Have you ever wished you could just break up with that person in a text? Quit that job with an email? Wish your cousin in Miami Merry Christmas on Facebook and call it good? Have you ever done it: sent the text instead of made the call?
Perhaps it is easier that way. Perhaps that emoji-rich interface does ameliorate the angst by letting you send the Dear John text instead of the Dear John letter instead of the awkward “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” coffee “date.” But does easier mean it’s right? Or even better?
There’s something to be said for real
The Founding Fathers didn’t think distancing ourselves from confrontation would help with things like building a justice system or protecting the rights of the accused, and maybe those guys had a point.
Way back — like 500 years back — the Court of Star Chamber in England sidestepped common-law traditions and sometimes allowed witnesses against an accused to testify in private, away from the eyes of the subject of their accusations. The chamber came to symbolize tyranny and abuse of rights. And in their drafting of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers wanted to protect the new United States against these kinds of abuses.
As a lawyer, I often field the question of why federal courts don’t use more technology to save people time and money, why courts don’t let all witnesses video-conference in to testify. I look the asker in the eye and tell them that it’s different when you have to look someone in the eye.
Justice Scalia put it very well in 1988 in a case called Coy v. Iowa: “The State can hardly gainsay the profound effect upon a witness of standing in the presence of the person the witness accuses. … That face-to-face presence may, unfortunately, upset the truthful rape victim or abused child; but by the same token it may confound and undo the false accuser, or reveal the child coached by a malevolent adult.”
It’s complicated, this balancing of rights — the rights of the accused and the rights of the alleged victim. It’s complicated, this herd of humanity, this swishing bucket of heartbreak and joy and insecurity and reality and fears and power and doubt in which we live. It hurts and it’s scary and it may make us want to pull the covers over our heads and hide behind a phone and cry ourselves to sleep. But it’s real.
And there’s something to be said for real.
The right to face your accuser
Here’s an example of what’s at stake when it comes to plumbing the depths of what’s real in human interactions. It’s something I observed regularly when I worked defending people in court — let’s imagine the accused’s name is Daniel.
Daniel shuffles into the courtroom in a bright-orange jumpsuit and dirty-orange shower sandals. He’s at the nucleus of a knot of U.S. marshals. A bellychain arrangement binds his wrists, waist, and ankles and sounds something like the click-clack of dog tags on a lazy old mutt shaking a shaggy head. A marshal gestures at a chair between Daniel’s attorneys and moves to unlock Daniel’s shackles. Daniel holds out his wrists as best he can.
This is Daniel’s final pretrial conference. His 13-year-old son has accused him of doing an unspeakable thing, and next week, a jury will consider evidence to decide whether or not the boy is telling the truth, whether or not Daniel did that thing, whether or not Daniel is a monster.
But here’s the thing: The jury won’t get to look into the boy’s eyes. Daniel won’t get to look into his son’s eyes. And his son won’t face Daniel when he says the things that may put Daniel behind bars for two and a half decades.
The boy won’t even enter the courtroom. He will sit in a magistrate judge’s office and recite his story into a closed-circuit-television camera that will send his image and allegations through coppery wire, down the walls of the courthouse, into the courtroom where Daniel and one of his attorneys will sit waiting, listening, watching a jury stare into a TV monitor.
One can see why closed-circuit-TV technology got popular for kids testifying in court. It’s traumatic to take that witness stand and accuse someone of hurting you in deep and intimate and irreparable ways. Especially when you’re 13 years old.
But what if you’ve lied before? What if you know, in your 13-year-old head, that saying your mom’s boyfriend touched you there will get that boyfriend — who spanks you (even though you’re too old for that) and gets your mom drunk — out of your house? What if you know by saying those things you won’t have to live with your dad anymore — your dad who’s hit you and who spaces out smoking pot in front of the TV all day? You’ll be able to go live with your grandma, who gives you your own room, and good things to eat, and nice clothes, and has that dog you love.
It’s easier to say those things into a TV camera.
Into a text interface. Into a Twitter feed.
Not into someone’s eyes.
Digging for bedrock in relationships
You’ve heard it before: Put your phone down and live in the moment! Turn off the TV/devices/social media and spend time with family and friends, be here now, treat people online like you would treat them if they were in the room.
It seems odd to even think one might need to fight for a friend’s attention at a dinner table, that a phone might vie for a lover’s time at a barbeque, that YELLING AT SOMEONE IN CYBERSPACE MIGHT BE OKAY. But I’d wager most of us have experienced that moment of frustration, that instant when we’re bearing our souls only to look at our companion and catch them sneaking a glance at their Snapchat feed.
Call it a natural aversion to confrontation, to vulnerability, to intimacy, but most of us have probably experienced, up close and impersonally, the side effects of online interaction and expression instead of true, human confrontation. Whether it involves a search for truth and justice in a federal courtroom or a search for understanding on a couch beside a spouse, human presence means something. We best feel that truth between us when the only thing between us is the reality of our mixed-up individualism rather than a physical barrier of glossy screen, clever gifs, and an interface we can close when the going gets tough.