This was a week in which the literati debated smarm vs. kindness, biting critique vs. rah-rah reviews in life and books. (If you’re interested, you can find more here and here, and the source of it all, here). It’s an interesting debate, and suffice it to say my position lies somewhere in the middle although closer to the Team Isaac “Bambi Rule” rather than the other team’s love of smack-talking.
I can be snarky, too, although less so these days. In my college dining room there were certain tables populated by the clever ones, whose biting wit I often found entertaining and intellectually challenging. The difference was that this was one-on-one conversation, and their often nasty commentaries were limited to the circular table, whereas now any one person can jump on an easy net platform and destroy someone with one easy swoop of words. Be careful what you say and make sure you mean it, but above all be certain that it really needs to be said and that what you say is fair.
But what I really wanted to write about today is the picture above. Two people sitting on a bus. Could be anyone. Innocuous, right? If I told you the guy was my son, or the girl was my daughter you might think they looked quite nice, but what if I told you the man had a gun and was on his way to your door? What if I told you “If you see either of these people, please DO NOT approach, Call XXX.” Then you might think, as I did, that there was something terrifyingly cold in his piercing stare, that he had the eyes of a killer. “Creeeeeeepy,” I texted my son, followed by “Be safe.”
In the span of just an hour or so last night, after the picture was taken, this man went from being a nice guy on his way somewhere with his girlfriend to being a potential sharpshooter on his way to wreak havoc on a college campus. The photo was tweeted out as everyone was placed in lockdown, the announcement that there was a man with a gun on campus spreading fear far and wide. These are crazy times, I thought, as my heart began racing, the all-to-familiar scenarios playing themselves out in my imagination, this time closer to home.
Erring on the side of caution is understandable given the tragedies of recent events, and considering the fact that my son was on that college campus, I absolutely support the university’s response, but I am also cogniant of how one picture, one assumption, can go viral in the matter of an instant and take on a life of its own. Of how within minutes someone like me—not to mention the slew of reporters and curious folks who did the same—can, via a rudimentary net search, zip over to the girlfriend’s twitter, peer into (perve?) her life and witness in real time how the story crawled, no ran across the web like a million spiders on steroids. How one innocent photo can be viewed as some sinister precedent when cloaked with assumption.
Just as the “all-clear” tweet went out (he did have a gun, but he is a cop, it turns out), life went back to normal, and I assume the man and his girlfriend will be able to move past this brush with fame (infamy?), their googleable photos and slew of articles on their Bonnie and Clyde moment just a party joke, but what if those same assumptions led to his, or their being injured? What if someone charged with detaining them saw the photo and thought, as I did, that there was something sinister in that stare? The potential for a tragedy of a very different sort are just too chilling to consider.
So, we circle back to the smarm and snark debate, as both it and the events of last night remind me of the viral nature of our lives now, one which lends to our communications an incredible power, to do good, to do harm, a double-edged sword which on the one hand can protect (whether lives or literary reputations) but can also destroy.
Today I can breathe, glad it wasn’t a shooter, glad that it was just a misunderstanding, and glad I’m not Dave Eggers or Malcolm Gladwell, or Tori or…. well, here’s another picture of the couple, which I found via a two-second google search this morning…