The Electronic Guillotine

As recent events in Brazil and Turkey, and on the Food Channel illustrate, it’s difficult to exaggerate Twitter’s influence. It can destabilize governments and vaporize a Southern, white woman with a successful television cooking show. That is, if the woman allegedly uses the “n” word off screen.

Until a few days ago, Dean was the Southern, sixty-something host of a popular cooking show on The Food Channel. Some combo of her emails, transcripts, and audio-recordings recently surfaced, materials filled with racial epitaphs. Pre-twitter, you would have never heard that story. It would have been buried inside an industry-specific periodical or local paper. Now, thanks in part to Twitter, most everything is national or international.

Pre-twitter, Dean would have been in human resources hot water. She would have been required to attend diversity training workshops and probably been placed on some sort of probation. But given her show’s advertising revenue stream, the suits in charge would not have fired her. However, when the Twitter wave turned large and angry enough, the suits sacrificed her job on the altar of electronic public opinion.

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What happened to Deen on Twitter reminds me of what happened in the public schools I attended in my youth whenever fist fights broke out. All of us went Pavlovian and immediately ran towards them. The mob mentality of our youth is alive and well on Twitter. Now that we’re adults, we’re still running towards fights, we’re just using Twitter applications to do it. The first to arrive on the scene are immediately outraged. Then independent of much meaningful knowledge of the case, Twitter friends and acquaintances figure they’ll be outraged too. You know, solidarity.

Read about another equally illuminating recent example of this phenomenon here. In both of these cases, the perps hurriedly offered heartfelt apologizes, which on Twitter, only fueled the fire of people’s disgust. Whenever an electronic mob gains sufficient momentum a tipping point occurs where the suits decide the potential long-term damage to their brand’s image is greater than the short-term financial rewards of the pre-crisis advertising revenue. At which point, the Deens of the world can prostrate themselves in front of news cameras all they want. They’re dead men and women walking.

The electronic mob forms so quick there’s no due process for the “defendant”. Perception is reality, whether it’s the least bit accurate. No need to try explaining. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

It also squelches reflection and meaningful dialogue about class, race, gender, sexual orientation—diversity in all its forms. We still have a lot to learn about how to live together peacefully. When hateful and hurtful private thoughts or words are made public we should take the time to talk to one another about where the hate comes from, why it’s so hurtful, and what might be done to right the wrong.

With Twitter, we’ve created a swift and lethal executioner. The way we’re using it, we’re robbing ourselves of teachable moments that we desperately need.

What Lance Armstrong Can Say to Oprah to Make Things Right

Nothing.

Apart from a simple “sorry for the long-standing deception,” Lance doesn’t owe me, or any professional cycling fan, anything.

Why do we continually delude ourselves to think we know the entertainers, athletes, and politicians we follow? That we’re in some sort of relationship with them? That when their moral failings become painfully evident, that they let us down?

Remember Tiger Woods awkward, post-rehab, public confessional in some Florida hotel conference room? The one with his mom in the front row. The one where he said he “kinda got away from his Buddhism (one of my favorite understatements of all-time)?” What was that all about? Tiger didn’t pledge to be faithful to me or you or even his corporate sponsors.

The bright light public confessional is all about limiting the damage to one’s personal brand, and by extension, earning potential. To reset as a human being, Tiger would have been far better off listing all the people he had hurt and then seeking each person’s forgiveness outside the media spotlight.

At 41, Lance is in trouble if he needs advice on how to reset as a human being. I’m offering it anyways. He won’t follow it because he doesn’t read this blog regularly enough, and like all of us, he’s highly skilled at rationalizing his behavior. He tells himself, “If it wasn’t for my success, Hamilton, Landis, Andreu’s wife, and even my masseuse and others involved with the sport wouldn’t have made nearly as much money.” In his mind, his accusers are indebted to him.

Forget Oprah Lance. And forget your athletic career (triathlon has a long ways to go before it reaches “fringe sport” consideration). Resolve to be a more kind, empathetic, and truthful person. Take time to make a detailed list of everyone that you’ve directly hurt as a result of your words, actions, and privilege. People who you repeatedly lied to. People you bullied on and off the bike. People whose reputations you trashed. People whose businesses you ruined. Then come clean in a written mea culpa, a no holds barred confession. In it, take complete responsibility for hurting those people as a result of their truthfulness.

Send it to the New York Times. Then buy however many plane tickets necessary and travel to see everyone on the list. No matter how much it cuts into your triathlon training. Seek their forgiveness as personally and privately as possible.

Do that and the tide of public opinion will begin to turn. But don’t do it for that reason. Don’t even do it for your children or your legacy. Do it to reset as a human being, for the sake of human decency, to live the second half of your life in a more kind, empathetic, and truthful manner.

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