What Happened to the Golden Rule?

I haven’t added a post in a while, though not for an inability to write. I have a file of posts that I began and stopped because I wasn’t sure if sending out that stream of words would be a good thing for me and those who may read them.

Every other day I read (in newspapers printed on real paper!) of some well known, productive, basically decent individual done in by a few sentences added to Facebook, Twitter or some other social media account. Some of what is quoted seems to me careless speech, the kind of burble that happens at parties among friends, at bars whose drinkers have had more than a few too many.

Friends may react to such burble with a roll of their eyes–that’s just ___________ making a fool of himself. Drunks at the bar could grumble and–at bars I definitely do not visit regularly–throw a punch.

In most situations, the damage from careless speech is contained. Injured parties may demand–and, unlike our current era, get–an apology. The owner of the loose lips may be told not to come back to the bar, and, if that punch connected with anyone, legal remedies may work their dreary purpose.

But now, employers review an prospective’s Internet activity, to make sure that anything burbled out of the office, no matter how long ago, won’t embarrass the business. Though I’ve been self-employed for most of my life, I remain grateful that I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account. I’m not afraid that I’d say anything to cause the flurry of outrage, or “viral” activity that passes for celebrity news. It’s that what little anyone may offer on these platforms cannot be taken back. Even deleted remarks can be resurrected. And an apology isn’t good enough. What you say identifies you as pawn, a player or standard bearer in the endless tribal conflicts that consume our lives. It is truly regrettable that the culmination of so much technology, art, culture and civilization is self-expression in an arena that has no physical existence, but creates life changing consequences, most of which are far from good.

An offensive Tweet (remember when that was a pleasant, harmless sound made by birds?) can end a career, even if the burbler embarks on a rehabilitation quest. A few decades ago, celebrities who embarrassed themselves in public could go on talk shows, chat about their families, cry about their mistakes and expect some public compassion.

As one who has always valued the necessity of self-expression, and has made a fool of himself too many times with careless speech, I am inspired to withdraw, in search of some deeper solace between myself and the greater spiritual universe that, I have come to believe, matters much more. Escapist activities like exercise, listening to music, a walk in the woods, cooking a complicated dinner, or writing pages of a novel that I hope everyone will read and love–seem a better investment of my living energy.

I can’t help but wish for some kind of justice for those who use the Internet to shame, belittle and bully. I’m aware that this behavior is consistent with the human nature most of us find perfectly natural.

But I was raised to keep that vicious antagonism in check. I was raised to respect and honor most people I met, not as potential enemies deserving of shame and ridicule, but as people who with whom I shared things in common. Such an ideal goes back to the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you.

What’s happened to that?

From what I’ve heard, on the Internet, status and money can be acquired by saying and doing things that consistently capture attention. Glance at the history of show business, entertainment and the expressive arts, and you find for every great movie, play, poem or painting, there are plenty of cheap shots that draw our gaze, whether or not we want to give it. After a while, if your attention is yanked about too much, you get tired. You shut down. You cease to feel.

I overheard a “communications professional” interviewed about the preponderance of insulting, misleading and frequently false claims in political “attack” ads. She excused the advertising as the result of the “fact” that human beings are “hard-wired” to pay more attention to negativity–things we don’t like, incite our anger, fill us with fear and dread–than the opposite.

Are we? I’d like to see the research that established this fact. And then I’d like to propose a moral question. What do we “get” from so much attention to negativity? Do we sleep soundly at the end of the day, content that the bad, the culpable or those we are told to assume are inferior to us, have been received what they deserved?

What has come around is that ugly, dangerous, destructive theory of action: the end justifies the means.

What is the end to which so much Internet abuse aspires? I don’t know, but I am aware that, if the public outrage machine has an immediate result. When we are made angry so frequently, when we are given so many numerous and changing targets for our hatred and resentment, when we join mobs that laugh, taunt, demean and ridicule, we lose our sense of ourselves, and get, in exchange, someone else’s idea of what we should be.

I’ve had moments in my life when I failed, or did foolish things, inadvertently hurt someone, or made a sorry mess, and wished I could be anyone but who I am.  My wish wasn’t granted. I returned to the truth that, wish as I might, I’m stuck with this person, this “me,” that maybe, when I look past the stuff that didn’t work out, could be okay, and even a little bit lucky.

Are we that different, you and me, that we can give our attention to better things?




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