We’re All Always on Trial Now, Aren’t We?

“Anything you say can and will be used against you.” That’s what they say in the Miranda Rights, isn’t it?

Our official legal system enforces behavior by threatening imprisonment. But the world has shifted, hasn’t it? Doesn’t it feel true now that there’s another legal system, and its rules are much less well-defined? We have a court of public opinion. Its verdicts are severe, merciless and cannot be appealed. It threatens not imprisonment, but abandonment — ostracisation.

People talk about the “cancel culture”, which is a colloquial way of labeling what I’m describing here, I suppose. On one side, people think the court of public opinion and its verdicts are destroying society; and on the other, people think the court of public opinion is bringing justice to abusers by shining a light on them.

It’s simply a second, parallel legal system. It runs on the dynamics of social power, rather than military power. It seems to be the legal system of the internet, this nebulous country that we all have dual-citizenship for. The problem with it is not necessarily that the internet has a legal system, but that the legal system obviously lacks justice.

It lacks every aspect of what makes a judicial system tolerable for a society. There is no due process, the crimes are not defined in any concrete way, there is no trial, its executors are untrained and unlicensed. In some ways, this legal system has produced results — because some of those who are protected by our meatspace legal system are not protected here. Let’s not mince words — that’s a great thing. Too many powerful people have been escaped justice through corruption, and it’s great to see the justice we all live under brought to them. Fairness under the law.

But let’s not confuse that one significant benefit with the idea this system is somehow better overall. This legal system is no better. In fact, in so many obvious ways, it’s worse. Even on that aspect, there are people in the internet’s cancel culture legal system who are untouchable. It produces massive pile-ons, it overreacts. Its go-to punishment for almost any single thing is the internet equivalent of medieval stonings. It’s totally comfortable with vigilantism, false testimony, guilty until proven innocent, so many things that, in the real world, we figured out ages ago are barbarities.

The court of public opinion is not going away any time soon. The internet empowers it, and the internet isn’t going away any time soon. But at a certain point, we ought to be cleaning this up, and have clear rules, and transparency, and some sort of judicial system that reduces the vigilantism, the overreactions, the mob justice, the cruel and unusual punishments, the guilty until proven innocent mentality. Some internet version of police, lawyers, juries and judges. Some internet version of “time served” “debt paid to society” “rehabilitation” “impartiality” and “redemption”.

You may be waiting for a police state to show up, out in the world — roaming gangs, armed soldiers. But we’re already living in that world, we’re just living in it through screens, and instead of shooting your body, they shoot your reputation and gun down your employability and earning potential.

“Anything you say can and will be used against you,” used to be something that meant you were under arrest and it’s time to get a lawyer.

Nowadays, it’s just a 24/7 reality of life. We’re all under investigation, all the time. One slipup and you get the axe. Steal a loaf of bread and off with his head.