Moving Past Our Instinctual Rush to Outrage in 'When They See Us'
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Moving Past Our Instinctual Rush to Outrage in 'When They See Us'

Accountability is not only necessary for individual agents who do wrong, but the entire system that backs those individuals, and laying people like Fairstein and Lederer as scapegoats of what whole powerstructures did wrong leaves those power structures off the hook. The representation of Fairstein as a paragon of injustice and overzealousness is the same representation that led the media and Donald Trump's inflammatory ad to rush to judge the Central Park Five in the first place.

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Moving Past Our Instinctual Rush to Outrage in 'When They See Us'

I have spent the last couple days watching "When They See Us", Ava Duvernay's harrowing Netflix drama focusing on the Central Park jogger case and the lives of the five suspects who were wrongly prosecuted for raping and assaulting the jogger. What struck me about the show was how contemporary and modern it was, and how much it felt like some similar miscarriage of justice could happen today.

In the first episode of the show, the police apprehend five suspects, all 16 and under, in the park who didn't even see the jogger or know what happened, and beat them, held them for days without food, and coerced them into giving confessions. Their names are Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana.

It's not hard to see the phenomenon that led the police and prosecutor Linda Fairstein to treat the kids the way they did: society's rush to outrage. They had to do something and do justice for Trisha Meili, the woman who was brutally raped. No one questions that part of the case. But in doing so, spurred by external pressures such as Donald Trump's full-page ad in the New York Times advocating bringing back the death penalty for these kids, the police officers and prosecutors handling the case were far too overzealous to the point of cruelty and injustice.

And it's easy to say that's a them thing, that this was the error of a couple of individuals and one institution in mistreating five vulnerable boys. But society's impulsive rush to outrage is a systemic issue, and that means it's also an us thing. Justice might finally be served now against some of the prosecutors in the case: Linda Fairstein has resigned from boards of her multiple nonprofits and Vassar College, her alma mater. Elizabeth Lederer, the main prosecutor, has stepped down from her position as a part-time lecturer at Columbia Law School.

But I urge us to be more cautious about our reactions. Although we're seeing the story of the Central Park Five through the sympathetic lens of the five men and their families, to me, it is clear that the current outrage against Fairstein and Lederer from people who have watched the series is another side of the same coin that led Fairstein and Lederer to prosecute the five boys so zealously in the first place. And our wave of backlash is eerily similar in its zealotry and heavy-handedness.

In society's mob-like rush to outrage, there is no third dimension, it is a battle between black and white. There is no forgiveness. There is no mercy. The people on the other side are utterly dehumanized.

I am not here to answer whether Fairstein and Lederer deserve losing their various positions at universities and literary agencies. I am the first to say I felt immense disgust watching Fairstein's character zealously urge Lederer and the police officers to go after the boys. I feel even more disgust with Fairstein not taking any responsibility for her actions and still standing by her claim that the boys are guilty. And I can very much see the strong counterargument that these women aren't losing their freedom or half their lives to the prison system, like the Central Park Five did. All they're losing is their reputations and jobs, and they and their families will still be well off.

But that's not the point. Our impulsive rush to outrage's implicit goal is to better society, speak truth to power, and make our world a better place. The problem is that it's counterintuitive and it doesn't. We make villains and pariahs and people who deserve to be damned, and where does that leave us? When we get the appealing vengeance we so dearly, what then?

In the words of M.J. Crockett, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, outrage is something that has evolved throughout human history. In small groups where humans formed long term relationships and survival "depended on co-operating with neighbors to hunt, forage, and fend off predators." This is the environment in which outrage was optimized and valuable by reinforcing moral behavior. "If you stole from your hunting partner, he could get you kicked out of the group, and since being in a group was crucial to survival, ostracism was a death sentence."

But this is the modern world, and outrage is much more complicated in the landscape of our politics and social movements today. A 2014 University of Illinois study showed that people in everyday life were far more outraged when they encountered online content than content in person or TV or a newspaper. According to Crockett, online news platforms may be artificially inflating outrage. And it is in that artificial inflation of our outrage that we cannot harness its power, and we resort to online tweeting or sharing while high on emotions rather than taking action to ameliorate injustice.

And the problem with that exaggerated rush to justice, that it's not that just.

Sometimes, our outrage cannot be suppressed. But it is a problem when we can't control where it's targeted, and focusing on individuals over systems and institutions that push those individuals and have power over them is our first mistake. I wrote for the Emory Wheel, earlier this year, to use outrage by "focus[ing] that anger at society's institutions and rule-makers, instead of reducing complicated individuals into symbolic scapegoats. Organize people against the institutions that have failed our country, from our national politics to our education system." It is unpopular to say that Linda Fairstein, for example, is more complicated than she is portrayed by Duvernay, but she was an inspiration for Law and Order: SVU for a reason.

Again, it's not the outrage itself that is bad, but the rush to the outrage that is dangerous, the same tool that led to so many wrongfully convicting and coercing Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana. This is not echoing Michelle Obama's sentiment that "when they go low, we go high," but rather when popularity contests and the rush to outrage decide the fate of individuals through vigilanteism in one case, we undermine the presumption of innocence and tell others that it's OK to do the same for anyone - even those we claim to want to protect and who we claim to be fighting for. Look no further than Harvard University's choice to let go, Ronald Sullivan, it's first black faculty dean, for choosing to represent Harvey Weinstein, the vilified alleged rapist, and paragon of #MeToo injustices. Sulivan's choice echoes the choice John Adams made in 1770 to defend a group of hated British soldiers.

And the lessons of Ronald Sullivan and John Adams tell us that it is precisely moments like these, when emotions are high and individuals are woefully unpopular and called to be canceled, let go, and crucified, that it is imperative for us to defend them the most, even if we hate them. It means we'll be defended when society hates us. Yes, that is an obligation of the courts, but why isn't it the obligation of a just and loving society as well?

I hear you that it's hard to trust institutions that have failed us so often, much like the New York criminal justice system and police department failed the Central Park Five. And it's moments like these when institutional trust is at a low that we lose our patience and take justice into our own hands. Who am I to tell you what's wrong?

But our frustration with those at the top of the food chain being channeled to convicting a couple of individuals who did a lot of wrong means we're focusing at the lower level, supposedly isolated circumstance rather than the institution that supported and perpetuates distrust and injustice on a daily basis. It's not that the anger is wrong, it's that it's misdirected at the bottom, not the top. Accountability is not only necessary for individual agents who do wrong, but the entire system that backs those individuals, and laying people like Fairstein and Lederer as scapegoats of what whole powerstructures did wrong leaves those power structures off the hook. The representation of Fairstein as a paragon of injustice and overzealousness is the same representation that led the media and Donald Trump's inflammatory ad to rush to judge the Central Park Five in the first place.

Society and institutions need to change and become juster. That is without question and the message that the story of the exonerated Central Park Five and "When They See Us" shows. But we can learn those lessons without socially convicting individuals. We can do that with the power of love and mercy. I once heard the wise words that grace is forgiveness and love to people that don't deserve it, and wouldn't grace make the power of our outrage be so much greater?

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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