Don’t take this personally. Remember when that phrase was usually followed by …..but……?
By that point the speaker might have confessed to preferring girls with blonde hair (though yours was black); or to being a total believer in the superiority of the Mets (though you were a loyal supporter of the Bronx Bombers.) These were differences you could live with. They might have created a passing sense of puzzlement but they did not usually engender a sense of insult or betrayal or disdain. Why? As best I can understand, it was because there was a recognizable distinction between what was personal and what was public. But in this past, interminable election season, I look back to that earlier time with feelings ranging from wistful to downright sad.
The bitter voices of accusation, innuendo and disagreement remind me that in a world of compulsive tweeting and Facebook friending and unfriending, and, and, and, personal may well have lost its meaning. Or more accurately it is all too easy to be desensitized to the fact that there is no productive reason for some things to be made public. I recall the comment of a book reviewer who once damned an author with faint praise when he said, “he never had an unpublished thought.”
I turned these musings over in my mind while lamenting the cruel assessments of human beings that confront me at every turn. I wonder if social media and mass and massively interactive communications have robbed us of the luxury of the personal opinion. The one you may hold, measure, weigh, retain or reject. In the course of that process you may seek the advice of a person you deem wise or objective or with a track record of balanced judgment: someone you have reason to admire. Might an epidemic of rush to judgment be setting our society on the path of the lemming rushing to the sea, and so simultaneously to its destruction?
I don’t want to dwell on the morbid spectacle of child and adolescent suicides, seemingly triggered by social media. Too many seem to have resulted from the fact that hasty judgments based on hysteria like that of the Salem witch hunts or the last century’s McCarthy hearings proved to be fatally indigestible. In my own life I have come to realize that until I had some credible level of self-knowledge I was not really able to balance what others thought of me with what I had come to recognize about myself.
Humor can often be the great antidote that prevents being poisoned by judgments about one or other quality or action. That is because laughter is a response to what is incongruous. You just know that it’s laughable to suggest that 40 clowns are getting out of one miniature car. Once you get that straight you recognize the joke. But first you had to understand a couple of real things about clowns and cars and how they relate to each other. Victims of social media bullying might be rescued by catching on to the fact that someone is trying to sell them a bill of goods that doesn’t stand up to a simple reality test. The bully is counting on his or her target suspending common sense and failing to ask, “What are your credentials for passing judgment on me? What exactly do you mean by applying that title to me?”
But back to the world of the so-called grownups. They/we are also at risk. Just this week I heard a word being used that I am betting will show up as one of the “new words’ identified in the Oxford Dictionary’s year-end survey. It was “over-sharing.” Think about it. What is the knife-edge between openness and the absence of standards? What is the timing that needs to be observed between having a thought or impulse and broadcasting it in its instant and unedited form? It seems that the big challenge is to recognize the distinction between the social and the personal. Social media may be exactly the right platform on which to display reactions to what is properly social, namely open to all the members of a society to be noted/or not; embraced/or not; taken seriously/or not. This may be just the setting in which to recycle the old warning, “Don’t take this personally.”
Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears every Sunday.