Mike makes an appealing argument for integrity informed by a complete representation of your self online in his post titled “The Measure of Character in the Information Age“. He argues that we shouldn’t have to delete anything we publish if we conduct ourselves responsibly. At the same time, I believe he is also arguing that we should be authentic and express ourselves from that authenticity (at least, that is how I interpret what he is suggesting):
Knowing full well that I am the kind of person who enjoys this reality, I want to be the kind of man who never has to delete anything. Who never has to worry about that email I sent to my tax man about that loophole getting published or passed on somewhere (that was a hypothetical example :)). Who never has to delete a WhatsApp message. Who never has to delete the updates or tweets I publish. Because if I do, I’m lying to someone. More importantly, if I do, I’m lying to myself. Which is a great barometer for weak character. Nobody wants that.
I have made some spectacularly bad decisions when it comes to publishing my thoughts about a range of topics and I have even deleted a couple of posts and updates after either reconsidering them or having people I respect approach me to reconsider my publications. My tendency to publish impulsively, especially when I am annoyed or upset, has probably cost me quite a bit in terms of my credibility, potential business and personal relationships.
I’d like to live in a world in which the people we engage with form a bigger picture view of who we are and what we stand for despite the occasional emotional storms that rock our inner oceans. There are times when it seems we are living in that sort of world but, for the most part, the things we publish have a much more immediate and profound impact on perceptions and relationships regardless of who we are from a broader perspective. People, it seems, rarely adopt a meta view of each other, they’re usually being tossed around by the choppy water too much to look around and into the distance.
Where that leaves us is that moderating yourself, our public expressions of our thoughts and feelings. On the one hand that leaves us with a somewhat diminished sense of personal integrity when we don’t speak our truths completely and confidently but, on the other hand, moderating ourselves enables us to function in our society more effectively.
If the measure of character in this Information Age is what you feel you need to delete and censor, be the kind of person that doesn’t have to.
Mike’s conclusion is compelling but I’m not so sure that this is the solution. Very few people are the sorts of people who don’t need to “delete and censor”, either because they are immune to public perception of their controversial views or because they are credible people with integrity who don’t have a mean tweet in their literary bones. Most of us are flawed, irrational, compulsive and have far too many ways to publish our thoughts and feelings without thinking too much about it beforehand.
This comes up for me when I think about defamation (wearing my lawyerly hat, if lawyers wore hats). An analogy that comes to mind is this quote by late US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in his opinion in the case of Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 376 (1927):
Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
The emphasis is mine.
The reason why this comes to mind in the context of Mike’s post is that I keep thinking that instead of finding ways to close the net around people’s self-expression because of the myriad ways that expression offends others and may even result in some sort of harm (I don’t include categories of hate speech and incitements to do harm – that is not and should not be protected for good reasons), we should all grow up a little and remember the nursery rhyme:
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me