My rush to judgment

This week there were two viral stories online that really set me off. The first was about a doctor in Campbellton, New Brunswick who travelled to Quebec, didn’t self-isolate and inadvertently brought COVID-19 back to his home province. The other, complete with shocking video, involved an 18-wheeler barreling into a crowd of peaceful protesters in Minneapolis.

I lashed out against both on Facebook. (I would have done it on twitter, too, if I hadn’t wisely deleted my account.) I called the New Brunswick doctor shockingly irresponsible and said the trucker was literally a terrorist.

Now that the dust has settled, it turns out that stories lacked crucial context.

John Hinderaker at the conservative Minnesota-based blog Power Line notes that the trucker wound up on the closed highway by mistake and did his best to warn and avoid the protesters when he saw them. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt or killed.

Vechirko, it turns out, had made a delivery to a black-owned gas station and innocently ventured onto the highway before authorities had effectively closed it. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but Vechirko was hauled out of his cab and beaten by “protesters.” He was rescued before they could murder him. [Co-blogger Scott Johnson] wrote:

Trailer truck driver Bogdan Vechirko has been defamed by House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler and disparaged by Governor Tim Walz. Driving his rig on Highway 35W in Minneapolis, he was surprised to come upon “protesters” packing all lanes of the road in front of him. If he had wanted to hurt them, he could have taken them out like bowling pins. Instead, Vechirko blared his airhorn and brought his rig to a stop before he hit anyone.

Vechiko was beaten by the crowd and denounced by several Minnesota politicians…and by me.

Meanwhile, a Facebook friend of the New Brunswick doctor has a lengthy post explaining why he shouldn’t be scapegoated:

He was also savaged by politicians. And again, on my own Facebook page.

The Covington incident from early 2019, in which a group of teenagers were subjected to a witch-hunt based on misleading photos and video, was a defining moment for me. Even when I thought the boys were in the wrong, I believed the response was unnerving and over-the-top. When it turned out they were innocent but even professional journalists kept piling on anyway, it made me fear for society itself. Social media is whipping us up in angry mobs.

(People say mainstream media is making it worse, but I believe the opposite: mainstream media is under pressure to join the mob after it’s flared up. By my reckoning, the average American liberal angrily cancels his or her New York Times subscription five times a year because of an insufficiently judgmental headline or doubleplusungood op-ed.)

For all of my self-righteousness about these online mobs, it turns out I’m just as guilty. I have to be better. We all do.

Here’s how a great man 150 years ago avoided publicly flying off the handle:

Abraham Lincoln had a brilliant tactic to dial down his anger during the Civil War, a time when the country wasn’t just divided–the house was “on fire,” according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times.

[…]

According to Goodwin, when Lincoln was angry at a cabinet member, a colleague or one of his generals in the Union army, he would write a letter venting all of his pent-up rage. Then–and this is the key–he put it aside.

Hours later or the next day, he would look at the letter again so he could “attend to the matter with a clearer eye.” More often than not, he didn’t send the letter. We know this was Lincoln’s tactic because years after his death historians discovered a trove of letters with the notation: never sent and never signed.

Lincoln practiced this habit for three reasons. First, he didn’t want to inflame already heated passions. Second, he realized that words said in haste aren’t always clear-headed and well-considered. Third, he did it as a signal–a learning opportunity–for others on his now famous “team of rivals.”

Twitter wouldn’t be such a dumpster fire if it held your tweets for 24 hours before they become public.

One thought on “My rush to judgment

  1. M says:

    As a “different” person, I know all too well what happens when one person points a finger or makes an unsubstantiated accusation: another joins in, then another…and next thing I know, it feels like the Salem witch hunts. So I especially appreciate it when someone just steps up and admits being wrong. It’s a simple act by which we can all set an example. Mistakes are a necessary part of getting to the underlying truth of anything that matters. Yet our social culture discourages admissions of error.
    You’re certainly right about Twitter. 20 minutes of that are enough to put me into sensory overload. Arguing shouldn’t be about merely dumping our mind garbage on others. Done right, it should be a constructive process, with the viewpoint of learning from others….by sharing constructively what’s in our minds.

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