“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”
So says Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. England has developed a mathematical formula that he believes explains the fundamental components of how life begins and evolves. Put simply, when an external source of energy is applied to a grouping of matter, under certain conditions the matter will gradually restructure itself in order to disperse more energy.
Which bring us to the story of a Drexel University law professor, her careless job of copying & pasting a simple URL, and the crucible of public judgment. Lisa McElroy, teacher and professor at Drexel’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, used the University’s network earlier this month to share a link with her students about writing legal briefs. Unfortunately, the link took students to a Pornhub video, which (as one can detect from the name) streams explicit sexual content for free.
A number of McElroy’s students allegedly complained about the email, which McElroy insists was delivered in error. Some of McElroy’s supporters suggested that her system was hacked. Still, Drexel administrators felt compelled by the incident to conduct an investigation to determine if McElroy’s actions should result in sexual harassment and misconduct procedures. As of this writing, according to a Drexel spokesperson, McElroy has been “cleared to continue her academic and research responsibilities” and still holds her teaching position at the University.
Lisa McElroy is no stranger to the public spotlight; you might recognize the name from her appearance as a contestant on the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? She is also well regarded in her profession, having earned a doctorate from Harvard Law School and authoring several children’s books about Supreme Court justices. And she knows how to use the media. In an op-ed piece appearing in the Washington Post last week, the professor says she was “mortified” upon discovering what she had sent to her students, yet called the incident “pretty trivial” compared to the public shaming she received when the story went viral:
“I was sure I had lost my dignity forever. Unsurprisingly, some students spread word of the incident through social media and anonymous e-mails to the media. Everyone was talking about me … still, no one questioned the dignity of those who forwarded the unintended post. No one asked why, if they found it so offensive, students opened the link, with its unmistakable Web address, and watched the video long enough to know what it contained. No one publicly questioned the dignity of the so-called journalists who wrote salacious stories [and] called my unpublished cellphone number.”
Beyond a desire to cause ridicule or suffering, there is nothing ideological about the way digital mobs organize themselves at the first hint of a public figure’s downfall. The digital mob’s most distinctive attribute is the speed at which thousands of participants can be spontaneously whipped up into an irrational frenzy. Once released, the ensuing tidal wave of damage is nearly impossible to contain. In the days before social media, such activities would take place within the geographic constraints of a street corner, city park or town square. Today it takes only a single, well-timed tweet or an anonymous blog comment to publicly eviscerate someone’s reputation.
Lisa McElroy’s piece in the Washington Post resembles a latter-day version of Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates declares that the wisdom of all philosophy begins with a sincere admission of ignorance. Her most poignant statement is one she never makes: how or why she had access to that link in the first place. Perhaps that’s not the point, as some journalists have suggested, if we choose to believe that what happens in the privacy of one’s own home or IP address is nobody else’s business. Still, we can always expect conjecture to play a strong role in identifying why and how these things happen. David Lat of Above the Law offers an interesting hypothetical: perhaps McElroy’s gender and personality contributed to the story becoming a bigger spectacle than originally warranted:
“One can’t help wondering whether the schadenfreude surrounding ‘Beadgate’ reflects student antipathy towards a less-than-popular professor, whether ‘tough’ women professors get a bad rap, and whether students would have tattled to the administration about a more well-liked member of the faculty … we all have our private vices and we all make mistakes.”
At worst, one could argue that McElroy’s “mistake” was to reveal herself as a sexual human being with poor proofreading skills. One could also argue that McElroy’s piece in the Post smacks of self-righteous opportunism. (Comparing the recovery periods of public humiliation and cancer, while well-intentioned, may not solicit favorable empathy from all members of her audience.) That said, these supposed transgressions certainly don’t position her accusers on a higher plane of moral immunity. Wrong behavior should be punished; however, the consequences of wrong choices worsen inexorably under heightened examination and scrutiny. The fairness of that social dynamic is as questionable as the acts that inspire it.
Like all forms of energy, the attention surrounding Lisa McElroy’s email will disperse in time. Physicists tell us that energy is more likely to diffuse into the atmosphere than be concentrated into one location; they call it “the arrow of time.” They also tell us that entropy occurs naturally, allowing for a degree of randomness in terms of how and where thermal energy will next be collected. This is an overly scientific way of saying that what happened to Lisa McElroy could potentially happen to anyone. At least she had the benefit of being part of an academic community, limiting the field of propagators to an identifiable group. This was an opportunity that Socrates did not enjoy:
The main body of these slanderers who from envy and malice have wrought … all these, I say, are most difficult to deal with; for I cannot have them up here, and examine them, and therefore I must simply fight with shadows in my own defence, and examine when there is no one who answers.