Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Moderation in All Things...Especially on the Internet

A lot of us have been asking lately what has happened to this country? What has happened to our discourse? What has happened to common sense? And when did the lunatics start running the asylum (in more ways than one)? I pin it down to too much freedom of speech with too little responsibility to police it.


Can there even be such a thing as too much freedom of speech? Isn’t that one of those things in the Constitution that’s inviolate? Isn’t saying there’s too much freedom of speech, and that it needs to be policed more similar to saying that there are too many guns out there, and they need to be policed more?

Perhaps. But let me make my case.

First of all, many of us misunderstand what freedom of speech really means. It doesn’t mean that you’re free to say any damn fool thing without consequences. Aye, ye call your boss an asshole at a staff meeting, and there be consequences. What it means is that the government can’t take action against you for things you say that it doesn’t like.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about too much freedom of speech…or writing, really…in response to the printed word…in online forums dedicated to the printed word.

Let me explain.

Back in the day, magazines and newspapers had one or two pages devoted to letters to the editor. Because space was limited, only the best written, most interesting, and most intelligent letters were chosen to be published. It was usually a statistical sampling of what had come in, with opinions on all sides of the spectrum. Occasionally a letter from some crackpot who said, “I bet you won’t print this because I disagree with you” made it to print, if only to show the rest of the readers, with more than two brain cells to rub together, that there indeed be fools out there. But aide from that, everything was kept civil; and follow-up letters, if they arrived, were almost never printed…unless the editors deemed them particularly compelling.

Enter the age of the internet, where magazines and newspapers created online forums that took the place of the traditional letters pages. And here, because space wasn’t an issue, there was no screening of what went online. Anything and everything got posted…including some of the most uncivil and vile responses to previous responses. Including things that never would’ve made the cut to make it to the printed letters page. Including posts filled with all kinds of crackpot ideas that had been totally debunked by those who actually knew what they were talking about.

And because these things got printed, and shared across the internet, we became less civil, more vile, and definitely more stupid.

This is because the people who had previously been the gatekeepers of the printed page naively abdicated their responsibility when things moved online. They thought that having those letters just go directly online would make their jobs easier, and that people would behave appropriately.

They were wrong…as countless trolls and troll bots have proven.

Since then, a number of publications and online forums have pulled back from the free for all of open comment pages. Some have started to moderate them, which is simply doing what was done in the print days, and screening things before they made it to the public. Others have taken the even more drastic step of just not printing comments at all. Oh, you can most certainly send them all the comments you want, and they’ll read them in their offices, but you won’t see them printed…not even the most compelling ones.

I think these are both good steps.

And by the way, I do believe that there are too many guns out there.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Grand Unified Theory of Rape

This one’s for all the gentlemen in the audience…or at least those who aspire to be gentlemen. There are just some guys out there who will never get this, no matter what I say, and they’re not my audience today.

I remember the first time I encountered the word “rape.” I was on a Boy Scout field trip to visit the Police Department in my hometown of East Orange, NJ. As we walked around, I noticed some of the wanted posters hanging up, posters for people wanted for things like robbery, murder, and this one thing I’d never heard of before…rape.

I turned to one of the other Scouts, and asked what rape was; and in the tittering voice that can only come from hormonal adolescent boys who don’t quite get it, he replied, “Oh that’s when you force a girl to do it with you.”

Well…that definitely didn’t sound cool. And it was something I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. Oh yes, I could wrap my head around the what. Why I couldn’t grasp was the why?

Ask anyone who’s known me since first grade, and they’ll tell you that I’m an incurable romantic. The idea that you would force someone to do “it” with you just didn’t make sense. “It” was supposed to be with someone you liked; why would you force someone you liked to do it? “It” was supposed to be something you both enjoyed…even Hugh Hefner said that; why would you want to force someone to do something that if they didn’t want to do…especially if they’d hate you forever for it?

For the next 40 or 50 years, that was my working definition of rape. In fact, that was the standard definition of rape for most guys my age.

A few years later, another term was added to my rape vocabulary, and that was statutory rape. As a teenager who thought he was quite mature and thought he knew it all…and especially in the middle of the sexual revolution, I didn’t see why a pop star should be charged with this statutory rape thing for having sex with a 16 year-old fan who probably thought she’d hit the jackpot. Five years later, when I was older, and more mature, I understood.

Anyway, most of us understood both regular and statutory rape. Those were the definitions we knew and grew up with. We knew that they were crimes…heinous crimes. Well…statutory rape might not be quite so heinous because of circumstances, but still, we knew that they were crimes. There was, however, a whole other category of sexual behavior which, while not criminal, was also not something that a gentleman would want to be accused to engaging in.

We called that “taking advantage of someone.” This could be someone who was drunk, someone who was asleep or unconscious, or anyone who wasn’t really in a position to give valid permission. It wasn’t cricket, but it was neither rape nor a crime because you didn’t force her.

And remember, our whole definition of rape was based on the idea of forcing someone.

Then, over the last decade or so, the definition of rape seemed to change. Now all those things we would consider “behavior unbecoming of a gentleman”, those things that we merely considered “taking advantage of someone”, were now considered rape. How could this be? Especially when there was no force involved, and it wasn’t rape in the classic sense that we had been taught about?

The answer, when you think about it, is quite simple. We had been looking narrowly at the definition of what the law called forcible rape, and using it as the definition of all rape (with the exception of that weird statutory thing). But the fact that there was forcible rape and statutory rape tells us that there’s more than one kind of rape. And having said that, it also implies that forcible rape may just be one subset of a number of things that can be considered rape…whether there’s force involved or not.

And to borrow a phrase from the world of physics, the “grand unified theory” of rape boils down to one thing, and one thing only: consent and the ability to give it of one’s own free will.

Where there is force, there is no free will. Where there is lack of consciousness, there is no consent. Where there is free will, but the person is underage, there is no legal consent.

So to you gentlemen out there who think that you would no more rape someone than blow up a school, you need to be aware that it’s not just about force, it’s about consent. And with that in mind, “taking advantage of someone” is rape.

Besides…the incurable romantic in me still asks…why would you want to take advantage of anyone in the first place?

Shouldn’t it be good for both of you?

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

When Their Name Doesn't Light Up Anymore

What do you do when you type someone’s name on Facebook, and it doesn’t light up anymore?

You know what I mean. Well, OK, so it never exactly lit up in the first place, but it used to highlight itself…to show that you were friends. What do you do when you type in someone’s name, to tag them in a post or photo, and it doesn’t highlight itself anymore?

You know what it means, and yet maybe it doesn’t. Many’s the time that my wife’s name wouldn’t light up on my laptop, but would on my iPad. But really, except for situations like that, when there’s a system glitch that you’ve run into before, you pretty much know what that means.

You’ve been unfriended.

So you go to check your friend list to see if they’re still there…and find that they’re not. And…just to be sure…you check their friend list (if you even can anymore) to see if you’re still on it…and you find that you’re not.

So what do you do now? What do you do when you’re absolutely certain that you’ve been unfriended?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

You don’t say a word. You don’t contact that person and ask what’s up. You also don’t mention it to mutual friends, who might inadvertently mention it to the person who dropped you. After all, the point here is to pretend that you didn’t even notice that you’d been unfriended. Letting them know that you know would just make things awkward.

Well…wait…aren’t they already awkward?

But what else do you do? You think about the “friendship”, such as it was, and ask yourself what happened. Did you do something specifically to piss this person off, or did the ravages of time simply make you insignificant? And be honest when asking the second part of that question…did the ravages of time perhaps also make that person insignificant to you, so that it’s no great loss?

And yet…you think of how this might have been handled differently. How it might have been handled more gracefully. How it might have been handled without your even knowing anything had been…handled.

Really. If you were often posting things that annoyed or upset your former friend, all they really had to do was unfollow you. I’ve done that to a number of people…especially during the 2016 presidential election season. That would allow you to still be friends, without them having to see any of your posts that you didn’t specifically mention them in.

And their name would still light up.

If they didn’t want you to see any posts they were making, they could’ve put you into a special category called acquaintances, which doesn’t get to see everything the regular friends do. I’ve got a couple of people in that category…people I felt sort of obligated to accept as friends, but who I really didn’t want to interact that much with.

And their name would still light up.

Both of those things would be very subtle ways of removing you from their lives…without you knowing that you’d been quite specifically…well…dumped.

And feeling hurt by it.

So you just go on as if nothing ever happened. Because eventually, after the initial shock, you’ll get over it, and won’t care anymore. And maybe you’ll even decide that this person did you a favor.

But now all this has got me thinking…I need to go unfollow a few people!