The Choate Rosemary Hall school in Wallingford, Connecticut, is one of the nation's premiere prep schools. Kids go there with hopes of a bright future. Most are boarders, but many are day students. All live in a privileged bubble. But they are still kids, and kids do stupid things. So, frankly, do adults. We tolerate vast amounts of stupidity and petty behavior in our society. We've not yet criminalized being boorish, petty and vain. But Choate is different. It wants to remake human nature.
Just ask the two young women recently expelled from Choate for cyberbullying. It seems they posted nasty and snarky comments about classmates on their Facebook pages. Comments like the following:“EWWW, SHE’S SO GROSS AND FAKED AND SPRAY TANNED,” wrote one Choate girl. “Some ho kissing Herbie.”
Another young woman apparently posted the following: "You know it is possible to say no when someone tries to have sex with you,” the New Haven Register reports. “Just throwing that out there. Like no is still an option, you whore.”
Choate's trying to teach civility, among other things. So it has blocked access to Facebook through the school computer system, stealing a page from the playbook of such communications geniuses as the Chinese Communist Party.
Does it really come as a surprise to anyone that the Internet can be a savage place? Consider the online comments to newspaper stories about controversial topics. Perfectly civilized people loosen a few screws, adopt a pseudonym, and fire away. These otherwise normal folks then press the "send" button and watch with the glee of a toddler as their verbal pudding hits the electronic wall. There is a doctoral dissertation to be written on snarky Internet communication: We've memorialized the whispering at the water cooler and made permanent the hissing of every malcontent with access to a computer.
I'm not saying this is a good thing. But it is far from the end of civilized world as we know it. There have always been bullies and gossip has titillated so long as communities existed and the many thought they could enhance their prestige and standing at the expense of the few. Gossip is the secret agent of conformity, enforcing norms of behavior through the force of shame and ridicule. The Internet merely intensifies and concentrates this malevolent chatter.
This was evident not long ago in the suicide of a Rutgers University student whose roommate thought it sporting to video the boy's private encounter with another male student. Because it is easy to bash and ridicule the other, this young man's homosexual encounter was broadcast to the world. The outed student crumbled under the pressure, and killed himself. It was a tragic and unnecessary death. But the Internet did not kill him.
Traditional tort law provides remedies for the harm folks do online. A person can sue another for breach of privacy by way of publicizing private facts, as was done in the Rutgers case. Folks spreading false information can be sued for defamation. Organizations that publish without editing the anonymous screeds of the unhinged ranter can find themselves the target of suit for publicizing falsehoods. We are not without the tools to police the boundaries of acceptable speech.
But wholesale steps such as shutting down a school's access to Facebook are simply silly. This teaches nothing about the virtues and skills necessary to survive in a world of strangers. There were seven deadly sins long before there was an Internet. Aristotle's Ethics was written long before there were even bound books. Times and technologies change; human snarkiness doesn't.
Online life can be nasty and brutish, to paraphrase what Thomas Hobbes once said of the state of nature. So you learn to adapt. The social media network is the modern equivalent of the state of nature. As the media evolves, so do standards of behavior. This is bound to create winners and losers in the game of seeking the only currency this media offers: influence. But responding to these pressures requires no greater skills than those mastered on yesteryear's playgrounds. If you ignore the bullies, they lose their power. Simply accept as a compliment the fact that another cares so deeply about you as to seek to wound you, and the glass that once seemed half full suddenly overflows. In more than a decade of opinion writing about the law, I learned long ago that the best response to a hostile critic is simply this: "Thank you so much for reading me."
For my part, I've learned that it is relatively simple to just walk away from snark. Becoming a cast member in someone else's melodrama yields little. Not long ago I disengaged from series of online writers whose chest-thumping self-righteousness became tedious. Months have passed since I read a few of them. I missed them at first, and then found other things to read. I learned the other day several of these writers have now gone on "strike" as regards Twitter. The medium is too stupid for them. Some strike: I gave nothing when they performed; I'll give less to entice them to return. But chatter abhors a vacuum: the struggle to be a thought leader is the new war of all against all.
Choate deprives its students of the valuable lesson that in every group there are snide and niggling souls who feed off the sorrow of others. That's life. You deal with it and move on, learning to ignore the chatter. And if you can't ignore it, you can at least learn from it. One of the best comments I read last year was by an anonymous screed writer to the Danbury News Times who commented that I dressed like "an unmade bed." When I mentioned this to my wife, she merely noted that I am indeed, sartorially challenged. The remark stung. So last summer I bought a few new suits. Heads turn in the courthouse when old friends see me now. But for the malevolence of someone's nasty comment, I'd have never bought those suits. I am glad I read that snarky little screed, although, in fact, I've long since learned that scorn is a gift freely given by those with little else to offer.