Add this to the list of things I’ve been thinking about but haven’t reached a conclusion—whether the “fall” of Kelly Blazek is a good thing or a bad thing for our civilization.
For those of you who haven’t followed the news: Kelly Blazek is a professional woman in Cleveland, OH that runs a job bank with over 7,000 contacts. For most of her life, she has enjoyed an impeccable reputation for helping job seekers find work and for being someone whose job has truly improved the welfare of others. Although, until a week ago, 99.99% of Americans did not know who she was, she could go to bed at night knowing that her work made her a net benefit to our civilization.
That reputation took a hit when she encountered a recent college graduate through e-mail named Diana Mekota. Diana had recently graduated from Brandeis, was moving to Cleveland, and reached out to Kelly for a job.
You can find the specifics of Kelly’s e-mail easily throughout the internet, but the general gist was this: Kelly ridiculed Diana for reaching out to a “senior professional”, called her an “entitled millennial”, and made snarky, holier-than-thou comments of the “how dare you contact me”, “don’t ever contact me again”, “good luck finding work through another job bank in Cleveland—oh wait, there isn’t one” variety. It was a very mean-spirited and harsh response to a young woman in a new town just trying to find a way to survive and make a living.
After receiving this e-mail, Diana decided to post the story on Facebook, Reddit, and Imgur, causing Kelly’s e-mail to get picked up by CNN, The New York Times, the BBC, and so on. The subsequent reaction against Kelly was so quick and fierce that she has chosen to delete her personal Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts, as well as return her “Communicator of the Year” award that she had recently won in 2013.
As a quick aside, this post could have just as easily been about Diana as Kelly. When someone is mean to you, is it right to hold that person out for public humiliation? Will it now be fair game for Cleveland employers to decline to hire Diana on the grounds that they don’t want someone who leaks bad information to the public within ten feet of their offices?
But the questions raised about the reaction to Kelly’s e-mail creates more fertile soil for debate. Stories about online mobs with a thirst for reputational crucifixion encourages us to take a moment to stop and reflect on this question: Should we be comfortable with this trend towards permanent reputational harm that spreads quickly and substantially diminishes the chances for personal recovery?
The obvious benefit of blogs, YouTube, text messaging, and phone videos is that bad behavior can be corrected immediately. If a restaurant in North Dakota refuses to serve Catholics, everyone will know about it immediately. If you call an Asian a racially insensitive name and someone captures it on camera, you will be nationally ridiculed immediately. This incentivizes us to act “good”; perhaps not necessarily because we are good, but because the reputational damage of acting otherwise aligns “good behavior” with our own self-interest.
After all, do you think anyone running a job bank is going to send a nasty e-mail to an inquisitive applicant anytime soon? Wouldn’t it be much more difficult to modify the behavior of someone in power who’s acting too big for their britches in a pre-internet world?
The problems caused, though, by the ability to turn the low side of daily life into national news may perhaps be greater. Isn’t the ridicule of hundreds of thousands of people an excessive reaction to an insensitive e-mail sent to a stranger? How right is it that Kelly Blazek, who very well may be a great person 9,999 days out of 10,000, has now been marked with a modern version of “The Scarlet Letter” by reading tales of international mocking anytime she googles her name for the rest of her life? Does something about America get lost when we remove the option that a person can screw up, repent, and then build a successful life after learning his or her lesson?
I keep thinking about the story of Walt Disney. When he was 24 or 25, he was sitting by a bus-stop at Union Station in St. Louis, crying, believing that his life was a failure. He had borrowed money that he could not pay back, he had made promises that he could not keep, and he had grown disgraced as a businessmen and artist in Missouri at only the one-third marker of his life. Fortunately for him, he was able to pick up his things and head west to California, and sow the seeds of what would become the great Walt Disney Empire. If our instant, search-engine driven media had existed in Walt Disney’s day, that trail of failure in Missouri would have followed him the rest of his life. Without a clean slate and an unrestricted second chance, there’d be no Snow White, no Lion King, no Mickey Mouse, no family vacations to Epcot, no artists spending careers creating cartoons in the studio, no voice-over actors becoming immortalized on the big screen, no shareholders of Disney receiving 13% annual returns for a half-century and reaching financial independence on a $10,000 Disney investment held for decades, no movies created that bind together generations, and no tax payments by Disney shareholders and the corporation itself used to service the needs of our nation.
Is the benefit created by highlighting and stopping the egregious behavior of particular individuals enough to offset the economic and psychological consequences of making it damn hard to get a clean shot at redemption—or, at least, a personal reinvention—if you tick off the wrong person with a smartphone aimed in your direction?