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The Importance of Saying Something Stupid

January 21st, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in internet

Noiseless Chatter meetup, 2014

I’ll admit this right up front: it’s not pleasant to realize that you’ve said something stupid. Especially since you’re not an idiot.

Really. You’re not. You, reading this, whomever you are: you’re not an idiot. You may do idiotic things. Your name may be attached to idiotic statements. But you’re not an idiot. This is why it stings when you do accidentally dip into idiocy. When you say something that you immediately wish you could take back. When you do something that you know immediately afterward someone as smart as you shouldn’t have done.

But, if I may be so bold…that’s a good thing. Yes. It is.

It’s a good thing to say things that you regret. Regret is a useful feeling. Yet the internet — depending upon the site, anyway — allows us to erase that regret. It’s a nice thought, but it’s unintentionally destructive. It’s healthy to want to take things back…but it’s less healthy to actually take things back.

I’m speaking of a few different things, here, but they all orbit around the same thought: when we say something that we later regret saying, it’s important to stand behind what we said. Not in the sense that we need to embrace the poor judgment that caused us to say it…but in the sense that we leave it there. With our name attached. As a reminder. To ourselves.

In the more severe example on my mind, a journalist recently shared her story about being threatened with rape on Twitter. Yes, it’s the internet, and while these things are by no means excusable it’s also a fact that the vast majority of internet threats are empty. But it went deeper than that. This person shared details about the journalist, making it clear that whether or not he’d ever follow through on this very open threat, he knew where she lived…where she went in her spare time…the names of her friends and loved ones. He’d done his homework, and that’s terrifying.

Worse, however, is that a well-intentioned friend of the journalist reported these frightening messages to Twitter, which then deleted his tweets and his account. Fair enough, except that this threw a fatal wrench into the journalist’s ability to pursue legal action; the evidence was gone. There was no investigation, because there was nothing left to investigate. Whoever this man was, and wherever he was, he’s still out there.

In the far less severe example, I posted a joke on Facebook a short while back. Somebody took offense at the joke, but made it clear through his comments — a steady stream of comments, one after the other, sometimes seconds apart — that he’d missed the intent of the joke. Other folks piped up to let him know he was taking things too seriously. I stayed out of it, but eventually betrayed my better judgment (literally dozens of his irate comments later) to let him know that he was reacting to something I didn’t say. He took the joke, twisted it into something that upset him, and reacted to that instead of what was actually said.

That’s fine. People have every right to get upset. And I’d have gladly apologized if I had actually said something that made someone else upset. The problem here was that I hadn’t actually said, or suggested, what it was that he claimed to be upset about. Eventually he must have realized this himself, because a few minutes later he went back and deleted every last one of his comments. Since there were many people engaged in the conversation at that point — and since they were both addressing the things he said and responding to the questions posed by him — anybody finding the discussion now would only see half of the conversation. The other half isn’t invisible…it isn’t silent…it simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Somewhere in the middle there are hundreds of online discussions I’ve seen where comments go missing, or are edited to say “nevermind” or something instead of what was actually there in the first place.

If these people, and the gentleman who was upset at one of my jokes, came to realize (independently or otherwise) that they don’t actually agree with what they’ve said, that’s a good thing. But deleting their contributions to the conversation is not a good thing for anybody.

As I said before, it doesn’t help somebody who comes to the conversation late; if that person is interested, they should be able to read what actually took place there…rather than only being able to read what’s left after somebody gathered up their toys and went home.

It doesn’t help the people whose comments still stand in the conversation, because it’s no longer a conversation. It’s a string of statements in response to something that doesn’t exist anymore. With one person deleting their contribution, they remove the context from everything else. That shouldn’t be their right to do; if somebody took the time to respond respectfully to something you said, it’s only fair to let your comments stand so that they make sense.

But, most of all, my main point is that it doesn’t help the person who deleted or edited their comments, either. Why not? Because saying something stupid and then realizing that what you’ve said is stupid is an important thing to do, and it teaches us a valuable lesson: to think before we speak.

If we can remove from the internet everything foolish that we say, there’s no reason to stop saying foolish things. It’s important that they stay there, with our names attached. It’s important that we regret saying something before we thought it through. That’s what’s going to help us the next time we think of typing something out in anger. It can give us pause. It can prevent us from leaving that threat. It can prevent us from fighting a perceived insult that didn’t exist. It can prevent us from kicking up a heated conversation that ends with us frantically scrubbing our contributions out before anyone gets a chance to see what it was we wish we didn’t say.

Making mistakes is a part of life. There are a lot of things online that I wish I didn’t say, or that I wish I’d said differently. In most of those cases, I have editing permissions and could theoretically delete them.

But why would I? The more I catch myself regretting what I’ve said, the more careful I’m going to be the next time. That’s valuable. That builds character. That builds a sense of responsibility for the words we say, and the digital legacy we leave behind.

It’s important to take responsibility for what you said. If you’ve said it and somebody’s read it, it needs to stay where it is. You did that. You might be able to erase your comment and your accountability, but you can’t erase the feelings that others had when they read what you said to them. Your responses need to stand, even if — especially if — you regret them.

Because if you delete them, or you have a moderator delete them, or a site decides of its own accord to delete them, everybody’s being done a disservice.

The fact that we can live Cher’s dream by turning back time and taking back hurtful words — our own or somebody else’s — doesn’t mean we should. It gives rise to problems of its own.

You’re accountable for what you say. Wherever you are, whomever you say it to, you are responsible for those words. If you don’t like that, then take a moment to think about what you’re saying before you post it. The correct way out of that noose is simply not to step into it in the first place.

Accountability is underrated. It has been for a long time. We need to start taking it seriously again.

So by all means, be stupid. It will happen. Say idiotic things. And when you do — which you will, which we all will — leave them just where you’ve put them. Feel free to amend an apology, but leave your original words untouched. Let yourself know that the next time you say something stupid, that’s going to stay where it is, too.

You’ll find before long that you won’t be so quick to say stupid things anymore. And that, I promise you, is an awakening worth having.

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8 Responses

  • Jeff says:

    While I agree with your overall point–and it caused me to reflect on my personal behavior–I must confess to finding the overall situation somewhat amusing. Facebook and Twitter are, to my sight, cancers on the human condition. Their purpose is to trivialize our existence, reduce the intelligence level of discourse, and, most of all, to keep us connected to a device that distracts us from our real-world environment. (Not to mention that they are just flat-out evil institutions.) That they should engender shitty communication and poor etiquette and accountability is in a way a good thing, because it’s honestly symptomatic of how fucked up they are. Give me an enemy that identifies himself as an enemy over an enemy bearing an olive branch every time!
    .
    PEACE, goddamnit.

  • Justin says:

    Edit: nevermind

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Justin, that’s just the thing. I see where you’re coming from on this, but in response to your points: 1) no, that’s never actually been proven. 2) Fair enough. 3) Again, fair enough. 4) NO. The chain of reasoning does NOT get us here. You’re making a pretty substantial logical leap, and that’s neither fair to me nor the topic. 5) I think I addressed this in #1.

      EDIT: YOU FUCK

  • Philip J Reed says:

    And today’s joke was reported and deleted. Not only is that fantastic timing, but I’ve now got another idea for a blogpost. Hoorah.

  • Sarah Portland says:

    While I was going to say that I usually agree with this, but not always, I’ll just own it and say that I respectfully disagree. To my knowledge, only one of my comments has gone awry enough to have compelled me to redact it, and I typically leave the others alone to fester in whatever thread they may now live in forever. The difference is, I’ve encountered way too many problems with “typing from the hip” to not stop and consider my responses carefully. The one response that I erased from the thread was a light-heart joke that I made in response to some other jokes, and my comment was not taken as such. In fact, I seemed to have offended a group of people with whom I was not terribly familiar, which was the exact opposite of what I wanted. I detest being misunderstood, and every time another person responded to this thread, I would get a notification from Facebook, and would re-read how I did not belong with this group of people. I erased my comment, and spent several uncomfortable days not speaking with my aunt, the closest person that I knew on that thread, and the person who had actually called me out on my comment.
    While I’m not one to play the blame game, I’d like to point a finger at social media itself. There are times when communication fails utterly to convey what we mean, and I find that social media is the biggest offender. The printed word may move people to actions, or create empathy where there was none. I get literally breathless in reading Dr Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” because his writing style, mixed with a sense of urgency, pushes me to read in such a way that I cannot help but be moved. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” will leave you disgusted when you find yourself nodding along, because “he makes a well-reasoned argument.” But the problem with social media is that, for the most part, tone and meaning get lost. The responses are typically no longer than a tweet, not long enough to convey depth. For instance, I read short story about a drunk woman who dialed 911 to complain that she didn’t have a husband yet at her age, and that she had “a dating emergency”. Recognizing the ridiculousness of the situation, my mind immediately asked what that conversation might have sounded like, and I typed it out in response, phonetically slurring the words this woman might have used. But because I dropped the E from the front of the word “emergency”, I was suddenly tagged as being “racist” toward rednecks. One friend who HAD read the comment as it was intended – drunken slurring – suggested that had I added the overt “*hic!*” to the end of my comment, that it might not have read as such. Light teasing of my nephew lead to me being bitched out by one of his friends. Expressing sympathy for Sylvia Plath’s children earned me a lecture on not being sensitive to people with mental illnesses. In truth, these people don’t know me, and are trying to read my character through one or two sentences, an impossibility. There are shortcuts one can take, such as ending a comment that might be construed as harsh with a smiley-face emoticon, or trying to convey something important by using caps lock… but those might also be taken as sarcasm, and yelling.
    In truth, I thought for the better part of two days before posting the comment that I ended up erasing. I thought I might get a smiley face, or a “ha!” in response, or at worst, that my comment would go ignored. I did not expect for my aunt to use the phrases “sarcasm and sorrow” in her response. I erased it because it was a mark that I was an outsider, and because it made me look like someone I am not.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      You and Jeff raise very valid points about the nature of social media…which, in itself, isn’t something I was taking too deeply into account. It’s worth further consideration.

      You’re absolutely right that the medium shapes the message, and it’s much more difficult to convey the proper tone. In many cases, a smiley-face (as you suggest) or a simple note of clarification can make all the difference, but that’s both ungraceful and unreliable.

      I wouldn’t dare judge anyone for making their own decisions on what to delete and what not to…but I did want to raise the point in a general sense, as I do believe that thinking twice and facing your mistakes are both valuable lessons to learn. You — as I’ve gotten to know you a bit — wouldn’t be someone I’d single out as being in need of learning those lessons, and I do think there’s a kind of deletion that might well be justified. At the same time, though, I think that knowing that something can potentially be erased leads to an invasive carelessness on a larger scale. Not in everyone’s case, of course, but in a larger, social sort of way.

      It’s worth a discussion, I think, but ultimately I agree it’s not black and white. It’s also worth pointing out that deleting an entire thread is a bit different than carving out your own contributions to somebody else’s. I’m not going to say it’s inherently better, but I will say it at least avoids some of the issues I relate above that come with the latter.

      • Sarah Portland says:

        I do agree with your basic point that we should own up to our mistakes. I think social media is a funny gray area, and the rules haven’t been completely worked out yet. Frequently, a person ends up conversing with many people of all backgrounds across the globe, many of whom are going by pseudonyms, so you can never be sure of exactly who they are. Unfortunately, it’s a breeding ground for people who will start an argument simply to stress people out, and I can absolutely see why someone would delete their own comments in order to relieve that stress.
        There’s also the weirdness of the internet being both permanent and a giant photocopier at once. If you ask a “stupid” question in a public forum, there’s a chance that someone will hit copy and paste and share your question with others so that you might be mocked for their entertainment. For instance, on one of those “ask a question” sites, a guy put up that his girlfriend was pregnant, but that she hadn’t gotten her period in some time. His question was “could the baby be drinking the blood?” Maybe this guy had skipped biology class on that day. But I didn’t stumble upon his question on an “ask” site. I came across it on a humor site, where it had been recopied. I feel bad for him. If he had asked the right person (say, his girlfriend’s OB/GYN), he would have gotten a straight answer without exposing himself to ridicule. I feel like that guy deserves the option of hitting delete.
        HOWEVER, there are times when it’s been helpful. Todd Akin will forever be known as the “legitimate rape” guy who said that the female body can sense when rape is occurring and has ways of preventing pregnancy. At which point everyone in the US said, “My God, this guy holds a seat of power?” and he promptly lost his race. He should not be able to represent people, half of which are women, with that kind incorrect information. In that case, if he wants to lead again, it is up to him to live with and learn from his mistakes. There are some small things that are okay to take back, and some that need to be dealt with head-on.

    • Jeff says:

      When Facebook first came along, I didn’t see what the need was for another MySpace. My wife said it started as a student phenomenon, so I figured that made old people like me assume it was hip. (I am perfectly content to be an old grouch.) So I figured what the heck, I’ll create a Facebook account for a cartoon character I made, Mulligan the Mouse. Facebook’s response? “Please use a real name.”
      .
      “Phuq that!” I said.
      .
      Then, later on, I thought I needed an account in order to be able to do something I wanted to do. So I created one for Jennifer, a generic female. This person is supposedly 26 and has nothing in common with me whatsoever except for my home town.
      .
      Imagine my surprise when I started getting friend requests from people I actually knew. I hadn’t told anyone I created this account. I certainly hadn’t initiated any of it. Clearly what happened was that Facebook was somehow scanning my gmail account for contacts, or something of the like. What bullshit! What a fucking corrupt organization… that, plus their service sucks! (“Trevor ate French toast for breakfast. 16 people liked this.” WTF???)
      .
      It’s funny… I imagined the advent of the internet would democratize the world in a major way, allowing people to create and disseminate content individually, eliminating the need for corrupting influences such as TV execs, record companies, publishers, etc. The people would choose directly, and everything would prosper. What’s funny is that the content that now rises to the top is actually worse than it was when middemen filtered everything. After witnessing enough of this, stories like Sarah’s no longer surprise me… there’s something about the internet as a whole that makes dumbasses of us all.

      Don’t listen to me. I’m slowly turning into Abe Simpson. Also, the oddest thing about Sylvia Plath’s death is that her loved ones didn’t see it coming from a mile away. She did it so it hurt like hell!



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