Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Quickie on Casey Anthony and Public Tragedies

The number one threat to America
(After bears, of course).
Casey Anthony is going to be released from jail tomorrow, and public hysteria shows no signs of abating over her acquittal.  I have no particular vested stake in her innocence or guilt; my gut says she's guilty, but in a court of law, particularly when the death penalty is on the table, it is imperative that the defendant's guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and the prosecution in this case failed to do that.  There has been a lot of disgust directed towards Ms. Anthony, and not necessarily without reason.  She certainly didn't come out looking good.  But longtime readers know I am always skeptical of public hysteria, and as the article linked above cites, threats are beginning to be leveled against the jurors who acquitted her, which to me crosses an important line.  This will be a short post, but here are my observations.

I paid careful attention to who among my social networks was following the case.  Overwhelmingly, they were politically conservative females, many of whom were also either overweight or grossly out of shape, and many of whom were also young mothers whose pregnancies were not planned.  Indeed, most of the public commentary journalists have managed to acquire would seem to come from this particular demographic, though without hard data (like a poll or a survey), I can't say that conclusively.  The people who seemed to be the most moved and/or agitated by the case also tended to watch a lot of television, in particular partisan cable news and highly emotional crime shows (such as the ubiquitous Nancy Grace and networks like TruTV).  These shows and networks overwhelmingly appeal to viewer's emotions and gut instincts, and should Ms. Anthony's safety be challenged (either by physical violence or credible threats of such), it will be these media outlets and television personalities who I hold responsible.

The Casey Anthony trial is a curious case where what we think and feel give us two different answers.  Again, the gut instinct and a cursory look at the case practically scream that she's guilty.  However a closer examination of the evidence shows that it's largely circumstantial and somewhat underwhelming as evidence in a court of law, particularly in a death penalty case.  But that wasn't what we were told by the media.  We were given a highly hysterical, highly emotional zeitgeist that told us what we felt was more important than what we thought or even what we saw.  The trial did not have to be framed this way.  The media abdicated its responsibility to inform the public once again in exchange for the publicity highly histrionic sensationalism would produce.  Whether we would still have credible death threats against the jurors in the case without it, I don't know, but the media and opinion-makers, particularly the partisan ones, certainly did nothing to dissuade the behavior, and in many cases (such as Ms. Grace), openly encouraged it.  Thus, though the individuals who may make threats and/or potentially carry them out in the future should be held accountable for their individual actions, the people responsible for framing the argument and the reaction must also share the blame.

Lest you think that I believe this is anything new, I don't, but that doesn't make it any less true or any less wrong.  Implementing any change would take time (at least a generation) to work, and while that may or may not happen, I don't exactly see us starting tomorrow.  Of more interest to me is what leads someone to feel this way, and for that feeling to override their ability to reason.  We live in a society that affords us little opportunity to seek meaning in our lives, and so we try to replace it by acquiring physical possessions and following the lives of others who seem to be more meaningful than ours.  We use celebrities to build ourselves up, both by drama of their lives that ours may lack and by how we feel better in comparison when the public figures we idolize prove to be just as fallible, imperfect, and human as us.  Televised sports provide excitement where we'd otherwise have none; a surrogate for the human connection we crave.  Yet we have no control over these things, and so it only reinforces our feeling of emptiness, which to me seems like one of the reasons why the public backlash against Ms. Anthony's acquittal has been so fierce.  I have no doubt that a conviction would have been very cathartic for those OCFs (overweight conservative females) in my social networks and throughout the media--a validation of themselves and the choices they made.  But we didn't get that, and so we're left feeling angry and empty.

In many ways, then, this is a tragedy beyond just Ms. Anthony, her life, and the death of her child.  It's a reminder to all of us of just how little we seem to have.  I would hope that if there is a silver lining to this case, that it provokes in someone, somewhere, some kind of serious introspection, and that introspection can lead to awareness and some form of acceptance.  Maybe then some good will come of it.  Until then, a tragedy it will remain, for everyone involved.

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