where a man appeared to be following and mocking a teenaged prom attendee might fit that description. The man probably had too much to drink. The victim was a teenaged boy wearing a scarlet dress, on his way to his high school prom with his boyfriend.

Clearly this man should not have intimidated or insulted these underage boys. At the least, an apology would be appropriate. Maybe a charge of drunk and disorderly conduct. But, of course, once the video went viral, he was immediately fired. A few moments of bad behavior—not, mind you, hideous violence or grand larceny, just grossly offensive behavior—and his life will never be the same again.

The point here isn’t to defend the inappropriate mocking of other people. But we will never know the whole story. We won’t know what was going through his mind at the moment he decided to approach these boys and insult them. We won’t know if this was out of character for him or not. And what is frightening is how quickly an online mob mobilized to identify him and do everything it could to destroy his life.

Should people have their lives ruined just because they have insulted someone? Never mind the double standard. To point that out is obvious and beside the point. What if the insults this man directed at these boys were not generated by the spectacle they were making of themselves, but they were merely the trigger? Why is there no empathy for people who aren’t comfortable with this abrupt remaking of what have been understood to be fundamental truths for ages?

We live in a nation where every powerful institution is berating us to accept that men have periods and women have penises. Not only are we expected to accept this, but we are condemned if we question any of it in the slightest. Maybe this man had had enough.

We will never know. The mob has spoken. And this mob rule is not based on “an eye for an eye,” much less on “turn the other cheek.” It’s more like “you step on my toe and I will cut off your head.” It is fire and brimstone and furious vengeance. It is religious zealotry of the worst kind, clothed in piety.

About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness and co-founder in 2013 of the California Policy Center.

Photo: Getty Images

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