Joel Cohen

Offensive archaeology

No one will win an award for writing merely that Joe Biden is a good and decent man who, despite some arguably troubling conduct in the past, deserves an opportunity to move on, unless they also describe (perhaps in excruciating detail) his faults or past missteps. No sportswriter consistently writes about the overwhelming accomplishments of a home run hitter unless he also makes certain to talk about his flaws – some on the field, some perhaps off.  I’m not talking here about a well-researched biography that absolutely should present a portrait of the good along with the bad – warts and all, as Oliver Cromwell is paraphrased as having said.  However, one must ask, why do we, as a culture, in dealing with people we encounter even casually, consistently hone in on the negative – virtually unwilling to take the solely positive as the preferable route?

Is it simple schadenfreude – an unpretentious pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune? Is it a desire to favorably compete with a rival in the eyes of others? Maybe a deeply-held (even arguably well-intended) desire to ensure that we don’t canonize individuals in their lifetime when unsaintly aspects of their lives warrant critique – maybe harsh critique? Or perhaps there is just a simple, basic negativity that makes one look for the bad in others, rather than only the good.

Assuming it’s the last – and there’s a good chance that it is – why would that be? Why do we have a tropism in us that directs us invariably toward the bad? Or is it something different altogether? On some level, the bad is gossip (“lashon harah”).  And the gossip is interesting, especially if it is salacious.  Has the fact that one can “google” virtually everything – that mug shot even though the prosecution dropped the charges; that awful dress; that picture where they are standing just “a little too close” – made us symptomatically unable to stop until we find that smoking gun?  Do we no longer think that people are, sometimes, just good with no skeletons to speak of, or that their skeletons should simply remain in the grave?

Has the culture, with the layperson’s ability to easily “dig up” all kind of perceived negativity with the casual use of Google, giving us the desire to use our ability to actually excavate an individual’s sometimes questionable conduct?  Or has the fact that we have easy access to all this information made us seek the bad, the ugly, the embarrassing?  And I do mean “excavate.”  We are far from the accidental or casual coming to learn of another’s shortcomings, as if one were overhearing a too-loud conversation at the next table in a restaurant.  No – we dig! Maybe it’s even at a Kiddush club, or a Shabbat dinner. And it’s one thing to say we want to know everything we can about the guy, or the father of the guy our daughter is now seriously dating, or the person who is being considered for a job or social club to which we belong.  There, checking out an individual makes sense, particularly when we can do it without leaving “fingerprints” that would demonstrate a level of mistrust in the individual being scrutinized.  Put another way – they will never know you looked.

But when we search to unearth the flaws, deficiencies and blemishes, is it for the sheer pleasure of knowing someone isn’t perfect?  Do we like having “something on them” so we can decide, at some later date, whether to make sure others know it too?  You know – this guy can’t be the person he and his coterie of well-wishers present him to be, so let me dig up what there is to find about him. Or is it simpler – we can, and so we do, almost reflexively.  And notwithstanding that there is now so much misinformation out there, we are willing to “go with it” even if the information hasn’t been actually confirmed to a reasonable level of certainty.

To be sure, we don’t need to rely on the fact that our religion, whichever religion it may be, tells us to not look for – actually, seek out and “report” – the bad, the negative or the questionable in others. Religious observance or adherence, however, is not a sine qua non to a moral life that argues for looking for good in others, not bad.

It might actually be one thing to learn about someone who is new to us, the same as it is relevant to know “who the writer is” and what baggage she carries when we read her opinion column. There seems little wrong in knowing precisely who we’re dealing with when we come to know or interact with a person in a potentially important way. However, if the goal or end product of our “search” is to pass along the negativity we come upon (especially if intentionally) just for the sake of debasing the individual in the eyes of others who actually don’t “need” to know, we have surely gone too far.

I admit, I have been known to be as guilty as the next guy – perhaps more so. But maybe it’s time for all of us to step back and agree that it’s not always necessary, and not always better, to “know” (or certainly, to “report,” as if we were a Page Six contributor).

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.