Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Permanence of Conversation

When I was in high school and college I kept a journal.  

As I began to lose the urge to write down my thoughts, I looked back on what I wrote.  It was enlightening and nostalgic.  But most of all, it was embarrassing.  I was amazed by the things that became the center of my thoughts and worries.  Everything was written in that overly-dramatic tone that is common to that time of life.  

The poems were particularly cringe-worthy.

I've been thinking about that journal recently and about the strange ideas of youth.  I began to think of all those evenings where my friends and I would stay up until we heard the chimes at midnight together.  And as you find those friends, you begin to unpack your mind with ideas, many of which are not fully formed.  You batter your thoughts around between you to see if they have any merit.  But as you start forming your own identity there is a great yearning to be heard, known, and understood.

And all the while, we would try to make each other laugh.  Some jokes light up the room.  Others land with a solid thud.  I can't recall all of them, but I'm sure that not all of them were in good taste.  When I was much, much younger, my brother and I found a book of the most vile and disgusting jokes you could imagine.  I probably didn't understand half of them, but I repeated them anyway because they got laughs.  I would be mortified if those horrid words from my ignoble youth were ever to be repeated.

Yet this is the situation that many people find themselves in today.

With the advent of social media, we have a phenomenon I don't think we've ever seen before which is the permanence of conversation.  This was a phrase that was proposed to me by a very good friend.  All the private words of a journal or the late night bad-taste jokes only live on the memory of those who were experienced them.  But social media has changed this.

Facebook encourages people to share their thoughts with the entire social network.  Twitter is a bit more of an edge in that it lends itself much more to impulsive reactions rather than reasoned restraint.  Even blogs like this act as a kind of online journal, with a wider readership than the one I put to paper.

The downside is that this digital conversation is permanent conversation.  The words you share are permanently chiseled into the uneraseable internet.  A lapse in judgment online, even for a moment, can come back to haunt you.  It can be immediate, as we saw with Roseanne Barr when she lost her hit TV show because of a tweet.  Or it can linger for years and resurface out of nowhere.  Hartley Sawyer, the actor who played The Elongated Man on The Flash, was fired when tweets from eight years earlier were found and people were offended.  I even wrote about James Gunn when he was fired from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 for old social media posts.  The justice or injustice of the outrage from these posts, I will leave up to the reader.  My point is simply that once someone you put something up online, it is permanent and can be eventually held against you.

I have always been cognizant of this reality when I started this blog 8 years ago.  Even though I publish it anonymously, I have always held as my principle that everything I put here would be something I would be proud to have published.  Anonymity online is something that can never be guaranteed, so I always keep in mind on how my words reflect on my family, my friends, my employer, and my community.  It is one of the reasons I try very hard to steer clear of politics on this page and only engage them tangentially as they touch on philosophy, faith, or pop culture.  I pray that the only controversial things I have written have been controversial because they stand with the Catholic faith against the fashions of the world.  In the current climate of cancel culture, I believe my social media crime I could be accused of is my orthodoxy.  

And yet I have found a good deal of writing on the internet to be intemperate.  People react swiftly and emotionally.  This is not always a bad thing.  And being up front with your ideas is a healthy thing for defenders of free speech.  But when our words are enshrined on the web forever, we should employ a bit more caution.  

This is especially problematic for the young.  As I wrote, as we grow up we want to be heard, known, and understood.  But like that teenager who wrote that cringe-worthy journal, my thoughts lacked a coherent maturity.  And that is perfectly okay for a teenager trying to find out who they are.  But when that same teenager puts those thoughts online, I don't believe they realize that what they could be planting the seed of a very bitter harvest.  

Before my conversion experience, I held to beliefs that were against the Catholic faith in which I was raised.  I was in favor of women's ordination, contraceptives, and same-sex "marriage."  By God's grace, when I had my encounter with Christ, He led me towards joy of orthodox Catholicism.  But if I had posted these heterodox ideas online, I wonder how that would affect getting hired for my job teaching theology or the scandal it would cause should they resurface.  Thankfully, the internet was not what it is today.  And I only share my old heterodox beliefs by way of repudiation.

This problem is not limited to the young, though the impetuosity of youth compounds this.  Another issues is that ideas that were not scandalous at one point are now no longer socially acceptable.  But when old social media posts are found, they are presented to the world as a fresh conversation.  Often we don't take into account how the world has changed or how the person has matured.  

Back in 2013, I wrote about how Orson Scott Card was fired from writing a Superman comic book because he opposed same-sex "marriage."  While this position is no longer in the main stream of popular thought, it is still the moral teaching of the Catholic faith.  But even more so, it was the official position of all presidential candidates until the year before.  Within the space of one year, a belief that was once socially acceptable became unacceptable and any social media posts before the change can be held against you.

If things continue this way, perhaps all of the socially acceptable thoughts of today will soon be socially heterodox.  In this case, we will all have built up ammunition against ourselves that we stored online.

But with that in mind, I pray we can look at others with even greater patience and understanding.

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