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Tom Flanagan, the Oscars, and the outrage of the internet

Posted on 2 March 2013

Here is a small list of things I don’t think you should put people in jail for:

So, I might hypothetically say “I have grave doubts about putting people in jail for idling their car when it is not necessary.” It does not therefore follow that I am OK with people idling their cars when it is not necessary. Or that just because I don’t think you should go to jail for watching “Two and Half Men” that I support the continued existence of that program.

I bring this up because of the outrage over Tom Flanagan and his remarks regarding child pornography. There is no question that child pornography is a far, far worse thing than any of my examples above. But this post isn’t really concerned with child pornography at all. It’s about what Tom Flanagan said, and how what he said was disseminated over social media.

Here, as I understand it, is what happened. On Wednesday of this week, Tom Flanagan, a conservative-leaning professor at the University of Calgary was taking part in a question-and-answer session at the University of Lethbridge. One of the people in the audience asked him… well, about a variety of things, including whether or not he was the father of the Ikea monkey. You can see the video on YouTube.

On watching, you’ll hear Flanagan joke he is the father and then come back to the portion of the question that referenced child pornography. Then the words that undid him:

“A lot of people on my side of the spectrum, the conservative side of the spectrum, have been on kind of a jihad against pornography and child pornography in particular. And I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures.”

He then goes on to say he never looks at the pictures but was put on a mailing list once, and adds, “It’s a real issue of personal liberty and to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person?”

There is plenty to unpack in those comments, and lots of debate to be had if you choose to go down that road. But that is largely not what happened on social media. The first I heard of the Flanagan remarks was the same way I imagine many others did: via Twitter and Facebook. And basically, it was tweets saying “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography” (which is also the title of the YouTube video) and various reports of people condemning and distancing themselves from him.

Within hours of this question-and-answer session Flanagan lost speaking gigs and regular commentary spots, was widely condemned by the political parties he had aligned himself with, and it was announced he would not be coming back to his professorship at the University of Calgary (although he already had plans in place for retirement).

And here’s what has prompted me to write this post: however wrong Flanagan may have been about the harm caused by viewing child pornography,1 what I DON’T hear in his remarks is anything that lets me believe with confidence he is “OK” with child pornography. Again: questioning the validity of sending someone to jail for an action does not mean you are OK with the action itself. There are many reasonable people who question putting people in jail for a variety of crimes. It doesn’t mean they support those crimes in and of themselves, or that they are OK with them. Just that they aren’t sure if jail is the most effective means of dealing with the problem.

And I don’t know that this is what Tom Flanagan was getting at when he made his remarks about child pornography.  I do think it’s one possible and reasonable interpretation of what he actually said. But the internet, from what I saw, was not reacting to what Flanagan said. It was reacting to what people said he said, which is that he is OK with child pornography. Again: those words were not uttered.

I’m not going to question the decisions of any of Flanagan’s employers or associates to terminate their relationship with him. There is a full story behind their choices that I am not privy to, and it may be that this was just the tipping point after a series of incidents (I have no evidence of this either way). But I worry about the fact that from where I sit, this unprepared, off-the-cuff remark at a question-and-answer session has turned into a career-and-reputation ending move for someone who has spent years as a public intellectual. And yes, there are many people who have valid reasons they think he shouldn’t have been a public intellectual in the first place. But it wasn’t those criticisms that seem to have ended him. It was this YouTube video, amplified by Twitter and Facebook. I’m even going to hazard a guess that a sizable chunk of the people outraged by Flanagan’s so-called support for child porn didn’t take the time to actually watch the video and consider for themselves whether it seems Flanagan is “OK” with it.

Writing in Salon, author Andrew Leonard posited this about Seth MacFarlane’s hosting of the Oscars:

“There are no free passes on Twitter. Every stumble, every perceived outrage, every moment of weakness or arrogance gets instant crowd-mob treatment. There’s always been something exhilarating about this new medium for instant fact-checking and collective calling-to-account, but at the same time, there’s never been a better megaphone invented for broadcasting mass sanctimony. Lashing out is just so easy. The first tweet to crack the whip gets retweeted around the world before you can say the words “echo chamber.”

“At times during Sunday night’s broadcast, I got the feeling that all over the world, people were sitting at the edge of their couches, smartphones in hand, just waiting for MacFarlane to feed their rage so they could tweet about it. And as the evening went on, that dynamic fed on and magnified itself. I’m not saying MacFarlane didn’t deserve it: quite the opposite, he did everything but get down on his knees and beg for it. But there was also a madness-of-crowds aspect to the whole experience that made me glad I wasn’t in a place where I could get physically trampled.

“There’s a paradox at work here. By democratizing commentary on events that we are all sharing collectively, Twitter gives equal access to every previously marginalized voice. That’s not a bad thing, of course. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun when we see things we like. But the very nature of Twitter rewards shoot-first-ask-questions-later instant reactions that often fail to take account of, or purposefully ignore, any ameliorating context or nuance. Twitter opens up the floodgates to release our collective, unfiltered id. Again, that’s a real tough crowd.”

I wonder if that’s what happened to Flanagan. People wanted to be outraged, a mob formed, and now he’s done.

Again, I don’t know about Flanagan’s real motives, or the motives of anyone else involved in this story. But part of the takeaway for me is this: if you are any form of public figure, don’t talk about controversial topics anywhere. We get mad at politicians for always sticking to the script, but look at how grave the consequences can be if your thoughts are anything less than fully formed and pre-prepared.

Proponents of the social web- Twitter and Youtube and the like- think it will make us a more open and tolerant society. And it might. But it might also turn us into a mob.

1. Prior to this incident, I had not done any research into the harms of viewing child pornography. I have now learned that there is a sizable body of evidence that suggests that yes, indeed, people’s “tastes in pictures” can and does cause real harm.  By and large the viewing of child pornography does indeed harm another person. What I still don’t know is whether or not Tom Flanagan was aware of these facts when he answered his question.

Filed under: social media

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