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The unintended consequence of free speech

When I was young I dreamed of being a writer. Actually, that’s not true; I dreamed of being several writers. The first step to becoming a writer, any writer will tell you, is becoming a reader. So depending on what I had just read that had thrummed a particular chord inside me, that was the kind of writer I dreamed of being. A novelist, a screenwriter, a playwright, a journalist, even a songwriter on rare occasions.

And I grew up doing some writing. Little writings, here and there. In high school I wrote and delivered an award winning essay as part of a citywide Veterans of Foreign Wars competition, and was supposed to receive my award from then-mayor of Philadelphia Frank Rizzo. Instead, Frank was busy and sent his District Attorney, future Philly mayor and PA governor Ed Rendell. I literally threw out the commemorative Liberty Bell a week ago while cleaning my basement. The engraved plaque had fallen off, and I couldn’t come up with a valid reason I would need a Liberty Bell clanging around.

I wrote and directed a one-act play in college that was universally acclaimed. (Disclaimer: The “universe” was Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, home of a college of 2,100 students at the time.) The next year I collaborated with my stage manager to recreate it for video. It was objectively awful. No one ever told me you have to write completely differently for different media. Or if they did, I didn’t listen; that’s classic me. Some things you have to learn the hard way.

And advertising. I wrote a few ad campaigns during my career that were recognized. And just as many that I remain proud of, though not necessarily the same ones. I think my favorite remains a series of radio commercials for Cadillac (the Catera sport sedan) that took aim at import competitors by spoofing the stereotypical 1990s Lexus, BMW and Saab enthusiasts. The Saab spot was my favorite, in part because it attracted the attention of GM Corporate, who had seen fit to invest heavily in Saab and didn’t like me making fun of their property, even in service of another of their properties. So they made us pull that spot forever.

Does feeling proud that I got smacked by a global mega-company make me a bad person? I hope not. It still makes me smile.

I used to feel so privileged to have had these small victories. My heroes were literary and cultural titans but I never on my best day ever really believed I could get there among them. That’s why they were dreams. Forget for the moment that I didn’t believe I was worthy of the success – that’s another therapy session. No, there were legions of barriers between regular people and icons beyond just talent. Who you were, where you lived, how old you were, if you had representation, resources.

And tenacity. There’s a parable from the biography of Bruce Springsteen that has always stuck with me, enough that I have repeated it to my kids and others throughout my life. Bruce was in a garage band in high school like every famous musician. Ten, 20, 30 years later he was the only one in his band who had become, well, Bruce Springsteen. He’s also the only member of his old band who never bent to pressure and got a real job. Normal life was not something he was prepared to accept.
Did he become The Boss because he was singularly talented, or just impossibly stubborn?

It’s interesting, right? How many talented people just don’t have the single-minded determination to reach their dreams?

Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. Back in the day there were all these barriers to gaining exposure. As far back as the written word those barriers included things like:

  • Not many people could read; and
  • Not many printing/reproduction resources existed.

And as time went on, barriers changed but persisted. I saw them as barriers but they were checks and balances, too. All the hoops you had to jump through was a way to help ensure what came out the other end was, well, worth consuming. Agents, managers, editors, publishers, media executives, statisticians, social scientists. It was like the world’s most effective coffee filter, and the benefit was coffee that was fit to drink.

And then the internet. And then social media. And the barriers dissolved.

Today anyone, anywhere, can write anything and be read by hundreds, thousands, even millions of people around the world in the time it takes to eat a normal size bowl of cereal. The layers of the filter have evaporated. No, scratch that: the filters are still there, but there are paths around and through them, there are work-arounds and hacks. It’s an odd melting pot of opportunities and shortcuts.

Today anyone can, with no preparation or forethought or particular skillset, start a blog that’s just suddenly out there. Your honor, Exhibit A.

Today musicians can record and distribute 100% free of a music label, controlling their content and destiny in the commercial world as well as the creative process. Artists can subsist by home-growing their fan base, or they can be discovered, fully-formed, by larger operations that used to have to gamble on talent and vision. Now they can invest in a sure thing.

Today authors of every shape and stripe can self-publish. Anything.

And today, thanks to the Twitterscape (Twittersphere? Twitterverse?) literally anyone, including a President of the United States, can just mouth off about anything to everyone who cares to see, unfiltered, unspell-checked, uncontrolled in any way.

Jesus, what have we done?

I chafed at every obstacle I encountered as a younger man, and maybe I didn’t have the sophistication to realize that obstacles serve a purpose. Or maybe I did, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that hindsight is indeed 20-20, and we have let the genie out of the damn bottle.

I am somewhat stubbornly resistant to most social media today. Because I can be. When my kids were in school I needed Facebook and Instagram and – for a few misguided moments – even Snapchat to be looped in. It was a necessity. And like most people, as soon as I waded into the swamp I found myself caught up by the undertow. The happiness of reconnecting with people from your past gives way to a realization that maybe some people were better left in the rear-view. Regardless, it’s a huge time-suck. Like shopping at Costco: you go in for a quick toilet paper and paper towel run, and you leave an hour later and $200 lighter with enough salsa to host a Quinceañera.

And without the burden of being within line of sight or arm’s length, there is no reason to be filtered or varnished or kind. Suddenly we are all able to choose our voices and our words and our tone without repercussion. Hell, we can be anonymous if we want, or we can be someone else. We can proofread, or not. We can consider the reader, the consequences of our words, or not. We can lie out of ignorance or by design.

One of the main reasons I am not on social media anymore is because I didn’t like the fact that I could react, lash out, attack a perceived foe without anything to stop me or even slow me down. Without any barriers. I saw what others wrote and it made me angry; but then when I wrote in response I hated the escalation. It’s the only time I ever really hated my writing. I would write the most eloquent venom I could manage, and hit send. And then it’s out there. It was horrifying.

So I stopped contributing and eventually I stopped reading as well. It was too stressful to take everything in and stay muzzled.

Here I am, a toe back in the water. Trying out the new Free Speech movement and the new technology. Remembering how I longed to write back when being a writer of any kind actually meant you’d “made it,” passed the trials, earned the exposure. I’m only older now – am I any more worthy?

And without the struggle, does it even matter?

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