Let me preface this by saying that I admire Roger Ebert tremendously. Everyone is a critic these days, tweeting on our way out of movies and into restaurants, but he remains a critic with a capital C, someone whose opinions are crafted on the basis of logical rules and long experience, and expressed with elegance.
And this is the Internet, where the race is always to the loudest.
So it pains me to join the throng of people now castigating him for his tweet, following the death of “Jackass” cast member Ryan Dunn, that “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive” and his repeated insistence that it was not objectionable, because he was right.
That is immaterial!
It does not matter that you were right. When you see a hearse drive past, you do not whip out a megaphone and bellow, “This was your own dang fault,” even if it was.
“But it’s what everyone was thinking!” “But it’s true that drunk driving is wrong.” True, true — but there’s a distinction between thinking and saying. Thinking is something no one does anymore, and we’re still saying things all the time.
The ability to communicate is something that Ebert has won the hard way, after a bout with thyroid cancer captured his voice.
But the ability to comment is not the obligation to do so.
And this is not a standard Internet case of the average foolish individual sharing a thought with friends that gets out of hand.
This is a far more pernicious impulse. It’s Insta-Commentary.
We live in the age of the Trusted Voice. Ebert’s is one of them. They are expected to tell us what is going on and what to think about it, as it is happening. If you are compelled to say something about everything, you are bound eventually to say something silly.
But the whole point of commentary was the imposition of a pause. News was supposed to break as fast as it could, at all times. Commentary followed and neatened things up, sorting through unruly tangles of fact and shining a light into corners where it might not have occurred to one to look the first time.
So Insta-Commentary is commentary stripped of the things that made commentary worthwhile: facts, and reflection. It’s a series of words arranged into sentences in such a way as to attract as many clicks as possible as soon as possible. It’s silly. It’s a little better than pointless but not much.
The impulse to Insta-Commentary makes you say things like “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive” when a man has just died and you are still not fully apprised of all the facts.
Ebert has been praised for his ability to write at typing speed. But thinking at typing speed is a wholly separate matter. And Twitter is the Land of the Mayflies, where if you don’t say anything instantly, you might as well say nothing at all.
And maybe you’d better not.
Sure, some would argue that celebrities hand in their Aren’t We Entitled To A Little Respect And Decency Cards at the proverbial door. And being a member of the “Jackass” franchise seems to give people the sense that they have carte blanche to carve “Don’t Try This At Home” as his epitaph.
Forget the months of mourning that used to follow someone’s death. I’d settle for the moment of silence.
This is, after all, how civility dies.
If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything?
Are you kidding?
If you don’t have anything nice to say, you probably will attract more Twitter followers.
Besides, why deny the world at large another opportunity to learn how right you are?
But civility is the subtle art of knowing the difference between what is right and what is appropriate. Ebert may well be right that it was Dunn’s drinking, then driving that led to his death. But was it appropriate to say so?
We have this idea that if we ever stop ourselves from sharing a single solitary thought, we are Wrongfully Concealing The Truth From The Vulnerable Young. And, as Ebert has reassured us repeatedly, he was right, after all.
Knowing that you are right — and choosing to say nothing.