HERE’S WHAT I’m grateful for at Thanksgiving: No one saw me chuck my beer can at that Baltimore Oriole in Toronto.
OK. I can joke. I’m not the one who, after someone almost caused a War of 1812 rematch by throwing a beer into the vicinity of outfielder Hyun Soo Kim on Tuesday, had his photo posted online by Toronto police, who urged the public to retweet it. The suspect was quickly identified as Ken Pagan, a copy editor for Postmedia newspapers.
Since reporters generally rank editors somewhere between axe murderers and nun muggers on the Guilt-O-Meter, I immediately assumed the cops had the right wrong-doer. (Had it been a can of Lucky, I would have assumed he worked at the TC.)
But a guy I know who works with Pagan says he doesn’t believe his colleague is capable of such scumbaggery, and Pagan himself, while heeding a lawyer’s advice to shut up, has hinted at his innocence.
On the other hand, even the Dalai Lama could end up picking bar fights if you poured enough Pilsner down his pie hole. Pagan was in fact charged with mischief Thursday, so maybe he’s guilty. Or maybe he’s not. What’s important is that I don’t know and neither do you, but that hasn’t stopped a social-media mob from going after him with digital torches and pitchforks.
Self-righteously hounding the (allegedly) wicked online is what we do now. Sometimes that means hunting down serious criminals, sometimes it means gutting the dentist who shot Cecil the lion, and sometimes it means outing the #grassholes who defied Vancouver’s lawn-watering ban. This summer, the Shit Parkers of Victoria website shamed a Duncan man into ending his habit of parking in spots reserved for the handicapped. Yet a Courtenay woman who angle parks across two spots to accommodate her wheelchair regularly finds herself vilified on similar sites, with no chance to explain herself.
That’s the thing about publicly shaming someone: You had better be right. This year in Syracuse, New York, a man named Joshua Cook was charged with attempting to lure children, then freed on bail. Police didn’t want to release his photo for fear of tainting the testimony of potential witnesses, but anxious/angry members of the community wanted his face known, so posted Joshua Cook’s picture on social media, where it spread like the bubonic plague. Only one problem: It was a photo of a different Joshua Cook, and now it’s out there forever, trailing an innocent man for the rest of his life.
Even if you identify the right target, it’s worth thinking of the consequences. In December 2013, during a layover at Heathrow airport, New York’s Justine Sacco tweeted to her 170 followers: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding! I’m white.” By the time she landed in Cape Town 11 hours later, her life was ruined. Tens of thousands assailed her via social media. She lost her job. She got death threats. The mob howled.
“The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment,” wrote Jon Ronson, whose book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine. After Ronson quoted Sacco’s explanation for the tweet — she said it was a clumsy attempt to joke about the privileged bubble in which she lived — the critics set their sights on him. Ronson wrote that where he once saw value and participated in online shaming, he now finds a “disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.”
Remember that when thinking of the beer-can case. There was no excuse for launching the missile, but it’s hardly the first time a fan has behaved badly at a sporting event. (I once saw a priest climb the boards at a junior hockey game and throw his glasses at the ref, shouting: “You need these more than I do.”)
In fact, the beer-can saga was only such a cause célèbre because Blue Jays fans have a history of loutish acts on U.S. national television. With Toronto’s (and Canada’s) reputation on the line, there was considerable pressure to find and prosecute the guilty party.
That’s fine, but there’s a difference between a prosecution and a lynch mob.
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