(content warning: mentions of rape of minors)
Denouncing someone carries little risk. I’m not just talking about social media, or even the internet, I’m also talking about McCarthyism in the 1950s, the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, and various witch hunts throughout European history. If someone inaccurately accused someone else of being a communist in the United States during the McCarthy era, what was the downside to the accuser?
If someone counters with, ‘look at all the good this person did,’ the accuser can always say, ‘yeah, but this horrible thing they did.’ And if a) the horrible thing is actually horrible and b) the accused actually did it, then the accuser is right to say so.
Identifying oneself with an outgroup carries risk. Communists in the 1950s United States who publicly accused someone of being a capitalist pig in a way which marked themselves (the accusers) as being communist put themselves in hot water. Not being of the denunciation itself, but because of the stigma attached to communists in that time and place.
If you publicly support someone, you’re hitching your reputation to theirs. And if their reputation later falls apart, well…
This year, Chinese police detained and arrested Kris Wu on suspicion of raping minors. He is still incarcerated in China so that he won’t flee before his trial. No amount of free publicity can boost his fame enough to undo what that has done to his career/reputation, so I don’t mind using his name. FWIW, I believe the allegations against him are at least partially true, and may be entirely true.
In a blog post years ago, I discussed a Kris Wu music video. I’m not linking to it because it’s better not to flaunt that post. If anyone sees that post now, I hope they’ll notice the publication date and figure out that his history of sexually assaulting teenagers was not public knowledge then, and that promoting a sexual predator was not my intention. But that’s a risk I run. Even if I change or delete that post, someone elsewhere may have it archived.
Almost anybody could have a toxic secret. Even if it’s not secret, we almost never know 100% of the ‘public’ knowledge about someone. Anytime I promote anyone else’s work, I’m taking the risk that their reputation will sink in a way which will also drag down mine.
That’s why expressing public support is braver than denunciation.
We have some curbs on this problem. Libel and defamation laws, for example. I am not any kind of legal professional, but I took a law class once, and I remember the teacher proclaiming, ‘truth is a defense against a libel charge.’ What he meant was that, legally, only false statements could be libel/defamation. If a statement is proven to be true, it cannot be libel/defamation.
But giving too much power to libel and defamation laws can infringe on free speech rights, so that’s something to balance.
Most people understand this intuitively, which is why it’s harder to persuade us to openly recommend than diss.
If we want to emphasize endorsements over hater-dramas, we need to lower the risk of endorsement. At the informal, individual level, that means giving people who make endorsements the benefit of the doubt. If someone sends up a red flag that makes you feel unsafe, notice it and take the precautions you feel are necessary. But beyond what you need to do to protect yourself, assume good faith until proven otherwise.