After much hemming and hawing, my wife and I decided to fully welcome our oldest, who can already code and edit her own videos, into the digital age by getting her a smartphone.
As she’s 15, some of you will undoubtedly say we waited too long — others will say we didn’t wait long enough — but a recent incident proved, for me at least, that she’s ready to negotiate the perils of the internet untethered (or as untethered as one can be on a phone bought, and thus subject to the ultimate control of, Mommy and Daddy).
If only I could say that the rest of us “adults,” whose social media practices nearly had my daughter in tears, are ready for the internet.
On her way to school one day last week, my daughter noticed a bedraggled dog walking down the street with no owner in sight. She had my wife take and email a photo to her, which during a free period at school she uploaded to a website that aims to reconnect lost pets with their human families. Thanks to my daughter’s quick thinking and a community of animal lovers that recognized the picture as a dog reported missing more than a month ago, I am happy to report the pet is now safe and sound at its home in Lansdale.
But as is wont to occur in the anonymized universe of the web, several members of this same animal-loving community decided to attack my daughter, criticizing her for not skipping school and taking the dog to the veterinarian. When my wife found out, she was understandably miffed; my daughter was justifiably hurt.
But after reflecting on her experience, she decided to ultimately ignore the “trolls” and move on. In that she exhibited a certain poise and maturity that is sadly lacking when many of us decide to post our thoughts on any of the myriad of channels devoted to internet-based public expression.
The next day, when my wife told me she was getting the smartphone, I knew my daughter was ready.
I wish I could say it is rare when the well-intentioned and selfless acts of others are questioned amid a flurry of comments designed to tarnish other human beings. But I’ve experienced firsthand the sting of irrational invective, see it daily on the Facebook feeds of others and know of a coworker’s recent experience when she, too, tried to reunite a dog with its owners. (In that case, the community of animal lovers turned on the dog’s caretakers.)
Insults and general mean-spiritedness are nothing new, of course. It’s pretty much coded in our DNA, and can be heard on playgrounds across the world, as well as football fields across America. But ever since the invention of the online bulletin board, society’s relationship to technology has given birth to ever more outlets that are always open, ready for users to spew forth the venom that in times past and in different situations has typically been kept in check by the rational portions of our brains.
We have created, in effect, a digital space where mob rule is the rule, rather than the norm.
This is dangerous, and not just because these platforms also provide a forum in which violent anti-Semites, such as the suspect in the Oct. 27 murder of 11 congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life, thrive. How we behave online — blindly following a group of others, trading in conspiracy theories, whipping up emotions instead of pausing to reflect — is the virtual corollary to the vicissitudes of the mob that this nation’s Founding Fathers were so worried about when they put together a system of checks and balances.
The constitutional genius isn’t just about setting branches of government in opposition to each other, or about apportioning power between a central federal government and those of the states; it’s equally about guarding against the excesses of majoritarian rule, a fear made real just a couple years after the signing of the Constitution with the storming of the Bastille in 1791 and the launch of the French Revolution.
And lest we think that those were concerns of another time and place, we need only look once more to France, where the yellow-vested “gilets jaunes” protesters are violently demonstrating against their national government. What first began as a middle-class protest of an increase fuel tax has become a broad-based populist movement whose new goals, in the words of one protester who spoke with a BBC reporter on Tuesday, are an eradication of representative government in favor of pure democracy. This in a country and from a people who gave their society the Reign of Terror.
If you think that can’t happen here, parse the rhetoric of the far corners of the far-left and far-right, where “the people” are seen as inherently pure and “the government” as inherently evil, and look back to the various anarchical movements that have taken to the streets over the years. The fact is, the evil that makes me as distrustful as mob rule as of dictatorships is a product of the human condition, the yin to the yang of benevolence that most human beings also possess. It must always be kept in check.
Thank God, my daughter understands that.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]