I Am (probably) Not Your Friend

December 21st, 2019

Last night, my wife, She Who Must Be Taunted, encountered someone she knows saying something regrettable on the Twitter machine.

Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened.

I think about this because I’m a performer. I send out my newsletter, I ascend the stage, I greet you before and after the show. And I’ve gotten to know some of you quite well, and some of you I think of as friends. And yet, although many of you are aware of my uncharitable feelings toward Bob Dylan, or, heaven help us, “The Long Black Veil”, you probably have no idea what I think about the economy, or religion, or politics, because I’m a musician, not a politician or a rabbi or an economist. In fact, even if we were sharing a muffin in a non-public setting, I still might not share these thoughts, because they’re my thoughts, and for all I know, you may find them regrettable.

But we are in a historical moment where the private thoughts of people we care for – or people we thought we admired – are being willingly spattered like stray paint across the public consciousness. The boundaries have been crushed by social media, and the illusion of intimacy that it seems to create has both encouraged people to share their private thoughts, and has led us to demand that others share them, as the price of fandom or social acceptance. And, surprise, surprise, some of those private thoughts really should have remained in the closet where most of us used to wisely keep them.

I don’t mean to claim that the private should always remain so. Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein are criminals, and the privacy of their crimes kept them free for decades. But they were unmasked by others; they had enough of a sense of self-preservation, however depraved, not to unmask themselves. The democratization of media access has accelerated that unmasking, and it’s fantastic that the popular press has less and less leeway nowadays to remain complicit in these sorts of crimes. But the flip side of this – the voluntary disassembly of privacy – has consequences that most of us are foundationally unequipped to grasp, or manage.

You may think that we need to know these things about the people in our lives. But we do not. Whether or not we care to admit it, virtually everyone we’ve ever met, virtually everyone we’ve ever cared about, virtually everyone we’ve ever admired, has some secret, regrettable opinion that would curdle our fondness for them like lemon curdles milk. We all have flaws, sometimes serious ones. Flaws that we would be unwise to show to the world, whether or not we know it. And Tweetster and Friendbox present to us the illusion that they are not the blackness of the audience beyond the stage, but rather the silence of our living room when no one’s home. And the things that some of us say – the offensive, idiotic, regrettable things that some of us say – get broadcast to millions of people that we’d never allow in our house, and to millions of people with whom it would never occur to us to walk up to on the street and share the thought. We were not born for this. The feedback is all wrong. And yet, in spite of these horrid mismatches with the fundamental nature of our humanity, we give these devices to our children. We are truly, truly going to hell.

It’s on days like this that I stop worrying about climate change, because the planet will, eventually, right itself, long after our species has justifiably immolated its last bit of DNA. I don’t know how we save ourselves – our pottage is apparently a few free rounds of Farmtown, and hardly anyone seems to mind. Walls were built for many reasons – not simply to keep out the weather, or to protect the privacy we want to protect, but also to protect the privacy we don’t know we need – to maintain the illusion, for others, that our flaws are tolerable.

Many years ago, I read some of the most famous work of sociologist Erving Goffman, whose basic idea was that we are always on stage – we play roles for people in our lives, of parent, child, friend, mentor, employee, boss, and all of these roles involve different sets of public behaviors. We are different people to our spouses than we are to are children, or to our coworkers, or even to different groups of friends. And yet, even our celebrities, the professional performers, forget that what allows us to do this – what allows us to grease these wheels of human interaction – is the ability to exercise enough common sense to go into our rooms and close the goddamn door.

Happy New Year. Shut your piehole.

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