Internet ethics abolish forgiveness


I can’t manage the moral math’s that lies behind our new internet ethics.

I’ve been reading stories or moral virtue and disaster in the public arena and trying to work out if there is any calculation or balance at the bottom of the moral scoresheet between virtue and vice; between effort and failure.

Do you remember the phrase “the writing is on the wall”?

It comes the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament at Belshazzar’s Feast. Belshazzar was the Persian emperor and had thrown an enormous party at which he used the sacred vessels from the Jewish temple dedicated to the worship of the God of Israel. Suddenly in the middle of the banquet, a hand appears on the wall and mysteriously writes words in Aramaic: ‘Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.’ The heart of the message is “you have been weighed in the scales and found wanting.”

Now that’s the kind of moral balance sheet I understand. I have no idea what good or virtuous things Belshazzar had accomplished as emperor, but it was crystal clear in this case that all the good was outweighed by his profound and atrocious moral travesty. 

The writing on the wall was the equivalent of a memo from the metaphysical head office. He was being summarily sacked. That night he was assassinated and his kingdom broken up.

As the decades have gone by I have watched a number of people get sacked in the public sphere with some bemusement. 

When they had broken a condition of the terms of their employment I could make sense of it. So, the head of MacDonald’s has just lost his two million pound a year job because he fell in love with a woman who was junior to him as work. It was consensual. No #me2 issues. No onesuggested there was any abuse of power. But the company had rules which forbad it. Never mind the fact that a large percentage of people fall in love with their future spouse at work. He broke a condition of employment. He lost his job.Was falling in love at work worth 2 million pounds a year? We would have to ask him.

Justine Sacco, Communications Director for the New York Internet Empire firm AIC was rather bored as she waited to board a flight. She sent a careless tweet. “Going to Africa, hope I don’t get aids. Just kidding. I’m white.”  Eleven hours later she landed. “My phone started to explode…” She was the no 1 twitter trend world–wide. She found out that her firm had publicly sacked her during the time she was in the air. Her tweet had been crass, horrendously daft. Was it medical ignorance or racism or both? Apparently it was humour. But she was not just out of a COMM’s job she may well have been underqualified for, but much worse. She was probably now permanently unemployable anywhere; unless she changed her name.

Interviewed later by the writer Jon Ronson, she explained she thought she was being funny.  “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.” She never got to put her side of things to her employers; or the Twittersphere.

The drama of people being sacked for stupid tweets has a fascinating side. There are even a couple of websites which seem to act as the 21st centuries version of the Inquisition. These sites will archive them – both out of a sense of fun, and also as public record. One is ‘Politwhoops’ run by the Sunlight Foundation, and another is ‘Fireme’; which is  less of an archive for deleted tweets that have been responsible for getting people fired, and more threateningly, more of an indicator of who could be fired, soon.

Beyond the ruthless public and professional elimination of people who have made mistakes remains the question, ‘why isn’t there any credit for any virtue the victim may have had or performed? Why is it one strike and you are out – perhaps for ever, everywhere?” Our internet age and our multimedia platforms appear to have abolished forgiveness. There has been no debate, no kickback, no protest; just professional and public reputational execution.

I found two voices recently expressing the same concerns I felt. Surprisingly to me, they happened both to be former US Presidents. Theodore Roosevelt first:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena..who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; ..and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Shouldn’t there be any credit for trying? I was never a fan ofObama’s but I was impressed when he too recently protested:

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke, and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.” 

We may have moved into what people have described as a post-Christian age. But if one of its chief characteristics is the abolition of forgiveness in the public sphere, whatever ingenious advances we may have achieved, the progress may be technical, but it  isn’t moral.