Take that Back: Collective Censorship in the 21st Century

Eleven years from now, my presidential candidacy won’t last long. I’ll be doomed before I even sign off on my letter of intent. They’ll call me irresponsible, maybe even weak, when they find the photo(s) on Facebook of me passed out in places that aren’t for sleeping. They’ll call me bigoted when they dig up that AIM conversation from 2002 when I called Smarterchild a “retard” because I thought it was cool and I was 12. They’ll question my self-control and morals when they find out that I soiled my underoos on the bus in second grade and blamed the smell on the chubby kid sitting next to me. I’ll never stand a chance because I’m a bad dude. But, then something strange will happen. All the other candidates will get the ax and for indiscretions way worse than mine. There’ll be the woman who smoked weed before it was legal and the guy who allegedly said an offensive word one time and the other one who got an in-school suspension in 7th grade for peeing on the seat and the one that clicked “enter site” on pornhub when he was still just 17. Then we’ll be left with one 90-year-old Amish woman who’s never left Pennsylvania Dutch. But secretly, behind that billowy blue dress, she’ll probably be a total perv like the rest of us.

Reactive hypocrisy. That’s the 21st century, in your face digital landscape. The problem is, we’re at a point where the digital landscape is really just the landscape, right? The Internet is so inextricably connected to and watchful of every human movement, in a way that was once only reserved for God or Jesus or other peeping Toms. The seamless interconnection between interfaces has made it sickeningly easy to keep tabs on the next guy and beat him down for it before the words have even left his mouth. The new world, championed by a crusading class of Internet bottom-feeders and video uploaders, desperate for and hell bent on likes and hearts and stars and follows, lends itself so perfectly to reactive hypocrisy. Reactive: it’s all a grand virtual competition for who can type the loudest and scream the fastest, and vice versa. Hypocrisy: there are no repercussions, unless you are in a position to face repercussions, and then there are massive ones. We’ve entered the eggshell generation, the “That’s mean, asshole” epoch.

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The hypocrisy gets me the most. Mic up each of the 320 million Americans, publish their private messages, hey, track their thoughts for one week without telling them and see who amongst us is as pure and righteous as we claim to be when someone says something stupid on camera. It just doesn’t add up. But, really, it’s always been that way. As a society, we’ve consistently been at pains to construct a kitschy façade of public and private. I use “kitschy” in the way that Kundera used it in Unbearable Lightness—the idea that, you know, a falling tree doesn’t make a sound if no one hears it (or an ignorant remark isn’t ignorant unless an internet commenter gets their hands on it). Think of all the fucked up stuff that we know the Roman emperors were getting into. Imagine Caligula having to deal with TMZ? But, we’ve always needed this thick line between what we “do” and what we do. It preserves formality and puts humanity on a pedestal above all other species. It’s why—in many places—there’s a stall for number 2. We still feel a deep, ingrained desire to keep that line in place, but it’s no longer possible. It really isn’t. The weird thing is, as the line of “do” and do disappears, we’ve seemed to become even more uncompromising about crossing it. So, we find ourselves in a constant battle for who can conceal their perversions more effectively.

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On second thought, the reactive element gets me the most. The Internet is a mousetrap of pent up anger and insecurity. It’s a place where a misplaced comma can have real life fallouts—did you know that Bill Cosby wrote a book called “Come on People”? It’s a place where context and history are optional considerations when scrutinizing someone’s commentary. It’s not that people don’t have time to think in this day and age, it’s that they actively choose not to. It’s a culture of exclamation points before question marks. Remember Phil Robertson? He made some ignorant—in no way deliberately hateful—comments about being gay. His comments were informed by years of hearing the same thing over and over again. He was immediately ripped apart by the netizens of “tolerance.” His show was suspended and he was forced to issue an apology. Did our bearded buddy learn anything from this? Yeah. He learned to keep his thoughts, however uninformed, confined to himself or others who think like him. But wait, isn’t that how he came to have those thoughts in the first place? Do I support Robertson’s comments? Nope. Do I support him? Well, I think his show sucks, but I’m not angry with Phil for being conditioned–just like me. Do I support homophobia, racism, and intolerance? NO, NO, and NO. But, I support people’s right to be wrong. To assume that everyone with a TV and a keyboard has their finger on the pulse of progressivism is lunacy, and frankly gives people with TVs and keyboards (read: lots of people) way too much credit.

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Imagine you’re a 10-year-old and you raise your timid hand and said to your science teacher, “Hey, Sandra told me that babies come from storks, how does that work?” and your teacher said, “Shut up Jimmy. Idiot,” and left it at that. You wouldn’t have any more info about the origin of babies, but you’d probably dislike your teacher. You also probably wouldn’t raise your hand again. We have this tendency to think that bigotry, ignorance, even stupidity, is loaded with personal hatred. But really, it’s just a product of lack of access and exposure. But, the teacher who calls Jimmy an idiot is a lot more intriguing than the one who walks him through the reproductive process. But, it’s not about changing people’s opinions, much less educating them, is it?

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But really, it’s the reactive hypocrisy that gets me. We use the guise of calling out someone for ignorance, stupidity, intolerance etc. as an excuse to stoop to and below their level. Take this hypothetical exchange:

Foreigner: “What do Americans like to eat?”

American 1: “Americans like to eat hamburgers—”

American 2: “God what a fucking ignoramus. I’m a vegetarian and I don’t eat hamburgers. I’m also American. Get off your high horse you carnivorous scum. It’s chauvinistic meat-eating assholes like you who deserve a trampling death at the merciless hoofs of a thousand cows. You probably don’t even know anything about vegetarians. Ignorant.”

American 1: “I was going to say hamburgers and—“

American 2: “That’s enough out of you. You won’t spread your bullshit on my watch. I bet you can’t even explain your gastrocentric self. Can you?”

American 1: “I just—“

American 2: “Jesus, get a clue.”

Foreigner: “Hey American 1, can we talk about this in private.”

So, I’m talking about two things: the community imposed censorship of our suddenly public lives and the community imposed censorship of our suddenly public thoughts. Keep reading before misconstruing that statement, please.

The problem—and greatest thing—about the newfangled intermingling of humanity is that you’re going to rub elbows with people and communities you’ve never had contact with, some you’ve never even heard of—like the bazillion radical Internet groups in operation. Physical (actual) interconnectedness is lagging far behind digital interconnectedness. We are exposed to each other in a completely new way, yet we don’t understand or know each other. We don’t even seem to care to. Yet, we expect others to understand and know us. It’s a lot easier to scream and yell from behind the comfort of the world wide web than it is to call your neighbor an ignorant asshole—or a reactive hypocrite for that matter.

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The worst thing about this stuff is it makes discourse very difficult. It makes simply existing in a digital world very difficult. It makes people afraid to say or do anything remotely controversial. What it really is, is censorship by committee and it’s at odds with what the people who promulgate it are trying to effect. Big brother has become little brother. Instead of a big bad government machine standing vigilant over us, we are doing the job ourselves and with zealous voracity. When athletes have to apologize to their fans for getting high in the offseason, we have a problem. When Kanye is called to apologize for punching a paparazzi that’s been harassing him for 3 months—and the photographer’s behavior is unconsidered—we have a problem. When politicians get chastised for saying things “off camera” that were really said on camera, why don’t we ask ourselves this question: Did this view appear out of thin air at that very moment? Maybe it was there all along; we were just waiting, praying for a slip up, like the FBI zeroing in on a RICO claim. We’re left with a situation where digital agitators preach to the choir—others in their Internet circles—over and over again and become so inured with that circle’s rhetoric. When someone decides to dip their toe into the circle, they seem to forget that other rhetorics even exist. This goes for all sides: Right, left, up, down.

P1000875Street art in Melaka, Malaysia.

I don’t necessarily think it’s bad that everything is out in the open now. I think, if nothing else, it gives people the chance to get a grip on other points of view and experiences should they choose to. Sorry fellow liberals, but “uninformed” conservatives are not the only ones that need to learn about the other side. It also allows people to craft a public image that’s at least somewhat in line with their private one. I can live with that, really. But if we want more transparency—and whether or not we want it, we’ve got it—we need to be prepared for what we’re going to see. We need to admit that people are infinitely imperfect, from public figures all the way down to the gelatinous creatures of the Internet basement. We’re going to have to admit that not everyone comes from the same place, not everyone knows the same things, and that we are just as dumb and depraved as the people we think are infinitely dumb and depraved.

In the end, if you want to hold strangers to your standards you should probably hold yourself to them too. It reminds me of the times in middle school when no one wanted to take a shit during class break. If you took a really bad one and everyone was in there and heard the noises and detected the aromatic thunder and saw you exit the stall you were liable to get ragged on for months to come. If you went during class, you could get away without anyone knowing. But everyone knows that everyone goes right? Why act like that’s not how it is? I say go during the class break, do what feels right, and come out smiling with your fists in the air and your head held high.

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Yeah. I’ll never be president.

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