World Communications Day took place on June 1 with a variety of international activities. Given this year’s theme for the annual celebration – “communications at the service of an authentic culture of encounter” – a news story less than a week later is particularly disturbing.
The June 7 story is about a pending decision in the U.S. Supreme Court regarding cases in which persons were convicted of using threatening language on electronic media. According to the Associated Press …
In one case, a Pennsylvania man ranted on Facebook in the form of rap lyrics about killing his estranged wife, blowing up an amusement park, slitting the throat of an FBI agent and committing “the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.”
The other case involves a Florida woman who emailed a conservative radio talk show host about “second amendment gun rights” and said she was planning “something big” at a Broward County government building or school.
“I’m going to walk in and teach all the government hacks working there what the 2nd Amendment is all about,” the email said. Her comments triggered a lockdown affecting more than a quarter-million students.
The court case seeks to decide whether words are “threatening” in a legal sense because of the intent of the speaker (which must be proven) or owing to the viewpoint of a reasonable reader/listener. Is the power of words in the prose or in the perception?
Behind the debate lies a question about social media. Is the new technology at fault because it makes ranting easy to do when communicating at a distance from in-person interaction? Does the text-based anonymity of social networking sites lead to misinterpretation of words that weren’t really “meant” to be harmful?
Whether threats are really intended is a matter of someone’s mind. If that lies in the mind of the “poster,” it’s hard to prove, until (God forbid) something actually happens. If it lies in the mind of the “reader” (the number of whom is exponentially greater on social media), it requires a knowledge of the originator that most, if not all, simply won’t have.
But it doesn’t seem hard to judge words like these from the case in question: “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.” Even if, as the defendant claims, this was simply a lyrical way to vent his frustration, there seems to be something very wrong with this mindset. It’s clearly not moral and could hardly qualify as “social” communications.
Words matter. They have consequences. Supposedly they distinguish us as human beings in comparison to other animals. The new media that make it easier to communicate and to do so immediately and with extensive outreach do not change the nature of the words we use. Let’s not blame the digital messenger!
Communication is, indeed, about encounter because words connect people, real people even in a virtual space. When that connection is founded on fear, the “social” reality of our communications is indeed threatened.
Featured image from www.stcdio.org