With his new book out this month on Internet shame, author Jon Ronson recently reminded us of the cautionary tale of Justine Sacco, whose offensive tweet about AIDS in South Africa led to a public shaming campaign that ended with her unemployed and emotionally frayed. Sam Biddle, Sacco’s chief prosecutor, ironically found himself on the receiving end of a similar kind of retribution (though more complex in its origins), and he ended up apologizing to Sacco.
Where previous generations of children huddled beneath their desks in fearful preparation for a nuclear winter, today’s schoolkids are admonished about the permanently life-altering dangers of tweeting the wrong thing.
Yet as we pursue justice, Shakespeare seems timely as another virtue is in danger of being overlooked. “The quality of mercy is not strained,” Portia says in an eloquent defense of the virtue in “The Merchant of Venice.“
Mercy, Portia tells those who would exact justice, “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” When mercy is unreservedly dispensed, it becomes “the throned monarch better than his crown;” it is “an attribute of God himself.”
We are most God-like when we are most merciful.
Our impulse to punish wrongdoings through shame is expanding in part because we lack shared authorities who can make justice public for us — and because so much more of our lives can become public. We are all judge and jury now. In his new cover story for Christianity Today, Andy Crouch writes, “aspects of our lives that were once private and fleeting can now be publicly, and permanently, exposed.”
But mercy, Portia suggested, has its unique power in a political context. It sits above the “sceptered sway” of kings and monarchs, who are the authorized defenders and promoters of justice.
An erosion of trust in our political institutions and an absence of public remedies for wrongs that we commit leaves everyone to pursue justice on their own. Without public means of pursuing justice, we have a nation of social media vigilantes who execute vengeance on those who go astray.
Unless we create some shared moral vocabulary, we must find ways to temper our pursuits of justice with mercy. But that means we should engage with a person in a broader context than 140 characters.
Even if a merciful judge does not exonerate a defendant, the judge attempts to understand the mitigating factors of that person’s history and life to consider a softer punishment. Judges hear a person’s story to the fullest before dispensing judgment. Yet social media isolates what someone says from the history of their life.
The one running thread in Ronson’s stories of those who were publicly shamed was that their missteps had been ripped out of their contexts. Even though an individual tweet might be wrong, putting the person’s actions in a broader context makes them more understandable and makes mercy much easier.
Context requires an empathy of the mind that allows us to see the world from another person’s point of view. It makes mercy the most transcendent of virtues: though it is “mightiest in the mightiest,” as Portia puts it, mercy makes us equals.
By working to understand the particular qualities of a person’s life, we can imagine how we might have been in similar circumstances and, unless we are proud, how we might have been similarly tempted. To extend mercy is not the work of a superior to a lessor: it is the work of one who may have ended up in the very same place.
Those who dispense mercy are those who may be most aware of their need for it. Had Sam Biddle ever considered the possibility that he might someday experience the torment Justine Sacco had to endure, the glee with which he persecuted her may have been softened.
Still, the justice our society longs for may exceed the bounds of our grasp. We wish for a satisfaction of wrongdoings that not even punishments offered by authorities can satisfy. What parent whose child has been murdered thinks the state’s punishment, even if for life, can truly compensate for their loss?
But if mercy does not season justice, our culture’s pursuit of retribution could be our undoing. Unlike those in “The Merchant of Venice,” we do not sit in the “dread and fear of kings.” But we are walking in fear of being publicly humiliated. We stand in danger of becoming impotent of doing good because we are so terrified of doing wrong.