Saturday, December 3, 2011

To Tweet or Not To Tweet?

                By now you likely have heard about Emma Sullivan, the teen girl whose derogatory tweet about Kansas Governor Sam Brownback went viral rather quickly. Perhaps the original tweet somehow made it into your account if you have one. You may even have re-tweeted it yourself. Just do a quick search and you’ll find all kinds of things about it. In case you want, here’s a link to a search on CNN’s site.
                I don’t know what prompted the tweet or what issues people may have with Governor Brownblack. Even if I did, I’ve promised myself that I would stay away from political topics on this blog. If I do venture into that dangerous area, I intend to try to be as neutral as possible. I say that because I may be treading a fine line here, as I’m going to start by referencing the first amendment and the notion of free speech. That’s because most of the teen’s defenders have used that rationale in their arguments.
                Per Wikipeida, “The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.”  I’m not a Constitutional historian or legal maven. I think of the Constitution growing out of the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Even if that’s not factually true, I believe we can fairly connect the two, with the rights reflecting  the idea that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ultimately, it strikes me that all these notions were an attempt to articulate and to some degree codify the emerging social compact that lies at the heart of the vision of the United States. In that compact we willingly exchange some natural rights for social rights and responsibilities.  People often cite the pursuit of happiness as an individual right.  But when Jefferson included this idea in the Declaration of Independence, he meant it as a moral claim.  He believed the right to pursue happiness involves a reciprocal obligation: that it can happen only in conjunction with others’ happiness.
                I’m not about to condemn the girl’s right to criticize the governor, or even to say that she shouldn’t have done it via Twitter. Actually, I’m thrilled to see a teen involving herself in public dialogue, assuming that she done some thinking on the issues before tweeting. I encourage all of that. I used to have kids write letters to the editor before we had blogs and tweets. My concern lies not in that she did it, but in how she did it.               Just in case you don’t know even the basic details, the girl tweeted that she had told the governor she didn’t think much of his performance, using a once-vulgar term that has become commonly accepted. The hash tag was more vulgar. It also boasted that she had done so to his face.
                The case captures the difference between a right and a should. Yes, we are fortunate enough to have the right to free speech, something people all over the world protest to gain. Yet with rights come certain responsibilities. If we ant to express our concerns about something, we need to do so respectfully and thoughtfully. Certainly this is true when addressing people in particular positions. In this case, whether I agree or disagree with a public official is immaterial when it comes to the language and tone I use. The person deserves my respect because of his or her commitment to public service. I also contend that everyone deserves basic respect.
                And that is what I fear is getting lost as our electronic media becomes more ubiquitous and easier to use. Combine that with the hectic nature of our lives and the general anxiety about economic/cultural issues, and mixture can be combustible. Check out a few random chat fora. Most of us have received and/or sent e-mails that we wish we hadn’t. Even the most benign e-mail can lead to misinterpretation. I’ve taken two approaches to try to help with this. First, I’ll tell people when I think a topic needs to be handled via phone or a meeting. Second, sometimes I will use my word processor to write the e-mail my emotions want to send but my mind knows not to. It’s cathartic and, and least for me, helps to defuse the issue.
                We have some powerful tools at our disposal, right in our pockets. Tools that can do some real damage. Because of that, we need to remain very cognizant that we are helping young people become not just adroit users, but humane users. Modern technology provides mazing ways for us to engage in the life of the mind. When we do that, we acknowledge that thoughtlessness is a crime, with ramifications in our daily lives.  The mind is our unique powerful gift.  It raises us above other creatures.  It can elevate us even higher.  Tying all these ideas back to our Founding Fathers, eighteenth century philosophers such as Jefferson assumed illiteracy and ignorance cause barbarism and violence.  They believed the spread of education would lead to superior ethical judgment and social justice.
                That sort of idealism seems worth re-tweeting. Much more so that some superficial, nasty comment about a public figure.

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