“With this standard, if the private diaries or WhatsApp conversations of people were opened, prisons the world over would be swamped with inmates, and companies would fire half of its staff on a daily basis.”
Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has announced his resignation, which will become effective on August 2nd. He is hugely unpopular, so naturally enough, there was much celebration in the streets of San Juan. I hate to spoil the party, but Puerto Ricans should rethink this.
Rosselló was forced to resign after 900 pages of Telegram App private conversations were leaked to the media. In those talks with some of his cronies, he makes extremely rude and homophobic remarks about singer Ricky Martin, makes fun of the thousands of victims of Hurricane Maria, and fantasizes about killing one of his political rivals, San Juan’s mayor. Outraged by these comments, Puerto Ricans massively demonstrated in the streets; Rosselló could not handle the pressure, and he had no choice but to resign.
This whole affair is symptomatic of the hypersensitivity that surrounds Western societies. Yes, Rosselló’s comments are extremely offensive. But they are private. He was careful enough to keep them that way. They only became public because some unethical journalists leaked them to the press. Sure, journalists and whistleblowers have an ethical duty to expose evidence of criminal activity. Daniel Ellsberg did the right thing by releasing the Pentagon Papers because, for instance, the secret bombing of Cambodia was illegal. But what is illegal about making homophobic jokes, making fun of hurricane victims, or fantasizing about killing a rival, all within private conversations? Absolutely nothing. With this standard, if the private diaries or WhatsApp conversations of people were opened, prisons the world over would be swamped with inmates, and companies would fire half of its staff on a daily basis.
The Puerto Rican affair is yet another example of the new “Thought Police” trying to punish “Thought Crimes.” This is becoming all the more frequent, and we should be worried. In 2014, then-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling made some racist remarks to his girlfriend. The woman secretly recorded this private conversation, and without his permission, released the records to the press. Instead of attacking the woman for breaching Sterling’s privacy, the public attacked Sterling, and he was banned for life from the NBA. Hypersensitivity over homophobia or racism, unfortunately, occupies a higher place in public consciousness than basic concepts of privacy.
The NBA is a private organization, so in theory, it does have the right to get rid of anyone who harbors private thoughts and have private conversations that run counter to the organization’s sensitivities. It is their show, and they do have the privilege to call the shots. But Puerto Rico’s government is a public office, and to force an elected official to resign because his private thoughts are nasty, is simply to go against the elementary notions of individual rights and sovereign will. This is a step in the road towards totalitarianism (Thought Crime)—all in the name of progressive-sounding sensitivity. This should also be a wake-up call and a warning that things like the Implicit Association Test that allegedly discovers hidden biases in people (actually, it doesn’t), may be used in the future to disqualify employees and elected officials, because even if they don’t know it, they may harbor unconscious racist thoughts. We should mind this dystopian scenario and make sure it never comes to pass.
Some critics of Rosselló have been claiming that the leaked messages were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Sure. Make no mistake: this was an extremely corrupt government, and the island of Puerto Rico is in bad shape—in large part because of massive mismanagement. But, in a democracy, there are mechanisms and protocols to be followed. If a politician is corrupt, he can be impeached on the basis of the evidence that he is corrupt, i.e., judgment on the basis of his actions. Wild homophobic thoughts or insensitive comments about victims of hurricanes do not consitute evidence of corruption.
In a democracy, demonstrations are not the ultimate measure of legitimacy. Elections are. Elections are the only way of knowing how many people really want a politician to be in office, and how many do not.
During this affair, the claim was made that Rosselló lost legitimacy because the people massively demonstrated in the streets. This is not true. Yes, there were massive demonstrations, but in a democracy, demonstrations are not the ultimate measure of legitimacy. Elections are. Elections are the only way of knowing how many people really want a politician to be in office, and how many do not. Those who, as in the case of Puerto Rico, believe that demonstrations are the ultimate guide to legitimacy are doing nothing less than defending mob rule. If history is any guide, we know that mob rule is disastrous. Elections are the expression of popular will, but once the votes are tallied, a healthy society must wait until the next election to enact change. To think otherwise is to sow chaos.
By forcing Rosselló to resign solely on the basis of demonstrations without waiting for his period to be over, agitators are dismissing the value of elections in a democratic society. In fact, it is no mere coincidence that the most visible leader of the movement that pushed for Rosselló’s resignation was singer René Pérez. For years, he has pushed for independence in his lyrics (many of which are just plain xenophobic rants against gringos). Sure, Puerto Rico can be considered a colony, both because of its present status, and because of the way it was annexed by American imperialism in 1898. But, like it or not, that is the way Puerto Ricans want it. In plebiscite after plebiscite, Puerto Ricans have rejected the independence option that Perez so eagerly defends. He clearly cares little about elections, because he insists that, even with those plebiscites, Puerto Rico must be independent.
True, these plebiscites are not binding, and ultimately, the fate of Puerto Rico is in the hands of the United States Congress. But, despite potential colonialist schemes, those plebiscites are evidence that the Puerto Rican people seem to make a basic calculation: perhaps being a colony is not that bad, given that they see what happens when other nations in the Caribbean do become independent: Cuba and the Dominican Republic being the two most visible examples of countries with similar culture but with a far lower standard of living. Perhaps, Puerto Ricans should avoid asking the question posed by the Jewish revolutionary in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (“What have the Romans ever done for us?”), because in the response, there may be an embarrassment of riches.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.