TCS Daily

Will Blogs Produce a Chilling Effect?

By James D. Miller - February 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Imagine that mind reading were suddenly imposed on humanity automatically transmitting all our thoughts to those around us. Involuntary telepathy would destroy countless marriages as wives learned of their husbands perverse fantasies. Bosses would fire millions after they found out what their employees really thought of them. Police would be inundated with reports of ordinary citizens contemplating hideous crimes. But eventually we would realize that all humans harbor evil thoughts and an equilibrium would emerge in which we forgave bad thoughts that didn't lead to terrible deeds.

People have more control over their spoken words than their unannounced thoughts, but occasionally most of us still say things we later regret. Recently, three powerful men have been damaged or brought down by their own utterances. Eason Jordan resigned his position as top news executive at CNN because he had allegedly said that the U.S. military was deliberately killing journalists in Iraq. Trent Lott had to give up his position as Senate Majority Leader because of his too-profuse praise of former segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. And the not-yet former president of Harvard Larry Summers was forced to repent and apologize for suggesting that biological differences might explain the paucity of female science professors.

Of the three, Dr. Summers should have been most aware of the trouble his comments would incite. Dr. Summers' speculations on the biological differences between the sexes violated the multicultural faith of academia, which ascribes all such differences to discrimination. And the academy does not well tolerate its heretics.

One can understand why Trent Lott and Eason Jordan didn't think their comments would draw mortally wounding fire. Senators often praised old racists colleagues and the media had never previously cared. Jordan was speaking off camera to mostly like-minded fellows and he must have assumed that the media would never turn on one of its own for the politically correct sin of savaging the U.S. military. Both men were brought down by blogs that continually discussed their comments until enough Americans were angered such that the two could not keep their positions without harming their colleagues.

I fear that blogs may soon make many Americans afraid to speak their minds. Imagine you're a manager of a company. Your new blog nightmare is that you will say something stupid in a meeting and this will be reported in a blog. Other blogs will report the initial comment and soon whatever group you have offended will pressure your company to fire you. Or perhaps your distasteful remark will go unreported until you're promoted to CEO. Then your employees, while blogging about what kind of boss you are, will literally tell the world about your past unfortunate utterance.

I suspect that most of us have made comments at work more offensive than the statements that got Lott and Jordan fired. Unless we change the rules of engagement ambitious people will start being extremely circumspect in conversation with those they don't completely trust.

I plead for a new social order under which a few offensive spoken remarks, even if highly odious and taken in context, are forgiven. Most everyone has some fairly nasty thoughts and occasionally these thoughts turn into speech. If we allow a few obnoxious comments to destroy someone's career, many will avoid engaging in freewheeling discussions.

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.



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