Peeping Thomism

Culture, Education, Media

At some point in your youth, someone warned you that “this, young man, is going to go on your permanent record.” In my case, it was a high school vice principal. I’ve forgotten the infraction, but I remember the warning. The vice principal wasn’t a bad man, but he was a bit of martinet. That’s probably a part of the job description. I knew plenty of teachers and principals who disciplined out of impatience or because of a poorly hidden streak of petty sadism, but Mr. R. wasn’t one of them; I think he held an abiding belief that structure and direction were good—not just practically good, but universally and categorically so. Most disciplinarians just believe that children, that people, are rotten. Mr. R. believed that we were basically good, just stupid. The diagnosis was correct if the prescription was wrong, and in any event he was able to moderate his meanness, especially for the hard luck kids. That, I think, was the real mark of his moral character. He was never vindictive, and while I disagree with his code to this day, he applied it justly, which is to say, unequally, and contingent on the circumstances. American society often views harsh punishment as a virtue, and when we complain about the unequal application of the rules, we usually mean that rich guys get off too easy, but Mr. R. knew that the real problem is poor guys get it too hard. Man, did we hate that SOB, but we also thought he was kind of okay. Kids are sophisticated like that, more so than adults.

Anyway, the permanent record was one of those semi-mythical creatures that you publicly dismissed while privately fearing when you were camping in the woods and the fire had burned down. I was a rich kid in that poor town, in public school mostly because of politics related to my father’s job, and most high school discipline rolled right off me. It was a given that I’d graduate at the top of my class and decamp for some fancy college, which, indeed, I did. But I do remember the permanent record thing making me ever so slightly nervous, and if I laughed about it to my friends, then I still privately fretted that some ambitious admissions officer would haul up my file and mark me off with a red X for some past minor infraction. Now, of course, kids really do get a permanent record because schools have followed the general trend of American social hysteria and started calling the cops for the slightest infraction; detention is now a misdemeanor, and so on. That’s a shame, because the permanent record ought to be as laughable now as it ever was. Do you remember yourself when you were sixteen? Many descriptors come to mind, but fully formed isn’t one of them.

As if that weren’t bad enough, that idea that one ought to be branded with one’s own youth like a poorly considered neck tattoo, we now find not only kids, but adults (especially new adults) getting constantly dinged with the dire warning that Social Media Lasts Forever. I think this is probably patently untrue in a purely physical sense; it strikes me as probable that fifty years from now, the whole electronic record of our era will be largely lost in a sea of forgotten passwords, proprietary systems, faulty hardware, and compatibility issues. But it should also be untrue in, dare I say it, the moral sense. Educators and employers are constantly yelling that you young people have an affirmative responsibility not to post anything where a teacher or principal or, worst of all, boss or potential boss might find it, which gets the ethics of the situation precisely backwards. It isn’t your sister’s obligation to hide her diary; it’s yours not to read it. Your boyfriend shouldn’t have to close all his browser windows and hide his cell phone; you ought to refrain from checking his history and reading his texts. But, says the Director of Human Resources and the Career Counselor, social media is public; you’re putting it out there. Yes, well, then I’m sure you won’t mind if I join you guys at happy hour with this flip-cam and a stenographer. Privacy isn’t the responsibility of individuals to squirrel away secrets; it’s the decency of individuals to leave other’s lives alone.

At some point, employers will have to face up to the unavoidability of hiring people whose first Google image is a shirtless selfie. Demographics will demand it. They’ll have to get used to it just as surely as they’ll have to get used to nose rings and, god help us, neck tattoos. It’s a shame, though, that it’ll be compulsory and reluctant. We should no more have to censor our electronic conversations than whisper in a restaurant. I suspect that as my own generation and the one after it finally manage to boot the Boomers from their tenacious hold on the steering wheel of this civilization that they’ve piloted ineluctably and inexorably toward the shoals, all the while whining about the lazy passengers, we will better understand this, and be better, and more understanding. And I hope that the kids today will refuse to heed the warnings and insist on making a world in which what is actually unacceptable is to make one’s public life little more than series of polite and carefully maintained lies.

27 thoughts on “Peeping Thomism

  1. Actually, I do think you should keep your voice down in restaurants. I no more want to hear about your relationship problems than I want to yell louder than you to get my own point across to my tablemates. It’s not so much privacy as it is general respectfulness. And people that used to use their Nextel phones in push-to-talk mode in restaurants are lower than neo-liberal beltway hacks.

  2. This bit from your cover page caught my eye: I’m ashamed to admit I actually like accounting, and it taught me to distrust finance.

    I’m 1/2 with you on that. Accounting did teach me that the whole thing (The Economy, The Market, etc.) is a sham, but I still don’t like it.

  3. As long as the idiotic culture of corporate conformity dominates the the world, the first thing hiring managers will do when looking at a resume is google the person. It’s the nature of the economic order, not the generation at the helm.

    1. Another interesting thing is so-called “Facebook stalking:” the lurid curiosity about other human beings that’s encouraged by having so much so easily close at hand.

      As a hiring manager, I make it a point not to look for potential candidates’ social media profiles and such.* But all of my under-30 staff members immediately want to look for everybody on Facebook.

      So my hope isn’t that the next generation will be less nosy (I don’t think that aspect of humanity is going anywhere…), so much as they’ll be less inclined to make grand interpretations out of what they see.

      *Well, unless they’re one of those people who submits a 7 page resume with no work or significant volunteer experience, but is full of “Publications” that are personal blog posts. Then I just can’t resist.

  4. My special lady friend, today, accused me of loving my cats more than I love her. Well, duh, I told her. Look who I post more pictures of on Facebook.

  5. This would be true if blogging, twitter, facebook, tumblr, etc weren’t an ultimately narcissistic endeavor, entreating the world to “LOOK AT ME.” I mean, I do it too, but if you’re yelling across the restaurant, you can’t get mad that someone else is listening.

    1. This is the key. Things are going to get worse, not because people are looking harder, but because they want to be /seen more/. Narcissism is the social disease of Our Time(TM).

  6. Permanent naked. Yes, we all have one.

    Power is borrowed, never owned, and it requires certain assurances from those it is loaned to. This produces a secret, possibly unconscious desire for a permanent naked that is shameful enough to be like a leash for the hand of fate.

    You hope to become President of the United States someday? Get off your duff and start sexting.

  7. Did writing that book make you an optimist or something? Yeah, yeah. The old farts fucked it all up, but the coming generations will set things right and finally be able to celebrate the brotherhood of man.

    I don’t know about HR people, but plenty of young bloggers are not above googling up some dirt to use on their perceived enemies. Perhaps they’ll mature with the passage of time.

  8. Boomer leadership is the problem, providing that you inhabit this slice of the universe.

    Pointing out that the current gaggle of bloodthirsty millionaires might not be the only one to have a go at your throat during your lifetime is not the way to deal with an imminent threat.

  9. It’s not the boomers. It’s human nature to dig all the dirt that can be dug. That we have king-kong steam-engine super shovels these days, well, that’s just how technology is. The goog’s not going away. People who use a bulldozer don’t go back to shovels voluntarily.

    As for the permanence of modern information: well, I think you’re wrong on that. It’s true that there is a lost internet of 20+ years ago. I must get back all those screeds posted to libertarian usenet! But on the other hand, even some of that stuff still exists, and there is almost nothing modern that’s not known to Google and the Internet Wayback. Formats may change, but these days writing translators is easier than ever.

    Privacy is dying, for reasons both technical and political. I see no force that can reverse the trend. Our descendants won’t have your stuffy notion of privacy. Instead they’ll have no shame. It will all be out there, from drug use to pussy shots to bowel movements.

  10. This sounds right to me. Keep the masses docile with dire warnings that their non-criminal behavior, exhibitionist or not, might be used against them in the labor market. The goal is surveillance, or the threat of it when the owners can’t be there. When did we ever have a private life anyway, or at least a long spell of solitude and freedom. Capitalism is the story of mandatory, unasked for connections….. your “privacy” scrutinized and monitored by parents, school, a loving spouse. Go ahead and post whatever stupid shit you want, you’re still not getting that job.

  11. “I hope that the kids today will refuse to heed the warnings and insist on making a world in which what is actually unacceptable is to make one’s public life little more than series of polite and carefully maintained lies.”

    But I’m scared 😦

  12. But we do whisper in restaurants (and shoot quick disdainful looks at those who talk too loud) and employers have shown complete willingness to delve into our personal lives. And that, I think, is the point. We know that employers have no sense of decency or respect of these kind of boundaries. Why shouldn’t we acknowledge that?

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