Fair or not, the court of public opinion is the most important court in the world, people should stop acting as if it’s insignificant.
One of the cliches of the #MeToo era is people bemoaning the “court of public opinion”. “Innocent until proven guilty” they’ll say and “but he was acquitted by a court of law”. But the court of public opinion doesn’t work that way, and it doesn’t necessarily care about legal rulings. Constitutions, elections, laws, and courts determine what people can do. The court of public opinion determines what they should do.
This particular court is present in every community and every country in the world, regardless of their system of government. It is not always fair, but appeals are unlimited and there is no statute of limitations. In the end, the court of public opinion usually gets things right, even if it takes decades or centuries to get there.
It is the court that decides who leads in democratic countries. It is the court that decides which consumer products are successful and which aren’t. It is the court that decides what issues will be debated in a political campaign. It is the court that decides what behaviors are socially acceptable and which aren’t. It determines how we dress, treat one another, conduct ourselves at work and play and even how we relax and spend our spare time. In most countries where people enjoy the right to free speech and expression, it is the court that determines which speech is worth listening to and which ideas are worth exploring. It is the most democratic of all democratic processes and it’s open to everyone in every country.
Even in a dictatorship, if 90% of the court holds a certain opinion on an issue, the dictator will make concessions to them on that issue. If 90% of US Republicans suddenly became pro-choice, abortion would cease to be an issue. If 90% of people have an unfavorable opinion of an elected politician, chances are they won’t seek public office again. If 95% of US consumers decide the iPhone is overpriced, the price will come down or Apple will go out of business.
It is the court that will decide whether or not we will act to stop global warming, whether or not we’ll help the poor and refugees, and what kind of education your children will receive.
As it applies to #MeToo, it is sometimes the only court available and the only place for some victims to find any sort of justice. It is difficult or impossible for a court of law to determine what happened between two people who were alone in a room, especially if their stories are different and it happened a long time ago. In the court of public opinion, all that matters is whose story people believe.
If someone is acquitted in a court of law, it does not make them immune to the court of public opinion. That is the court, after all, that determines who gets to be a celebrity in the first place. It is the court that decides who gets a career as a writer, actor, musician or filmmaker and who has to keep their day job. It is the court that decides who is a trusted journalist and who is a shady used car salesman. Unlike a court of law, the court of public opinion cannot send someone to prison but it can determine whether or not you’re still a celebrity, whether or not you’re an important voice in public discussions, and whether or not you’re a trusted source of information.
A court of law found the police officers accused of beating Rodney King not-guilty. The court of public opinion disagreed.
A court of law found OJ Simpson not guilty of killing his ex-wife. The court of public opinion disagreed.
George W. Bush was never charged with a crime, but the court of public opinion found his administration guilty of launching a war under false pretenses and violating the Geneva Convention.
A court of law acquitted Jian Ghomeshi of assaulting multiple women. The court of public opinion found him guilty. Then, when the New York Review of Books gave him a chance to explain away what he’d done, the court of public opinion found its editor guilty of contempt of court and he joined Ghomeshi among the publicly unwanted.
As I mentioned earlier, the court of public opinion has unlimited appeals and no statute of limitations. If you want to make the case for Ghomeshi, find a friend or a forum and make your case. If you want to appeal the cases of OJ Simpson, Bill Cosby, or Richard Nixon, the court is in session. If you want to revisit the life stories of John A. McDonald or Thomas Jefferson, make your case and the court of public opinion will decide.
The court of public opinion isn’t always right, and it isn’t always fair but it should never be belittled. It is the most important court in the world and the one from which all other courts and governments draw their power and legitimacy.