In olden times blasphemers and others were placed in the pillory or stocks and subjected to public abuse. People could throw anything they wished and the victim could not move. Besides rotten fruit and fish, people threw rocks and faeces. If the victim was kept for days, this abuse could be fatal.

With the advent of social media we have invented a new kind of public piling on used to punish people for things such as racism the public finds offensive. It is a growing practice that raises fundamental ethical questions. It could be used against atheists as well as racists.

I have no sympathy for Donald Sterling, the racist owner of the Clippers basketball team—he seems like an ugly personality completely unworthy of sympathy—but the remarks attributed to him were made in private.

I am uncomfortable with the notion that private thoughts and statements are a sufficient reason for public sanctions. When someone makes racist comments in public, they may be a detriment to the business or public office they represent, and they may be punished by removal from their position, but private thoughts and comments are a different matter to my mind.

What happens after something like this is made public, is that everyone piles on and there is no going back to the previous state of affairs. People add insults as a way of patting themselves on the back for not being racist and showing that their own hands are clean. That seems craven.

I'm interested in what people here think about this question. Should we punish people for saying things in private that the public considers offensive? Should people be punished for what they think?

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Donald Sterling isn't a private citizen.  By virtue of his ownership of the LA Clippers, he has become a public figure, and as such, his words and actions are in the public domain and subject to public scrutiny.  Particularly considering that the population of players which are the National Basketball Association are on the close order of 90% black, Sterling's alleged comments cast dispersions on the vast majority of those people from whom he makes his living.  I can truly be said in that regard that Sterling is pissing into the wind with those remarks.

If you want to be stupid, you can pay the price for being stupid.

As I said, I have no sympathy for Sterling himself and I would have no problem at all with your position if Sterling had actually been speaking publicly or speaking in a time and place where he knew his words were likely to be made public.

I am uncomfortable with the notion that private words and thoughts, even those of public figures, automatically become public property and a reason for sanctions if they can be obtained by any means at all.

Public figures have to be careful about what they say even in private. It is best for them to assume that there is a live microphone present to convey their remarks to others.

You probably mean aspersions not dispersions :)

I see Allan's point. And, while Sterling might be a public figure to some, what he said was in private and I doubt he realized it would be put in the public domain. The fact that he may have some degree of notoriety among sports fans does not mean he loses his standing as a private citizen. I don't follow the NBA, so until the story hit the news, I had not heard of him. I'm sure there are many others like me. So how much of a 'public figure' is he? Yet today, with the ubiquitous presence of audio and video recording devices, anything any of us say or do is subject to being plastered all over the internet.

I'm not sure Sterling's status as a public figure to a group of sports fans should be a factor on whether his private thoughts and expressions are subject to public scrutiny. I see that as getting us on a very slippery slope. How much notoriety is required before private conversations are free game for all? National recognition, State, local? When someone intentionally makes public statements like the asshole welfare rancher from Nevada, calling him out is one thing. At what point do we go after private thought crime? 

Pat, your statement, "At what point do we go after private thought crime?" is one I take seriously. The situation offers a sharp knife edge upon which it is uncomfortable to sit. However, I come out on the side of taking words seriously, whether spoken in private or in public. Words reveal values held by a person and I am responsible for speaking out to that individual when I disagree with that person. Should I go public with the information? In my opinion, yes! Can I do so legally? I have no idea and I guess I need instruction from you. 

My rationale for being public with private conversation is the terrible pain I witness as the private thoughts get played out in public arenas. Take racism. A racist who makes his living off of black players, and doesn't want them in his arenas, is the epitome of hypocrisy. Kind of like Romans enjoying the fight to the death of gladiators and not allow gladiators on his dais.

Or men having rule over women and not allowing them in the chambers that make rules that impact women's lives. Different values, same tyranny. Each states, "I will use you at my pleasure and not include you as an equal in my life!"  

Joan, from what I have heard in the media (which means it may or may not be accurate), Sterling has been portrayed as a racist scumbag. Maybe he is. What I can glean is that he is a wealthy old fool who may very well know how to make money, and then uses it to buy trophy women who turn on him like a mongoose against a cobra. As I said, until this hit the news, I had never heard of the guy. And, while I cannot speak for the other 49 states, in Illinois, recording a private conversation without the knowledge of the participant being recorded is the Felony offense of Eavesdropping.  The problem is, there are so many exceptions to this law as to make it almost meaningless. Most prosecutors I know generally won't bother with it.

My problem with the situation is as follows. He has been banned for life by the NBA, and the other team owners are being asked to force him to sell the team he owns. In other words, his liberty is restrained and his property is being threatened. And, all without even a minimal consideration for due process. I realize this is not the government engaging in this punitive action against him. And, I'm sure it can, and is being argued, that the NBA and owner's association are private, contractual organizations that he voluntarily signed up for. You pay your money, you take your chances. 

And, I agree that owning a predominantly black team and not wanting blacks in your arena is hypocrisy to the nth degree. But, we don't punish thought or speech. We punish actions. Had he actually taken steps to ban various races from entering his arena, then a civil rights suit (civil and/or criminal) would have been appropriate.

I recall a law professor one time who was discussing a case involving a person with the alleged morals of Mr. Sterling, The majority of students all thought he should have been punished for his statements and obvious bigotry. One minor problem. He didn't actually break the law or do anything other than voice a disgusting racist opinion. The professor said something I will always remember. "Please point out that provision of the US Constitution, a State Constitution, or the laws promulgated thereunder, that prohibits a citizen from being an asshole."

In light of the proliferation of recording devices in the hands of the average citizen, the day is rapidly approaching, if not already here, where unpopular thought and speech are used to destroy a person's life without recourse to a fair hearing. It's not popular speech that needs protection. It's that which is the least popular for which the protections were instituted.

Over and over, I've seen this mob behavior online.  Including on A/N.  People all pile onto someone who they disagree with together.  It's a way of enforcing social norms. 

There needs to be a less judgemental attitude towards racism.  Often among white people, "racist" is one of the worst things you can call someone.  It creates a toxic atmosphere where white people cope by avoiding the subject of race, by being extremely careful about what they say about black people, if they say anything.  It makes white people act artificial and tense when interacting with black people, and it creates resentment and antagonism because of the shaming atmosphere. 

And it's disheartening to see how casually people shame others.  Perhaps it does reflect a lack of courage, but it seems also a vent for hostility and a failure of empathy. 

Racism is related to social anxiety - but shaming only reinforces social anxiety.  Does shaming do anything to fix the problem long-term, or does it actually exacerbate it? 

The shaming about racism seems to be an aspect of denial.  People see an opportunity to tell themselves and others that they aren't racist. 

But prejudice is part of how our minds work as humans.   It's natural to be at least somewhat uncomfortable around people whose faces look very different from the faces we grew up around.  This is true for people of all races. 

When people say racist things, it would be more constructive to supply facts contradicting what they say, or simply to point out that racism is a generalization, so it doesn't apply to particular people. 

Luara, I couldn't disagree with you more. A pile of people disagreeing together against one may enforce social norms. If a person disagrees with the people-pile, and backs down, of what use is critical thought. If I make a statement that 99.9% of my community disagree with me, it does not make my statement wrong. It makes me cognizant of how much work needs to be done. 

There needs to be more judgemental attitude toward racism, not less. If racism is of any moral and ethical good, there might be some value to let the end of racism happen naturally. Stop and think of that a minute. How long has it taken for USA values to inclu blacks as voting members of our communities? How long has racism existed in human history? What will it take to end racism in our country? 

Take the footbinding of women in China that lasted for 1,000 years without effective resistance. It wasn't until 1917 when mothers refused, as a group, to bind the feet of their daughters, did it end. It is now illegal to bind the feet of daughters. Just think! 1,000 years of footbinding! stopped overnight! well, almost! 

It may be uncomfortable to be around people whose faces look very different from the faces we grew up around. Tell me about it. I am about as caucasian as one can be. I taught blacks in the slums of Valley Green Housing Project in Washington, D.C.; I taught in the barrios of Juarez, Mexico; I taught in schools with Athabascan Natives; I did research in China and Indonesia, surrounded by only Asian eyes, and in eastern Europe with Muslims.

It is a very interesting experience to be with different cultures who have different values. 

In the USA we claim to be a melting pot of peoples from around the world. I don't like that metaphor because it implies that all cultures and races adjust to northern European customs and traditions. I hope that is not what happens here. I hope we are more like a harvest stew, with all kinds of varieties existing side by side, respecting diversity, and encouraging participation in a common country of agreed upon laws, not on laws made by white, anglo-saxon, male, protestant lawmakers. 

Yes, prejudice is part of how the human mind operates. It is a remnant of tribal cultures. We have grown beyond tribalism. We live in the 21st century. This morning I had bread made from seeds that came from all over the world and now used commonly on our US tables. I had marmalade from Italy (shame on me, I should buy food grown closer to home), I had coffee from Costa Rica, , I had nuts originating from many continents. We trade, move around, learn from each other, and benefit from our diversity.

We now live in the Anthropocene Age, "relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment." We have to grow up, as a people, and stop the old tribal, city-state, nation-state way of viewing the world. 

You state, "it would be more constructive to supply facts contradicting what they say, or simply to point out that racism is a generalization, so it doesn't apply to particular people." 

I agree with that statement, with the exception that it does apply to particular people. It must apply to particular people. They are the ones that hold on to old tribal values and maintain and perpetuate them.  

Joan, don't look now, but we got a pile of people disagreeing with us, even as we disagree with them, "us" being atheists and "them" being believers.  If we are slowly but surely prevailing against them, it's because we've got the goods and they don't.

In much the same way, bigots are falling from grace and favor because, while they may have a right to hold such attitudes, those attitudes ultimately serve neither themselves nor the society they live in and indeed have untoward effects on those around them.  Sterling's attitude toward blacks rightly was his undoing, as they are the very people who make up the vast majority of those by whom he makes his living.  In that regard, he is no better than a former manufacturing manager at a company where I used to work, who radically changed systems and procedures and publicly told his personnel that "you really don't know anything about manufacturing."  It took three or four years to get shut of him, and longer to purge out the deleterious attitude he brought to the company.

It's possible that, if that phone conversation had never come out, we wouldn't be having this discussion ... but you can't unring the bell, and now Sterling gets to face the fallout from an attitude he should have reconsidered when he bought the Clippers in the first place.

Loren, Isn't it fun to be part of a struggle that is worth having!!! No reason to be in the closet any longer because of atheism. There are so many wonderful writers surfacing now that provide further reasonable evidence to not believe in superstitions. 

I am so very grateful to be living in this day and age. My grandmothers and mother would have died from the cancer that I am beating, not because of what I do, but because of what science is doing and the well trained people who guide me in my decision making. I say that even as last week's Herceptin drip was a hard one to recover from. 

I am also grateful to be alive today; my grandmothers and mother could not break the cycles of violence because they were blamed for the abuse, pronounced as subordinate to men who thought they had a responsibility to be dominant. 

I am also grateful that women now have control of their reproductive lives, and for those who do not want children can successfully choose that path. Women can also earn a living and support themselves, even though challenges still remain. 

Challenge is the engine that keeps me charged for living. 

Yes, prejudice is part of how the human mind operates. It is a remnant of tribal cultures. We have grown beyond tribalism.

No - prejudice is in our biochemistry.  Take a look at my blog post Anxiety and Racism.  In which it is explained that racism is produced by social anxiety.  And the beta-blocker propanolol reduces racial prejudice - by reducing anxiety. 

I am NOT saying "racism is not a moral issue", which is how you apparently took it.  I AM saying "don't be judgemental towards people".   There's a BIG difference. 

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