We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?
Rehtaeh Parson’s death is so incredibly tragic and, yet, not at all surprising or uncommon. How is that even possible? How is this not the first time we’ve had a young person raped, photographed, vilified and ultimately bullied to death? How am I supposed to believe her death will be the last of its sad kind? I wish I could.
Instead, I’ll tell you what I do believe.
I believe we have replaced traditional communities with abstract networks of people we may or may not ever even meet face-to-face. Imagine if you drew a line down the centre of a piece of paper and on one side listed all the groups you belong to in real life. These would be things you had to register or sign up for: Teams, clubs, unions, volunteer organizations. Then, on the other side, imagine you listed all the networks you are part of in cyberspace: Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, forums, blogs. For the real kicker, imagine you spent a week tallying the amount of time you spent interacting with actual humans vs. the amount of time you spent communicating with cyber folks. If you did that and Column A came out on top, I would have to assume you were either my 92 year-old grandmother or a strangely literate baby.
I believe many neighbourhoods today are nothing more than streets lined with houses, as opposed to mutually guarded safe havens where parents and families look out for one another. How many of your neighbours do you know by name? When I was kid, I knew who lived in every house on my street and if I saw them at the grocery store or in the park it would have been unthinkable not to stop and say hello, because I knew them. We were neighbours. Today, I don’t know anyone else who lives on my street, although there is an elderly woman who walks into town every single day and she seems cool. I thought once about asking her name, but then kind of chickened out because it felt too personal, almost creepy. There’s something wrong with that.
I believe that, because we have so few real life networks, many of us have lost our sense of belonging and, therefore, our sense of responsibility. If I see something online that I don’t like – a comment or a photo or a post – I have the option of ignoring it because I am one of a bajillion members and it’s easy to either remind myself, conveniently, that I don’t even actually know these people, or convince myself that the things I witness on the internet somehow aren’t technically real. If I get really riled up I can leave the group or delete my account or cancel my membership. That’s not how it works when you belong to a team or organization that incorporates eye contact and body language and speaking out loud in real time. I imagine that, back in The Day, you couldn’t get away with being a jackass for long before someone would call you out on it and make a plea for retribution. Today, I think we treat our real life communities like our online communities a lot of the time. When we catch wind of something that doesn’t sit quite well with us we often turn a blind eye and assume there’s someone closer to the situation than we are and that they will deal with it as they see fit, thereby giving ourselves permission not to get involved. Maybe if we felt like our communities and neighbourhoods and schools were something we actually belonged to, we would feel a greater sense of responsibility to make them really great.
I believe that we give greater importance to individual comfort than to the well being of a group or society, maybe because we don’t feel responsible or a sense of ownership within our neighbourhoods and communities. Last winter, I helped my mom with a bottle drive that had been organized by her choir. I drove her around the neighbourhood – our neighbourhood – early in the evening to collect the goods folks had presumably set aside for the well-publicized event. Each time my mother got out of the car to ring a doorbell, I was mortified. It seemed so intrusive to me that she would walk right up to their front door and ring the bell, and at supper time! What if they didn’t want to be interrupted? What if they had just sat down to eat? What if they were in a rush and didn’t have time for this? Looking back on it now, I’m still mortified, but this time by my own reaction. Why didn’t it occur to me that the potential of disrupting a meal for, at most, 3 minutes, was far outweighed by the good we were doing in raising money for a worthy cause in our community? I realize, too, that I’ve been applying this same lopsided hesitation to simple things like calling a friend without scheduling a phone date in advance, or knocking on someone’s door if I happen to be in the neighbourhood with time for a cup of tea. Shouldn’t the possibility that I might catch them at a bad time be dwarfed by the friendly gesture of reaching out to connect with the people in my inner circle? Somehow, ironically, we’ve become so concerned with respecting people’s privacy and personal space that we’ve isolated ourselves from each other and allowed our communities to disintegrate to the point where kids are so disconnected from their neighbours and classmates that they will rape, vilify and bully each other to death.
We’ve come a long way, alright. Maybe it’s time to turn around and head back home.