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Trials only for show
On cameras in the wrong places, like Senate hearing rooms and the Supreme Court
For the individual seeking to live an emotionally balanced life, one of the most salutary habits is to enlarge the stimulus-response gap. In general, finding ways to increase the time between an event taking place and offering a reaction to it leads to better outcomes, especially when events are disappointing, angering, or sad.
■ As it has been said before, you can always wait to tell someone to go to hell tomorrow. A variety of great thinkers, including Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, practiced extending their stimulus-response gaps by writing angry letters but leaving them unsent.
■ The practice seems foreign when we're immersed in a world of instant gratification. Reply wars and comment threads are basically the opposite of putting an angry letter in a drawer. We can't always avoid a negative stimulus, but we can do something to manage the response.
■ The legal system is effectively civilization's stimulus-response gap. By observing a system of equal justice before the law, we increase the distance between the harm occurring and the punishment following. And on important matters, we expect thoughtful written rulings from the bench, not a snap decision from Judge Judy. A speedy trial need not be a hasty one.
■ The need to pause for deliberation is why we ought to be reluctant to place cameras in any courtroom, though most especially that of the United States Supreme Court. Perhaps the best argument against cameras in the Supreme Court is the presence of cameras in the hearing rooms where where nominees to the court are quizzed by members of Congress.
■ The empty-headed performative appeals so frequently on display in the Senate diminish the faith we might have that Supreme Court arguments wouldn't devolve in similar fashion. Virtually nothing is served by the presence of those live cameras in the hearing rooms that wouldn't be equally or better served by the release of thorough written transcripts after the fact. It's much harder to grandstand for a stenographer than for a C-SPAN camera.
■ Maintaining that arm's length between the Supreme Court and the public by keeping the cameras out is one of the rare ways in which we can hope to preserve at least a little bit of dignity not just for the jurists but for ourselves. And maybe, while we're at it, we should rethink whether cameras really need to be broadcasting live from the halls of Congress, where chart mania is driven not by the need to persuade other elected officials, but to score points with viewers at home.
■ Transparency can be achieved in many ways, and it's foolish to think that the only method is to film everything. To the extent that clever individuals learn to manipulate their presence in front of the cameras to achieve performative aims rather than to sincerely deliberate weighty questions, that form of transparency may well obscure more than it reveals. Public access and thoughtful news coverage are essential to the workings of all three branches of government, but so is maintaining a stimulus-response gap such that some things can actually be conducted with due consideration rather than strictly as performance. A trial shouldn't merely be for show.