Caution About Sending E-Mails — and About Trust

One recurring theme in the comments about the Harvard e-mail controversy is that one needs to be extra cautious about anything one writes in an e-mail. Some of the commenters (and some people I’ve talked to) go further, and suggest that the author of the controversial e-mail should get no sympathy but should instead be condemned for showing poor judgment in saying something potentially incendiary in an e-mail — regardless of whether the actual arguments in the e-mail were defensible on the merits. What kind of fool puts this sort of stuff in an e-mail?, the argument runs.

Now, as with Orin’s caution/tact/judgment post, I largely agree with the underlying advice: One ought to be very careful about one’s e-mails, even the personal ones. For instance, if someone e-mails me asking for my views about a job candidate or the like, I’ll respond by phone, not by e-mail. I’m not worried that my responses will cause a national outcry, but just that somehow the e-mail will get back to the candidate, or that even if my reaction is solidly positive, it will be less credible precisely because people might suspect that I might have been hesitant to say anything negative in writing. “Don’t say anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper” is generally good advice.

But consider what it means if we demand that people comply with this advice all the time, if they are to have any sympathy over betrayed confidences, or if they are to avoid being condemned as fools for having violated this advice. Consider the views of one commenter, put in a way that the commenter probably intended to be somewhat hyperbolic, but not by much:

My advice for all 1Ls, and 3Ls too, is the advice my mother gave me. Do not write anything, ever, that you would not be happy to see published on the front page of the New York Times over your name. I’m 52 now, and, although I haven’t followed this advice perfectly, it has always been with me. Just this past week, I had composed an email to my sister poking mild fun at another family member, but my mother’s ghost spoke to me, and I deleted it without sending. Don’t trust your sister, don’t trust your friends, don’t trust the government, don’t trust other people, period. I can’t imagine being stupid enough to send an email expressing an unguarded political opinion at a place like HLS….

Exactly what I was saying. Do not send emails to your friends unless they are so well-crafted that you would be happy to see them on the front page of the New York Times. Do not send emails to your sister unless they are so well-crafted that you would be happy to see them on the front page of the New York Times. Your friends are not your friends, and, although your sister is your sister, it’s best to cut the cards. I don’t know how there can be a 3L who doesn’t know that.

Really? Trusting your friends or your family members isn’t just something that sometimes backfires, but outright “stupid”? Is there so little value in human trust that we should make suspicion of others not just an often valuable skill, but a command that — if not followed — means that we should be viewed with contempt rather than sympathy when the trust proves to be misplaced?

For that matter, is there so little value in the sense of freedom of intellectual inquiry that comes from thinking that one can send an e-mail to a friend without having to edit it with the greatest of care, and without having to outright exclude certain things that are too incendiary? Is there so little value in the simple ease of communication that comes when people can set forth their views in writing to a couple of people at once, rather than having to express them orally to one person at a time? (Written communication is often a more precise way of expressing your thoughts, and conveying them to a recipient?) Is there so little value in easing communication for people who are more eloquent, or less shy, or otherwise more effective at communicating in writing? (I have no idea whether the author of the particular e-mail at issue here is one such person, but there are many such people out there.)

Again, I agree that practically speaking caution in using e-mail might be good advice. Practically speaking shutting up about certain things altogether might be good advice. And we can tut-tut when someone is burnt by a forwarded private e-mail — just as we can tut-tut at the carelessness of a person who was mugged when walking in a dangerous part of town, or who was emotionally or physically bruised by a lover who any reasonable person would know was bad news, or blacklisted by a repressive regime for carelessly revealing sentiments to an informant who should have been obviously recognized as untrustworthy.

But there’s a difference between that, and embracing the “be careful” advice to the extent that we lose sympathy for the victim, or fault the victim for monumentally poor judgment because she failed to constantly comply with the standard of care. There’s a difference between counseling safety and treating trust — or love or a sense that one should be free to walk where one likes in one’s city — as mere folly and evidence of poor judgment.

And the difference goes to the kind of society we want to live in, the kind of traits that we want people to value in themselves and their friends, the kind of attitudes toward life that we want to cultivate, the balance between caution and openness that we want to see. If the lesson that comes out of this story is “What a fool to have trusted a friend,” we might end up with less folly — and fewer real friends.