The Lost Art of Communication

My parents are avid Jeopardy watchers. If there were jerseys and foam #1 fingers, they would have enough for every night of the week. So when I skimmed a US news site and came across an article about a recent Asian Jeopardy contestant labeled a villain, I read more. Apparently people find him annoying. Arrogant. Not pleasant to watch. Instead of calling a friend to complain or vent or just generally express their human crankiness, many people, it seems, preferred to spill their disgust on the internet.

Then I wasted my time reading Alec Baldwin bather on about how he’s not a bigot nor unusually temperamental – just an actor in the spotlight, unfairly persecuted for sometimes acting like a bigot unable to control his anger. As if it wasn’t bad enough for me to read the whole rambling, desperate sounding essay, I further made a mistake by skimming through the comments.

And then, ashamed as I am to admit it, I read an article about how Matthew McCounaghy thanked God at the Oscars. God fearing Christians praised him. Godless non-Christians shamed him.  And everyone got very angry at each other for expressing their opinions (unless they happened to share the same opinion).

Some Duke University student has been receiving death threats via twitter because she is helping to pay her tuition by getting involved in the adult film industry.

I recognize the need for people to be able to express their dislike for individuals. I also understand that being able to freely express your opinion about anything is a wonderful right. And the internet allows us to do both more than ever before. And I’m not even going to go on and on about how you should be nice to everyone and only say nice things. I’m not THAT naive. But what’s with the gratuitous slander, aspersions and general vitriol? (I’m hoping that by using big words, they won’t understand and leave comments here! Because, at least by what and how, they write, they sound uneducated.)

With all of our newfangled communication devices, I feel like we’ve forgotten how to communicate. (And I’m not even talking about the sht. idk how kidz undrsnd. jk. imho, it’s ez.**)

People say vicious, vile things from the safety of an unsuspecting usernames hiding behind a screen. People generally aren’t accountable for what they say on the internet and so they say things that maybe they wouldn’t say in person. They are emboldened to judge people they might not otherwise have judged, had they met them in person. (No one wants to be judged for judging!) At least I like to think that people are generally still civil when in the “real” world. But we’re left with a virtual world that isn’t very nice.

My real issue with all of this, of course, is my children. Because everything is always about my children.

They watch strange You Tube videos of kids swimming in pools and kids playing with toy cars. Strange but benign stuff. Someday, they will be able read the comments on any given You Tube page. They are mostly not kind. Do you know there is an entire You Tube channel devoted to blowing up Calliou (even with the parental controls turned on)? I’m not saying whiny cartoon Calliou doesn’t deserve it, but c’mon, he’s just a kid who’s 4. Our kids will grow up accustomed to hearing people talk about perfect strangers in very, very unkind terms. And they will learn its just “trolls on the internet.” But shouldn’t we want more? Shouldn’t we want our kids to believe it’s not ok to call a stranger horrible names? I know, comments can be “flagged” and taken down but our tolerance for what should be flagged is changing. I think.

I know hate speech and mean girl syndrome have existed since forever and so while it seems the internet is making it worse, I do believe it’s just that we now have greater access to comments from the peanut gallery. Maybe Alec Baldwin is a bigot or maybe he isn’t. But the words he may or may not have said pale in comparison to what people are calling him.  I can filter through it all but but my kids don’t know how. And I don’t know how to teach them. “Oh those 400 comments that say Alec Baldwin should just die? Those people don’t really mean it. Those 500 people who are calling a Jeopardy contestant an ugly villain just for playing a game, ignore them.”

I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, the percentage of the population that spews filth on the internet is pretty low. But I hope I know how to teach my kids that there is a constructive way to criticize people or discuss differing beliefs without bullying or judging when the virtual forces against me seem so strong.

I know, all this coming from a mother of a potty-mouthed 2 year old. Despite what I’ve written about my youngest sons recent choice of vocabulary, we honestly don’t talk like that at home.  He must have picked it up when my husband (clearly, not me) slipped so it doesn’t take much repeating for them to pick up bad word choices. Won’t there be a natural shift where the verbal vomit on the internet creeps into our everyday “real” language? And won’t this probably start with my kids who are growing up with technology? Or maybe it’s already begun? Or maybe these screens will forever empower us to say things we wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) say in person.

But really, what peace, happiness or even constructive dialogue does wishing death on a college student promote? Wouldn’t you feel better about yourself if you gossiped and maliciously talked about people with a friend, who could laugh at your caustic but witty comments and then assure you that you are still a good person?

**For my AARP readers: sht = short hand texting. You know the way kids text these days? No vowels and everything with initials or spelled phonetically.

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