How much transparency can we handle?

Rob Bennett Contributor
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We knew that the Internet was going to bring transparency. Now we are seeing concrete examples of what that means in the flesh-and-blood world.

The idea behind the smear campaigns against Governor Palin was to make her feel such shame that she would leave politics behind. We see the same general tactics up close and personal in Daily Caller’s report of what was in some of the e-mails posted to the Journolist list-serve. I had my own experience of the phenomenon when I reported on analytical errors made in the studies that financial planners use to help us plan our retirements and felt the roof fall in on me at a number of investing discussion boards and blogs.

Humans are liars.

Even the good ones are.

It was liberals who got caught this time. But it won’t always be liberals who will be the ones getting caught. We need to come to terms with how the transparency of the Internet is going to be changing all human endeavors. We need to put the power to learn that has been given us through the creation of this amazing new communications technology to good use. Or it is going to kill us.

The journalists who described plans to coordinate unjustified charges of racism against selected conservatives need to be held accountable. They have failed to satisfy the most basic standards not only of journalism (where fairness should be given a special focus) but of civilized human life. It is by holding such people accountable that we as a society signal what sorts of behavior we will tolerate. And smear campaigns rooted in unjust charges of racism are obviously not to be tolerated.

But we need to take it another step after we do that. We really are liars. All of us. We lie about all sorts of things. Not only to others. To ourselves! We need to figure out how we are going to live with that reality in an Age of Transparency that is making it harder and harder to cover up this dark reality of human nature.

The Journolist participants were lying to themselves that they were pursuing legitimate journalistic aims when they really were just giving in to the most base human desires — they wanted revenge on a group of people (conservatives) who had come to be viewed as something less than human in their eyes. The story hits like a strong punch because we have rarely seen such naked contempt for decency given evidence in public speech before. That doesn’t mean that people have not always been thinking these sorts of things or saying these sorts of things. Before the Internet, the words were not recorded in Post archives! Before the Internet, we never got to see the horrible words appear before our eyes on a computer screen.

This is what always struck me about the retirement planning discussions in which I participated. “Don’t these people get it that there are Post Archives?” I would ask myself.

“Do they not realize that what you say on the Internet becomes permanently undeniable once it is said?”

People do not get this yet. I think that the biggest impact of Daily Caller’s story is going to be that people are going to start to get it on a deeper level than they have before. And then what?

Transparency can be a good thing. We could use it to learn more about people who think like us and about people who do not think like us and the learning experiences enjoyed could help us to build bridges and to heal wounds. All would be winners under that scenario.

If we do not make an effort to understand why otherwise good and smart people were able to rationalize a belief that it was okay to say these things and in some cases to do the horrible things spoken of, transparency will cause all of us to be ever more paranoid. We will all come to live in fear of saying things out loud due to a belief that anything said anywhere someday could and will be used against us. If transparency does not bring on learning, it will bring on hiding.

The Internet is a powerful communications tool. It has brought things to light that in earlier days were not often brought to light. That can hurt us or help us. I view it as a gut check for a dynamic society. It’s a test of whether we are still dynamic enough to change in the ways we need to change to make The Great Transparency a step forward.

Rob Bennett created The Stock-Return Predictor.