Sometimes nostalgia can sicken a person. Here’s an example: remember when you could get into a fight in school and only get your nose broken? Now you could get your head blown off for crossing some line you didn’t even know existed.
Staring down the barrel of a generation, or at least that feels like what we’re doing. And how we wound up at this sad point in our history can be pinned on several contaminants, be they violent videogames, misogynistic music, the indifference and overall laziness of parents or, worse than that, a complicit parent that teaches bad lessons through their own actions. It brings to mind an old public service announcement where a livid dad confronts his son about his drug use. He shouts, “Where did you get this kind of behavior from?”
The kid shouts back, “From you, Dad! I learned it from you!”
The myriad weaponry of our times packs a hell of a recoil, too. With a webcam, or an internet account, or 2,000 Facebook friends in your circle, you can slander someone and they might not even know it. It’s the equivalent of being able to fire your weapon all around the world with the target never knowing they’ve been hit, until they’re dead.
Until they’re dead. The kids are not alright. How did we get here? How did we arrive at Phoebe Prince? Originally from Ireland, Phoebe Prince had recently moved to the U.S., had been taunted and bullied for several months at South Hadley High School, reportedly over her relationships with a senior high school football player and a second male student. Two girls were implicated in the severe taunting, the two boys were charged with statutory rape. Prince committed suicide.
As terrible as that is, even death couldn’t end the situation. A memorial was put up on Facebook and not too long after, several comments were added of an incredibly derogatory nature. Prince was hit with the comment “Irish whore,” and much worse, and with the incredible (and incredibly misused) power of the internet, like-minded individuals from all over the world had a chance to pile on. The negative comments were taken down eventually, but one has to ask why there’s nothing quite as addictive as a mob mentality. Count in the media that added fuel to the fire, painting Prince as a troubled teen on anti-depressants with inclinations to cut herself, which may or may not be true, but one has to ask how these revelations could ever justify the actions of her classmates. She was a troubled kid. Instead of being a crutch that might help her stand, they became the brickbats that beat her down. Four legs, bad. Two legs, good.
And what of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, a bright and promising musician? He had a liaison with a male student and his roommate, on the sly, decided to broadcast it on webcam. A few days later, Clementi drove to the George Washington Bridge and jumped off. The roommate, and another student that helped assist in the secret broadcast, were charged with invasion of privacy. There was call to prosecute them further with a ‘hate crime’ charge. That second charge is the one that troubles me, not because what these students did seems to not be a hateful act – it certainly is. It troubles me because I have this understanding that hate might take on a conscious state, that one might actually have to think about what they’re doing for it to be correctly labeled an act of hate. Here we find another young person firing this technology weapon without any concern, in an almost knee-jerk, Everest-climbing manner. Forget right or wrong, forget about civility or hate; he did it because he could, and in some way, that makes it even worse.
Further questions arise. College is a time of experimentation, in all manner of ways. What gave the roommate the right to decide that Clementi hadn’t the freedom every other student on campus had, and was probably exercising? Not that I’m advocating our institutions of higher learning should have streets filled with dope-smoking, Cuervo-chugging, orgy patrons strewn about, but if anyone thinks these events aren’t happening, in part, behind the ivy curtains, they are naive and certainly didn’t attend college in the ’60s or ’70s. If Clementi’s meeting had been with a female versus a male, would they still have considered broadcasting? Did anyone step back and wonder if what they were about to do to this kid was fair, or did they just plunge in with “What the hell, I’m bored” zeal?
The press, again, made a point of reckoning that the mandatory courses on civility in modern culture, that were to begin only days after Clementi’s suicide, might have altered the situation. I have my doubts. Lessons, so I’ve cynically come to believe, are not conventionally learned these days. They must be suffered. There are no revelations before the brink, only after the speeding car has cleared the cliff’s edge, only after the harmful action has been expended, only after the overdose. Until then, it’s all “What the hell, I’m bored,” followed quickly by, “What have I done?” The press mused, isn’t it ironic?
Internet attacks, by their anonymity, allow for an increase in the uncivil amplitude, and the harshness of the debate seldom is comparable to the subject of the argument. Writing for a pop culture site, I tend to focus on subjects like music and movies, and I always welcome a comment that questions the validity of my opinion provided the questioner make a compelling rebuttal. For instance, if I pan a movie for any number of reasons and someone calls me out on it and says, “Here’s an element of the film you missed that puts it in perspective,” or even says, “It’s generational and the movie is just not made for you,” that’s a thoughtful response to my criticism.
What’s easier is merely to lob angry epithets and colorful obscenity for having disrespected their favorite thing, or having left their favorite band off a list somewhere. “How could you overlook the greatness of Keel? You and your list must be retarded. Stop writing, or drop dead, or something. Just don’t subject my internet to your opinion anymore.”
And there’s the crux of the thing – an irrational response to criticism of a song, a TV show, or a quarterback’s performance on Sunday elicits extreme reactions mostly because some of those responders have assumed “their internet,” not “our internet.” What would change that would be a pay-for-play model where identities are set in stone and offering your viewpoint costs you money, and really, an internet without freedom isn’t worth it. But that same rather callous identification of Mine, Not Ours seems to flood into areas beyond the fun-zone of the pop culture we consume. Now we attack others with the ferocity with which we attack product, we can broadcast it into space if we so chose, and we can wash our hands of it if it gets too uncomfortable. Cyber-sociopathy, perhaps?
Can we wash our hands of Phoebe Prince, who arrived in the US in what is being considered an emotionally wounded state, and instead of being helped out and lifted up was finished off, and then was made a target of fun in death because it was just so easy to do? Tyler Clementi didn’t know he apparently didn’t have the right to find his way through this life, unlike his classmates, unlike other young people still struggling to figure out who they actually are. They get to make their choices out of sight, but he had his spread out all across the campus. At least the National Rifle Association advocates gun owners to go to the range once in a while to learn how to properly use their weapon. The internet, in some strange way, has become a gang fight in the digital world.
And so we fall for nostalgic reverie, recalling days of broken noses, unexpected trippings in hallways, slander confined to locker rooms and notes passed under desks in classrooms. We wish for secrets disclosed only among friends, enemies and the recent variant frenemies, not shots seen ’round the world via the ‘net, or sticks and stones that break us from behind, in secret because who would have ever thought someone would use a tool that way? It recalls the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the primate Moonwatcher first picks up that bone, studies it, feels the weight of it in his hand, taps the other bits of carcass around him, then immediately starts to smash it all to pieces.