It’s a grammatically butchered term, and I’m sure sociologist and psychologists have a more technical or clinical label for it.
However, regardless of what we call it, it’s a behavior pattern that is easy to recognize: acting out in public like a teenager. Like someone who’s in high school. Like someone who is probably old enough to know better, but immature enough to act poorly just the same. The false bravado and foolish pride that often accompany behaving poorly in public are just the annoying icing on the distasteful cake.
We expect this bad behavior from young people in high school. The drama, the lashing out, the overly sensitive, hormone driven mood swings. But when adults behave like this, it’s troubling. Adults acting out shows emotional insecurity, of course. Like their teenage counterparts, they fancy themselves rebels, but, alas, they have no cause beyond getting attention for themselves, creating chaos in their environment, and, in the public sphere, destroying institutions and norms without having any thought as to what might replace these enduring, practical, and effective models once the current ones lie in ruin.
High schoolers do things just because they can. They flout dress codes and disregard decorum. They play semantics with the letter of the law and ignore the spirit of it. They do anything that is legal and give scarcely a thought to what is ethical and have no concept of what is moral. If they are called out for their bad behavior, they are ‘victims’ and everything is, yes, ‘so unfair.’ Cue exasperated and a roll of the eyes sigh here.
Likewise, grown-up high schoolers say things just because they can. They revel in shock value. They insult, slander, and attack those who hold different opinions or dare to contradict the message of the moment. They have short memories for their own words and commitments but complain bitterly and without ceasing about the ‘injustices’ that even their usually privileged positions have not completely shielded them from.
They are quick to attack their ‘enemies’. Through their inflammatory speech, they encourage others to violence, regardless of the risks involved. If consequences do occur, and innocent people are injured by gullible followers, these same bullies and cowards deny any responsibility for the perpetrators who are arrested, tried, and convicted for their misguided actions, or the victims who suffer from their pointless rage.
They have long since given up taking responsibility for their actions or feeling remorse. Instead, the deflect or deny, regardless of facts and evidence. They have left their conscience behind, like one would leave a half-read newspaper on a bench in a train station. Scarcely remembering the content. Vaguely recalling the incident. Certainly feeling no qualms about the loss.
Symptoms of this disease include heckling and near fistfights in what were once the hallowed halls of our respected institutions, lack of appropriate attire at public functions, the inability to be civil to those with whom one disagrees, and the refusal to fulfill one’s duties in public life and honor one’s commitment in private life.
The internet in general and social media in particular can be identified as a source for this trend, but it can hardly be held exclusively responsible for this plague. Yes, we have become somewhat lazy, impatient, and entitled due to the speed and efficiency with which we can desire something, locate it online, order it, and have it appear at our doorstep within hours. (Please see Netflix for comedian Ronny Chieng’s hilarious but biting commentary that culminates with the punchline, ‘Amazon Prime. In my mouth now.’)
But the digital world has brought us more and worse. People now feel they can like, comment, insult, threaten, bully, criticize, rage, curse, and demean other people without responsibility or repercussions. Why? Because the digital medium always offers the false security of distance and often provides the veil of anonymity. Only when a bully is found out and violently confronted in the street or when a victim takes their own life–in real life–does it cross someone’s mind that words have consequences. Responsibility is a foreign concept.
By far the most dangerous metamorphosis of this phenomenon occurs when public officials use their position and this platform to brainwash their followers, to prod them to violence, and then to sit back and watch the destruction unfold from a safe distance. They do so most often to profit–politically, financially, or both–from the resulting actions of their supporters, often at the expense of their supporters…and all of us, who have to live with the morning after.
It is not inaccurate nor is it hyperbole when experts in the tech space categorize social media as a ‘military grade weapon’. Many refuse to allow their children to use Instagram, Facebook, or other platforms. These few, cautious, courageous voices speak and act from experience and knowledge. They know what this technology can do because they have designed it, built it, and refined it to do just that: alter people’s reality, shape their decision-making process, and voluntarily behave in ways that may be contrary to their own good.
Because of these known facts, the irresponsible use of social media leaves blood on the hands of all who post, tweet, and posture for devious, divisive, and destructive political ends. History will eventually call these manipulators out and name them in bold print. It will not be an offhand comment so easy to delete. It will be a shameful roll call remembered for all time.
Regardless of its origins, the vital, urgent question remains: how far will this adolescent behavior go before vast, lasting, and irreversible damage is done? The answer might be found in the familiar refrain: as long as good men sit, remain silent, and do nothing.
But first good men and women must see it for not just what it is, but for all that it is: it’s not just a social thing that’s happening right now. It’s not just a few stressed people ‘acting out’.
It’s the broad erosion of our social fabric. Pulling another brick from the wall, which, alone might not compromise the structure, but repeated unchecked will certainly bring our institutions and our protections falling down. And then put our liberties at risk.
For we can not solely rely on laws to make us safe and keep us free. Our society must embrace and reinforce rules, ethics, morals, civility, and manners. These traditions cushion and comfort us before we get to the very harsh, hard, and uncomfortable reliance upon only what is legal.
Erudite lawyers, crafty legislators, and lofty judges can spin, twist, and misinterpret the law until we are all dizzy and in need of a rest. Still, even the simplest of women and men can recognize right from wrong. Even the poorest among us can dress appropriately. Even the most passionate among us can be courteous.
These sacred, fundamental customs, manners, and rituals large and small weave the tapestry that forms what we call civilization. It is this French word ‘tapis‘, or rug, upon which we as a society stand and walk. It pads our daily travel against the proverbial cold stone floor of rudeness, dogma, and, in the worst case scenario, tyranny.
So let’s show a little respect and a little restraint. Let’s not bring in and sling the mud. Let’s not dig up the dirt. Let’s not stain the rug. Let’s keep it clean. Who knows, we may need to sit down together and eat on it at some point.
Let’s not wear the rug thin. There will surely come a time when it will keep us warm.
Let’s repair our rug when we need to, with patience and care. We will probably be able to see the places that have been sewn back together. They will not be perfect, but they should not remain torn apart.
Let’s take care of our rug, our tapis, our tapestry if for no other reason than survival. For nothing pretty or pleasant lies beneath.