Yesterday a story hit the news (or at least some popular blogging sites) displaying screen-capture photos of an Alaska high school student’s facebook wall. The photos in question document a conversation that took place between the student and some of his peers regarding the new television show “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”. In this conversation, Willow Palin (the ex-governor’s 16 year old daughter) is shown to have joined in the debate about whether or not her mother’s show is “failing so hard right now”.
The conversation that follows is not unlike any other heated conversation that takes place on facebook. Many of the people involved are rude, crude and generally hateful to one another – and expletives get tossed around like they are going out of style. There is no fear of repercussion because it’s a semi-private conversation – only their friends can read what they’ve written, so there is plenty of room to speak their minds (and plenty of friends to cheer the fight on).
But here’s the rub: it’s not really private at all.
As Willow Palin discovered this week (and as an Arkansas school board member learned a few weeks ago), nothing is truly private on facebook. You can click the boxes that say “friends only” and revisit your privacy settings every single day, but all it takes is one person in your friend list who decides it is worthwhile to share your information…and then the whole world not only knows your business, but they also know precisely how you chose to state your business. Whether it is the racist or homophobic slurs you used against someone in an argument, a photo of that party you “never went to”, or a rant about how much you loathe your American History teacher, these things can all become public knowledge in the blink of an eye.
So, was it their fault that these “private” conversations found their way to a national audience? In the strictest sense, no. In each instance I’ve noted, the decision to send a screen shot to a news agency was the decision of another individual, and the individual’s motives are not known. It could have been about money, or fame, or causing trouble – and it could have been about exposing someone for who they really are so that others can know a truth about them. But for our purposes the motives don’t really matter – what’s done is done. The point is that we have the power to keep these painful public brouhahas from happening to us. And what is this power? It’s the power to pick and choose what we put up on the Internet – the power NOT to run our mouths.
To begin with, racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia are not good things. Whatever your religious values, there is simply no virtue to be found in being hateful. If slurs and other demeaning statements are part of your day to day speech, then you should consider shutting your mouth while you ponder the roots of your hatred. Hatred isn’t good for life – not yours, not mine, not anyone else’s – and it isn’t good for your faith, so spend your newly acquired time in silence uprooting that barren vine before it completely chokes your spirit.
Likewise, it generally isn’t a good idea to break laws, destroy property, over-indulge in harmful or obnoxious ways, strip publicly, etc. It also isn’t very smart to have a camera with you while engaging in any of the aforementioned behaviors. We do all make mistakes from time to time (you’ll certainly never hear me claim perfection, unless it’s done in a VERY tongue-in-cheek way), but is it wise to post those indiscretions on our facebook walls for all our friends (and, perhaps, the world) to see? Ummmm…no.
The Book of Proverbs has a lot to say about Wisdom (Sophia) and foolishness…and though the Internet wasn’t really a concern of the Old Testament authors, this collection of wisdom sayings speaks volumes to the issue at hand. For example:
“Those who guard their mouths
preserve their lives;
those who open wide their lips
come to ruin.” (Proverbs 13:3 NRSV)
“Even fools who keep silent are
when they close their lips, they are
deemed intelligent.” (Proverbs 17:28 NRSV)
It seems, even a few thousand years ago, the wise knew that while it was best not to make poor choices at all, it was also particularly inadvisable to broadcast their mistakes. While we should all strive to be the best people we can be (the people God hopes we will be), we will mess up from time to time. That is inevitable. But when we do mess up, when hateful things spring up in our hearts and start edging their way towards our mouths (or our fingertips), we should make the next wisest decision available: be silent.
At least then, in our silence, we won’t find things we’ve said on our facebook wall in the hands of our parents, our teachers, our co-workers or displayed on the Huffington Post…