The Law of Unintended Consequences

Sir Thomas More by Holbein 1593

New technologies often bring with unintended consequences.

No matter how sure and certain our morals or beliefs may start out, they can turn our worlds upside down.

Sir Thomas More was Henry VIII’s most trusted Chancellor.

A man of honor and scrupulous honesty.

As is well known, when Henry made everyone in the country sign the Oath Of Loyalty, accepting the notion that the King, not the Pope was now the head of the Church (and thus Henry could effect his own divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boelyn), Sir Thomas More declined.

More’s act was an immediate death sentence.

At his trial, the Duke of Norfolk warned More “the wrath of the Prince is death”, to which More replied, “Is that all, my Lord?  Then in good faith is there no more difference between your grace and me, but that I shall die today and you tomorrow”.  More did die, for his beliefs, when he was beheaded at the Tower of London on July 6, 1535.

What does any of this have to do with the ‘video revolution’?

More was in power just as the printing press was coming into its full flower.  More was a consumate enemy of a free press.  He rigorously enforced laws crushing presses where he found them (save those of the King), and personally signed death warrants of heretics and publishers of forbidden books.

Yet, at the same time, More took pains to educate his daughter Margaret; teaching her not only to read and write (something fairly heretical in England at that time), but also Greek and Latin.  Yet when Margaret said she now wanted to publish a book, More threw up his hands in horror. This was unthikable. More wrote to his daughter’s tutor: “Though I prefer learning joined with virtue to all the treasures of kings, yet renown for learning, if you take away moral probity, brings nothing but notorious and noteworthy infamy, especially in a woman.”

The sexism of the day aside, More’s observation that ‘learning’ or literacy, removed from moral probity brings nothing but noteworthy infamy’ is probably not wrong.

Today, we have unleashed the ‘dogs of video’.  Everyone has a camera, and everyone is free to capture and make what they will.

The power of the medium is remarkable.  A few videos of the McCain/Palin rallies, and the whole course of the campaign is changed.  One video of a Sentor from Virginia saying McCawkaw and his career is in ruins. We know the power of the medium.  Is it possible to now bind it to a moral probity? Or is this asking and thinking too much?

More preferred death to moral compromise.

That might have not been the most productive of courses.

Perhaps there is another way.


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