Maybe some people are nice all the time. They never speak ill of anyone, under any circumstances. Their hearts are pure. They attend your child’s violin recital and they legitimately believe that your child has talent. People elbow them on the subway or overturn their grocery carts or forget their milestone birthdays, and it does not diminish their sunny outlook and capacity for civility. “Oh well,” they say. “Such is life!”
But for most of us, the ability to be civil enough to everybody in public is dependent on our ability to Talk About This Later In The Car.
And that’s what generally irks me every time we have a bout of public shaming of people — not celebrities, just people, who are using social media in the careless way we all use it, as though it were just another room where we could carry on our private conversations. We tweet things we would never yell across a crowded restaurant. And in our defense, for the most part, no one is listening. But everyone, in theory, can. And it just so happens that we are creating a public and permanent record of the same Dumb Things That Uncles Have Been Yelling At The TV For Decades.
For instance, when Sebastien De La Cruz sang the National Anthem, and some people on Twitter said awful things, and then we shamed them and told him about them.
Most of us would never say things like that, or even think things like that. If someone said it in our living rooms, we would stiffen and ask him or her to depart. And we would be well within our rights to do so. But what if they didn’t say it to us? What if they talked about it, awful as it was, in their cars? There is a space where there’s nothing you can or should do, besides beg to differ.
That metaphorical car is quickly vanishing. When you talk about something in private, where, exactly, is that? Most of our conversations don’t happen face-to-face in guarded rooms. They’re on Gchat. They’re on Twitter. They’re on Skype. They’re on Facebook or Facebook chat. They’re long strings of e-mail. That’s just where we communicate — even, in particularly mortifying cases, when we’re in the same room.
The price we pay for finding it unbearably, unspeakably awkward to talk in person is that it’s all out there.
Remember that woman who lost her job at Coldstone Creamery after a racist Facebook post?
Twitter Racists are an extreme example that a lot of otherwise privacy-minded people can agree they want to Publicly Shame. But viewed from another perspective, this is just a chilling reminder of how much we put out there carelessly under the assumption that no one will use it against us. The power to shame and make someone’s life uncomfortable isn’t restricted to people we agree with. Look at countless instances of shaming and threatening that happen to women on the Internet. And now look at all the data it turns out the government is able to get hold of, if it wants.
I wish we didn’t make a story out of the fact that Some People Who Used To Just Mutter These Things On Their Back Porches Are Now Posting Them Online. Online is where we converse, and the fact that you can rub your face in this kind of maggoty discourse doesn’t mean it’s your obligation to treat people with six followers like Public Figures who need to be Disgraced and Retorted At.
But at this point, maybe stopping it is no longer possible. We have to admit that the quasi-private space where you could escape because people weren’t paying attention is gone, if it ever existed. You used to have to insert a listening tube into every living room to ferret out the people with Bad Thoughts. Now they’ve done the work for you.
People were indignant when Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
This seemed like a bad approach to the question of privacy. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” is a fine policy, in public. But our ability to keep it up in public relies upon the guaranteed ability to Talk About This Later In The Car.
But where’s the car?