Job references and prison sentences

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Social media is one of those key defining things of my generation, but it definitely has its good and bad. I may be a few years older than this year’s graduates, but I remember some of the transition to an internet-conscious world. In our world today, we can read, respond and share images and videos and stories with the flick of a finger, and our attention switches constantly from Facebook quizzes to local happenings to international news.

The sad thing is that, as we become more and more “connected” online, it is harder and harder to connect with people in real life — and to treat the people near us with respect. 

I am far from the first person to observe this, nor will I be the last, but this is still worth considering as tough stories more and more often draw a flood of unprintable comments.

And the very idea of “unprintable” language is worth considering. If it would be considered unprintable in a newspaper, what makes it appropriate for a much wider audience’s eyes? Newspapers are designed to be vetted, at least to an extent, and even when imperfect, there is a degree of beneficial censorship for most. 

In other words, the people at the newspaper try to discern what is appropriate for many demographics and what is appropriate to be immortalized in print. 

Because that’s one thing that’s not always at the forefront of our minds: what is printed on pixels or paper is essentially immortalized. What we write, say and do provides a basis upon which people may judge us. Good or bad behavior is an amalgamation of thoughts, words and deeds, and there are three corresponding levels of control that form us into the people we are. 

Thoughts require self-censorship. I’m personally responsible to seek out good things to fill my mind so that the bad stuff isn’t as prevalent as it might be. It’s why what we read and watch and listen to is so vital, because those things get stored in short-term and long-term memory and pop up at different times and might never go away. 

If we don’t self-censor, thoughts are usually borne out in words, written or spoken. And that’s where the fruits of what we feed our mind really start to snowball, because what comes out of our mouths, keyboards and pencils is the way people get to know us. (I’m terrified of my legacy as I write this!)

And then, of course, words lead to action, and y’all know that that’s where things like job references and prison sentences come from. 

That’s not to say that we don’t have free speech, but more and more often, I look at comments tapped out on phone screens and on laptops and wonder whether this is what free speech was intended to mean. 

Free speech implies the freedom to hold to your principles both in private and in public, to speak truth publicly without the fear of being punished by the government for it. (Note that it does not mean that words will come with no consequences.) Free speech implies the freedom to take responsibility for our words and actions. After all, enslaved societies bring secret societies and anonymous rebels. 

Responsibility is, of course, what all rights are actually about. I grew up learning that a true right/freedom is inextricably attached to an accompanying responsibility. Or, in other words, a right must be right. 

Take any of the rights sketched out in the Bill of Rights; if you erase the attached responsibility, it usually means anarchy, tyranny or some sort of appalling systemic abuse in society’s structure.

So that means that we should be extra cautious whenever we are tempted to use a right or freedom as an excuse to do or say something to hurt others. That’s a good time to remember that the rights we exercise can also be used against us. 

It is true we can’t always say things that are just “nice.” But we can put extra effort into saying things with love, and that means that even when we’re criticizing something, we have to keep in mind that the person we may be speaking against may be doing the wrong thing but isn’t actually our enemy. 

Controversy is inevitable in a sin-sick world. That’s why we have to have checks and balances, rights connected to responsibilities, government and law enforcement to curb wrongdoing and so on. These aren’t perfect and often need to be watched in turn, but they are important. Yet a consistent problem is our treatment of those we’re watching.

Online communication offers an insane power to instantly publish and to retroactively self-censor. And insane may actually be the right word here. Facebook offers no real motivation for deep scrutiny and contemplation. For the most part, we’re left up to our own devices, which is of course a right guaranteed in the Constitution. But that level of freedom is also a huge responsibility because we are supposed to independently give that sort of scrutiny to our thoughts and words and deeds. 

On Facebook, we can delete our comments; no one else has the right to read comments before they’re published; publishing is instant — and the so-called friend-based forum gives us a false sense of security. 

Every obscene comment, every bad word, every public emotional attack on someone’s integrity can potentially give the world an impression not only of the ones we’re speaking about but of us. That includes parents, grandparents, siblings, children, grandchildren, friends, coworkers, employers and anyone connected to us. 

In fact, some employers cut people from job consideration based on their Facebook accounts or, in a recent story, Harvard rescinded its acceptance of at least 10 students because of their participation in an explicit Facebook forum. 

That’s not denial of free speech; that’s natural consequences for using free speech unwisely. 

On the other hand, I’ve seen so many amazing examples of living and speaking in love even while addressing the problems that plague our nation. I can think of dozens of examples, from favorite philosophers to my mom and dad, friends and so many more. Let’s emulate that.

And I don’t mean the “tolerant” sort of love (tolerance only goes so far before you have to pick a side, and it’s not enough by itself to guide you to care about the people opposing  you), but the kind of love between family and friends who truly care about each other’s well-being and want the best for them, whether that involves saying uncomfortable or nice things. We can support each other even while arguing. 

But profanity, viciousness, pettiness — let’s leave those behind as we seek to shape a better world, online and in real life.

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