There’s an old “Twilight Zone” episode where a young banker wakes up one day to find he can hear the thoughts of others. Faceless, incessant chatter hovers above his morning commute, enlivens his dull desk duties, and excites romantic prospects from the steno pool.
He has fun with it for a while, until he becomes a slave to his earshot omniscience. A cacophony of prayers, curses, deviant schemes, and imaginary plights eventually drive him to a fit of intolerance, with disastrous outcomes.
What if we could read minds? We’re close. Evolving realms of social media are blurring the distinctions between public and private, secular and sacred, self and other. The question is, in this era of tweets and posts and pokes and pretext, will we further develop our democratic capacities for civil fluency and constraint or perpetuate a noisy, unproductive dissonance?
Recently, modern twists of this “Twilight Zone” tale formed a trifecta in the news.
Facebook announced it would continue hosting the exceedingly popular and anonymously posted Pray for Obama’s Death fan page; creators of South Park endured a sobering backlash of the Salman Rushdie variety when they depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a bear costume, and a Christian student group split the Supreme Court in their petition for exclusivity according to creed.
These events all reflect a persistent social marginalization endemic to digital culture.
Today, when we broadcast ourselves, we expect self-regulation and social responsibility. In fact, online providers, like Facebook and YouTube, are reliant upon members to monitor their massive cooperatives for “offensive content.” According to their spokesmen, this kind of communal leverage in regulation works (the pray for Obama’s death campaign, for example, was promptly countered by a Petition to Remove Facebook Group Praying for President Obama’s Death).
But there is another dissociate aspect to self-regulation in a digital arena. “Out there,” conventional veils of anonymity and pseudo-identity exacerbate the degrees to which we wholly identify with our thoughts, and this diminishes both the sovereignty of the individual and the integrity of the collective. No names are attached to the owner of Obama’s ominous prayer group. Conversely, when we do lay claim (in name) to our deeply held beliefs (Christian student group) or satirize those of others (South Park), we are accused of discrimination and intolerance.
This poses problems, and places us perilously at an intersection of new social media and the established freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion.
Implicit in these fundamental freedoms is the notion of exclusivity, or the ability to set oneself apart. There is little singularity in digital culture. We’re losing perspective on the enduring, essential condition upon which democracy rests.
It is natural to proselytize one’s own beliefs, and those of us with a computer and a connection have the far-reaching ability to do so. But with this freedom comes the corresponding duty to uphold the greater good.
“There are weapons that are simply thoughts,” remarked Rod Serling, writer and producer of “The Twilight Zone.” “Prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy.”
We’ve had fun with the open nature of the Internet for a while, but if we are to avoid being driven to intolerance, the key is to keep the goal of civility and democracy in full view.
It can seem nearly impossible in this crowded global theater we call the Internet to think of the greater good. But, the days of technological determinism are over. We no longer live in a world where technology exists apart from us. As with Serling’s mind-reading banker, the messages and medium are mutually evolving.
We cannot foster freedom from a veil of anonymity. That’s why one person, one blog post, one tweet at a time we must hold ourselves accountable for our words and remember to have compassion on our fellow man. By doing this, we’ll preserve those ideals which uphold democracy, even as human relationships continue to flatten.
The true test of freedom is tolerance, and we can’t have one without the other.
Emily Walshe is a librarian and professor at Long Island University in New York.