It’s human nature to sometimes want vengeance, but that doesn’t make it a desirable remedy.

It’s human nature to sometimes want vengeance, but that doesn’t make it a desirable remedy.

By Patricia Graham for the Brunswick News

Several recent news items have me thinking about the intersection of accountability with institutional and individual responsibility. Also, the growth and influence of those I call the vengeance vultures.

Only about half a century ago, most professions and institutions were clothed in unquestioned authority – doctors, lawyers, pastors, judges and politicians, to name a few. My own generation – the baby boomers – started to change that; no doubt public education played a significant role in leading us to question the perceived wisdom of authority figures, and today we have come to expect transparency and accountability.

Fine so far, but it seems to me we’ve moved beyond this to an unhealthy expectation of conformity or, worse, a hunger for vengeance.

As journalists, we’re always at risk of getting caught up in something unsavoury: that place where the legitimate quest for accountability tips over to something that fuels demagoguery or an uncivil desire for revenge.

It’s human nature to sometimes want vengeance, but that doesn’t make it a desirable remedy. Today, social media, online commenting and certain online media outlets provide an avenue for those who clamour for reprisal.

These vengeance vultures go beyond the legitimate right to question or criticize a decision or belief, or demand institutional change. They prefer revenge and destruction to constructive discussion or informed, rational solution. They favour firings, criminal charges, even death, assault or injury. They rush to judgment, in a vacuum of information, over a single mistake, real or perceived.

Their recent targets include the mother whose toddler got into a gorilla enclosure in the Cincinnati Zoo, leading to the unfortunate shooting death of the gorilla. They wanted her held responsible for the gorilla’s death, charged criminally, investigated by authorities for parental neglect, and yes, even shot.

Another of their current victims is U.S. judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced a former university student and champion athlete to what many (including me) consider a far-too-lenient sentence for three serious sexual assaults against a young woman who wrote a powerful and moving victim impact statement. The judge’s decision, and the probation report recommendation on which it was based, highlight an institutional weakness in the justice system when it comes to rape, and deserve criticism. But the vengeance vultures want him removed from the bench or, yes, killed or injured.

Closer to home, the Toronto Star came under heavy fire recently over the death by suicide of one of its star reporters, who had been having an affair with a manager who’d also been having an affair with another manager. The reporter’s manager is gone, the other moved out of the newsroom, and the newspaper’s public editor wrote about it in an attempt to be transparent and accountable to critics. But there are many voices demanding that more heads roll at the Star.

So much of this vehemence is fuelled by distrust and a conviction, or at least an assumption, that everyone and everything is basically corrupt. But that’s just not true.

It’s also based on a misguided belief that we’re entitled to know everything about any decision that we question. We’re not.

Shouldn’t we favour change rather than retribution? Can we not allow that many decisions are not black and white, that sometimes there are no clear demarcation lines between right and wrong and that, without all the facts, we can’t make an accurate assessment? We can draw our own conclusions, of course, but to insist on the worst possible punishment for human error is extreme.

A coating of distrust, paranoia and anger covers much of discourse today. Unfortunately politicians fuel it: the most obvious examples today are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who stir the sludgy pot of these emotions. Their supporters attack each other, and threaten media with death and injury, without being emphatically denounced.

But those two are only the most extreme examples. Here at home, opposition politicians routinely do it too, no matter what party they represent. Government initiatives are typically attacked as self-serving at best, corrupt at worst.

Today, the extremists have a loud voice. They need to be listened to, and any legitimate concerns responded to. But we cannot let them hijack the discussion. The end game cannot be that we forever and always impute bad motives to each other unless we all think and say the same things. How boring and useless. And how dangerous, if we give too much credence to those who want vengeance.

As journalists, we can’t censor the news and have an obligation to report what’s being said. But we need to be aware of the game, and keep the public interest in mind.

I can be reached at ombudsman@brunswicknews.com

This column was published originally by Brunswick News and reprinted here with Graham’s permission.

Patricia Graham is Ombudswoman for Brunswick News.