The Quest For a Mistake-Free Life
The Trumpians in our midst call for us to Make America Great Again and that seems to be an idealization of the 1950s. Certainly people were more financially prosperous and the country was on the rise internationally. It was also a time of the HUAC, people looking to out potential communists, families hiding their infidelities and deep unhappiness with a veneer of suburbia and cul de sacs. The 1950s were a time when making mistakes were forbidden and to make them in public was cause for societal excommunication.
A friend of mine recently was fired from his dispensary job for making a pretty simple mistake.
When checking ID’s, he accidentally let someone underage (by about four months) into the dispensary and the mistake was a deal breaker for the company. On one end of things, his firing is reasonable. These places can be shut down in an instant, without notification, for making this kind of mistake. On the other end, the requirement that employees never make mistakes like these emphasizes a workforce trend that is wholly depressing.
In this society, we are no longer allowed to make mistakes.
There is a paradox at play in that we are encouraged to gain experience in order to be employable yet the only path to truly valuable experience is to make mistakes and learn from them. No mistakes equals no genuine experience and the Mobius Strip circles us like the spectre of failure writ constant.
I used to teach a workshop in producing live events and the point I tried to make at the top of each class was that I do not know everything about producing events — I have simply made so many mistakes and learned from them that the class is more a compilation of those lessons than a comprehensive How-To. If I were teach a workshop on marriage, I could say the same thing. If there were workshops on bigotry, misogyny, stupidity, and generally drunken and awful behavior, I could make a mint on the carne pile of screw-ups and consequent lessons learned from the sum total.
You’d, of course, have to take my word for it pre-2008 because in the nineties I didn’t exactly keep a public record of my rank feeblemindedness.
In the vast, putrid wasteland of social media, there is no longer the ability to learn from those mistakes and move on because any asshole with broadband can scour the indelible history of almost anyone they meet and find digital proof of their mistakes without the concomitant lessons learned from them. It’s one thing to be a Gen X dude whose online history barely covers the past twenty years of my life but to be someone twenty-five in this desert of understanding has to be debilitating.
That one time he noticed a co-worker wearing a sexy cat costume at a Halloween party and commented “Nice!” seems like an inappropriate come on and he is hauled into HR to explain it.
The incident where she tweeted a gallows joke about dead babies and loses her job over it.
When he got drunk in college and someone filmed it on their phone and it resurfaces when he is being interviewed for Wal Mart and they pass on him because of the behavior exhibited twenty years ago.
In a print culture, you could choose whether or not you were going to keep all your embarrassing photographs from high school and all your high school yearbooks. More importantly, if you kept anything, you could choose who you were going to share these documents with in your current life. Personally, I don’t have any photographs from that stage of my life, and if they are out there, retrieving them would require a lot of work. I doubt anyone would bother, and I’m happy that’s the case.
With digital photography, though, we have more images than ever before, and on social media platforms, where these images travel is increasingly out of our control. So had I been an adolescent in the 2000s, rather than the 1980s, I wouldn’t know what images of me were in circulation and what might reappear at any time. But this doesn’t mean that those of us who came of age in a print culture are not also at risk.
With the digitization of things like old printed high school yearbooks and automated facial recognition, we’re also beginning to see older images appearing in searches.
What’s changed? The ability of something from the past to interrupt the present has been amplified over the past decade due to technology. We’re just beginning to face the consequences.
There is the argument that this sort of digital unearthing of mistakes or outright villainy is necessary in the same way that the Watergate investigation was necessary and I’d agree. Those in power, CEOs, elected officials, people who make overarching decisions that directly affect the rest of us should be subject to heightened scrutiny. A senator known for pushing a conservative anti-abortion law who has paid for an abortion for his mistress? That’s vital info and should be considered. Lindsey Graham being confronted with his public cries for Clinton’s impeachment is absolutely valid.
There is, however, a price that we all pay for this sort of citizen-outing strategy — not all outings are real, not all outed are in any sort of power position, and not all citizens are citizens.
There is a low-grade paranoia at foot in the world today and not merely due to a fear of the government spying on us through digital means. There are cameras everywhere, someone is always filming us from every angle. The benefit is that it forces us to be on our best behavior (at least that’s the idea) and the consequence is a constant self-censoring of any authentic interaction with the world. The mask shown online becomes increasingly necessary to wear in public and in private until none of us is allowed to be truly genuine.
The Black Mirror episode entitled “Nosedive” shows us a society obsessed and controlled by personal ratings on devices. Enough negative ratings and goods and services begin to be denied us, enough negative ratings and our lives become completely controlled by the whims of strangers.
There is certainly some blowback from this existence. If your cause is deemed acceptable then your behavior can be combative, unpleasant, rude and aggressive and any response other than submissive acceptance of that is referred to as tone policing. Thus, this digital shame cycle becomes a tool for those activists of either stripe to utilize against their political enemies. Director James Gunn loses his lucrative gig at Disney over tweets from decades ago; Professor Brett Weinstein is bullied out of his long-standing tenure from his stance against a day of white exclusion.
In this Brave New World, the quest for a mistake-free life is no longer self-focused but outwardly facing as partisans and fringe voices seek (and succeed) to control the behavior of their rivals and it works.
What happens to people who are no longer allowed by society to fuck up once in a while? My guess is that they slowly, inwardly seethe until they explode upon society in more and more violent and anti-social ways. It all becomes another form of oppression that foments a rage that is thirsty for some relief. Social media is a way of asking an overpopulated world to “Look at ME!” but it is increasingly becoming a method of declaring “Look at THEM!” making us an entire society of tattle-tales and scolds.
What happens to us when we are no longer allowed to make mistakes, to blow our cool, to put our feet in our mouths, to button down everything authentic and endeavor to be nothing more than avatars of the expectations of others?
We make America the 1950’s all over again. Great, huh?