Disturbing In Hawthorne’s Time, Disturbing Today

The scenario: A New York banker cheats on his wife with a married woman in London. Five years later, after the affair has ended and been confessed, and the man has rebuilt his marital relationship, the London woman’s now ex-husband launches an incredibly ambitious Internet vendetta against him. His colleagues, his lients, his competitors, his competitors’ pets all soon know about the affair. The banker’s Wall Street employer, concerned about the potential effect the negative attention might have on its bottom line, gets queasy and announces his “resignation.”

A week or so later, a New York Times reporter writes a story about the resignation and its cause, as well as a sympathetic opinion piece, which in turn motivates a good number of Times readers to share their quite passionate opinions on the subject. Some express compassion—everyone makes mistakes, they say. But many more are outraged by the reporter’s sympathy for the banker, some even cheer the ex-husband on.

Of course, no one would argue cheating isn’t wrong, it equals betrayal, plain and simple. But it doesn’t, in my humble opinion, justify a public smear campaign. Maybe you disagree; maybe you believe the wronged ex-husband deserved his revenge—deserved his opportunity to brand this adulterer with the cyberspace version of a scarlet ‘A.’

But what if this public vitriol had found an innocent victim instead? Like the cases of middle- and high-school students disparaging teachers and other students on Facebook and MySpace? (Maybe because publicly skewering a person is the stuff of middle school?) 

Internet attacks, like any vicious rumor, don’t have to be true to cause damage, and they reach much farther than your local schoolyard or beauty parlor gossip, which means they can have farther-reaching consequences. Like the loss of a job. If the rumor about the banker’s affair had stayed within the bounds of the Wall Street club, his employer probably wouldn’t have gotten skittish about him becoming a liability. (Not that I think his resignation was justified.)

Moreover, these attacks can happen to anyone. Say somebody feels wronged by a colleague or competitor and starts an ugly (untrue) rumor about them. (Because, as we all know, Wall Streeters never start false rumors for personal gain.) And what if it’s something that’s difficult to disprove, like a charge of racisim or sexual harassment, and the perpetrator of the rumor makes sure the target’s clients hear it. If the attack were done in the right way, so as to effectively create doubt, how long do you think it would take before the subject of the rumor “resigned”?

There’s a bloodlust within ourselves that perhaps we must quench before we judge others. So for those of you who cheer on the wronged ex-husband, let he who has not sinned fire the first harassing e-mail.

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