There’s a lot of conversation this week about Sopan Deb’s interview with the cast of “Arrested Development.” The show is bringing back Jeffrey Tambor, despite his prior terrible behavior. For his part, Tambor seems ready to come to terms with and make amends for his bad behavior. But there’s still a lot of outrage. There are a lot of people who do not want to give second chances. A lot of people want to define us all by the worst thing we have done, which provides no incentive for any of us to ever get better.
I wrote about this a while back in my book:
One of daughter’s teachers once congratulated me. They had never had a parent whom they did not feel comfortable googling in class to show the kids how the internet works—never had one until me. My kids need to know the things I am not proud of as well as those I am proud of. This now must be written and it is painful to write. I have alluded to it and danced around it and now must confront it.
There is a story in the New Testament. In the fifth chapter of Mark, which most Bible-believing Christians accept as Peter’s account written by the disciple John Mark, Jesus performs an exorcism:
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. Mark 5:1-13 (ESV)
“My name is Legion, for we are many.” Cast into the nearly two thousand pigs, the herd charged down a bank into the sea and drowned. Had Peter continued with this story he would have noted that the demons, upon leaving the deadpigs, all got Twitter accounts. I am increasingly convinced social media is of the devil. Many people, many good people, have anonymous accounts on social media and let loose a torrent of vile and unseemly ideas. They wish ill on others. They say things they would never say if their name were connected to it. Sometimes they even do and say things they do not believe, but love to provoke a reaction. Trolls come out from under a bridge and harass, intimidate, yell, and otherwise make life on the internet a terrible place.
I have behaved like that, regrettably. Unlike most trolls, I did it under my own name.
In 2009, Justice David Souter retired from the United States Supreme Court. A friend, on a group email, made a statement we all thought was awful, but awfully funny at the same time. The friend, smartly, decided he should not put it on social media. But I did. My tweet referred to the retiring justice as “a goat f**king child molester.” Even now, all these years later, I cringe just writing these words.
With the group email, it was just my friends and me. With Twitter it was tens of thousands of other people, many of them people who considered me worth following because they valued, though not necessarily agreed with, my opinion. I did my level best that day to destroy all my credibility.
Piled on from all sides, my response was to double down and refuse to apologize. I had said something people did not like and they could deal with it. But the kernel of guilt had already been planted. In less than a week, but longer than it should have taken, I apologized. The impetus for my apology was a friend in trouble who needed to be defended, but
I could not defend her without first apologizing for my own actions and using myself as the example of being wrong.
All this time later, the incident still comes up. Some people seem to relish bringing it up. Almost a decade later, some would define me still by that tweet. No amount of apology can ever be enough. When I publicly rebuke someone for their bad behavior, others throw this old tweet in my face. It is used by those who do not like me to undermine my credibility. No interview with the press ever passes without it coming up. No profile in any magazine lets it pass. It will, no doubt, be in my obituary as that which I am most famous for. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
It was a terrible thing that I wrote — a shameful thing. As someone who tries to live out my faith, it undercut that ability. The first question in the Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief and highest end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.” I had failed at my chief task. Not only had I not glorified my Creator, but I had hindered my ability to attract others to Him and reflect Him in my life.
In a way, though, I am glad it happened. I was utterly clueless in how my work affected my family and friends.
Even after apologizing publicly, I found my wife days later crying in our kitchen. Having to apologize to her was harder than apologizing publicly. She was hurt. People who would never come up to me to question me or berate me were doing it to her. She got the awkward questions. She got the hard questions. Everyone avoided me and she bore the brunt of it. Her family had to deal with it. Some of her relatives read about it in the local paper. It makes me nauseous just to think about it.
Never once had I ever considered my family would be impacted by what I said, wrote, or did. Never once did I think I would have to worry about them. The whole experience was eye-opening. It forced me to realize that there were others who did look up to me. Moreover, I had a family who really did support me and could be disappointed in me. People who I presumed were passive players in my life were actually active participants.
A year later, when CNN hired me, all the people who hated me swirled into the fray demanding the hiring be undone because of that one tweet. It was a self-inflicted scarlet letter. I remember that as pressure mounted to have my contract canceled I was in a Toyota dealership, about to buy my first new car ever. I had to call my boss at CNN and ask if I could sign the contract for the car. Luckily, the network showed me grace others wished they would not show me.
Gunnar and Evelyn need to know that others will always seek to define me by the bad things I have done and it will happen to them too. My generation was blessed to grow up before social media and the internet. Our worst temptations could be constrained because we had no access to anonymous online outlets. My children will not be so lucky. They will not be able to escape from anything they do. The internet is forever and there will always be those who refuse to show grace or forgiveness unless they conform.
I have no doubt in my mind that if I abandoned my principles and convictions, I would be embraced. I see it happen all the time. The people who conform their values to the herd are forgiven or ignored. Those who do not are always forced to relive the bad things they did. My children, you, and I must resist the temptation to abandon our principles because we have fallen short of them. The world roots for us to do that. Legion has Twitter accounts cheering you on to fail and embrace the failure.
The mob mentality of social media is one of its worst aspects. Any person or business may have the mob summoned against it. If the social media mob disagrees with a business owner’s views, it will harass the business and try to ruin its reputation until the business owner conforms. Disagree with a person’s politics, religion, views, votes, or even clothing choices and watch the mob pick up digital pitchforks to demand apology and conformity.
Just as dangerous, political and polite disagreements can be magnified, amplified, and weaponized. Say something provocative or disagreeable and watch as others attempt to harm you with it. There are, to this day, things I have done and said that others think I should apologize for. As much as I have learned that I must apologize when I have done something wrong, the equally valuable corollary has been to hunker down and weather the storm of social media scorn and mob demands for conformity when I believe I am right and Legion thinks I am wrong.
Social media, a mob mentality, and demands for conformity make it more and more important that we know who we are. We need to know how we define ourselves and how we honestly should be identified. We cannot be merely the accumulation of our tweets or Facebook posts. We must be, and we are, more than that. Each of us is created in the image of God. We are sons and daughters of others who came before us. Our parents have aspirations for us and we have aspirations for our children. We have neighbors, family, and friends.
In my time running two websites and interacting with people who made their names on the internet, I have learned something important. The people whose lives are defined by their internet personae are typically the most maladjusted people I know. It is not necessarily that they are socially awkward, but that they are oftentimes bitter and frequently cannot accept that they are to blame for their own problems. Everyone else is to blame. The people who seem the most normal online are most often those grounded in the real world, who have families and church attendance and civic participation.
Gunnar and Evelyn are going to be challenged, as will all children. They will see people who are “YouTube famous” and be tempted to give it a go themselves. The internet is an alluring place. Legion will try to absorb them, define them, and conform them. But I want my children to live in the real world. I want them to have unique, strong identities as individuals created in the image of their Creator, loved by their parents, and put on this planet to glorify God and leave it better than they found it. The world is a physical, dirty, often unseemly and untidy place. The internet amplifies much of it, but often ignores the good. I want my children to find their meaning and existence offline in a world of physical relationship, not long-distance digital relationships.
And, I will add, I want them to leave lots of room for grace and forgiveness.