The Internet has made me wonder about this. Online, I am witness to 40-, 50-, even 60-year-old people acting in a way that I consider childish. Their morality admits no grays; friends, enemies, and allies are absolute but shifting, as you would expect to see on a playground; they take offense quickly and easily but nurse grudges like wounds that they do not want to heal; they engage in the type of name calling that children usually grow out of by middle to late adolescence; they treasure the notion that they are right about everything, even after they have been proven wrong; they abuse others and use language that is unacceptable in nearly any adult social setting; they mock, tease, and bully as though they were once again in second grade, as though they were 7 years old, not 37, 47, or 57. They attack the person, not the facts, not the argument. Fault is never admitted; apologies are never made; weakness is never allowed. Sometimes it’s like watching kids in the back seat of a car during a long trip, unable to play cooperatively or to ignore one another, and finally unable not to hit one another compulsively.
Online, in many cases, there is no adult to say, “Enough is enough.” Often, the spats never end, or they creep into every conversation, or they escalate, as though the ultimate purpose of communication is to hash and rehash the same disputes, the same personality clashes, as though no one is adult enough to say, “This is an insignificant argument, a waste of my time and energy, a pointless exercise. I am confident enough in myself and my perspective to let it go, to end it — the poking, prodding, name calling, teasing. I am sure enough of myself to end it without winning. By bowing out graciously, I have won, with my self respect intact. I am strong, not weak.”
My father was 48 when I was born and probably 52 or so in my earliest memories. He had grown up on a family chicken farm during the Great Depression and served in the Army Air Force before and during World War II. He could not afford the luxury of being petty and childish; his life, circumstances, and times, and those of many of his peers, demanded maturity from an early age. The same was true of my mother, who had worked as a maid in a house where she was allowed to eat only after the dog was finished.
My parents and their families weren’t perfect. There were disagreements, squabbles, resentments, and grudges, all natural human behaviors. These things, however, did not define their lives or their everyday actions, and they were rarely if ever publicly displayed.
I try to imagine either of my parents online at night, trading insults with some stranger in California, Colorado, or Kansas, taking offense at the most trivial comments, arguing about matters of no significance, eagerly signing on to see if a despised nemesis has challenged them — and I can’t do it. I can see my dad puttering around in the yard or garden, shopping for groceries or hardware or birdseed and suet, driving me to the library or a friend’s house, or watching a favorite television program like All in the Family. That is what he did in the evening; that was his life.
Life is different now in a way that he could not have imagined. Today, many men of his age then spend as much time online as he did watching television. People who want sports scores or race results are as likely to look for them on the Internet as to turn on the television.
In the summer, I would walk the neighborhood with my friend until 10 p.m., under the moon, under the stars, watching the traffic, observing the cheerful lights in the kitchens and living rooms of the trailers, sometimes hearing wisps of conversations and TV programs or even songs on the radio floating out of windows, gossiping about the cute boy with the sports car who was dating a teenage girl down the street, wondering if we would ever have our own cute boys with handsome cars, until my mother would insist I come in. “Just one more minute” or “Once more around,” I would say, several times, until finally she lost patience, and I knew I had reached her limit. Today, were we still 14, we would probably spend the evening indoors, hoping to gain control of the computer (and our own access to cute boys). My mother might be online reading gossip sites, and my dad would not let us disturb her, if that is what she wanted.
No, I cannot imagine my dad, or any of his friends, going online and reverting to childish behavior and insults. Access to the Internet would not change who he was or how he behaved. The Internet provides an outlet for a group that traditionally has not had one, a group that had been unseen and unheard. They are the lonely, the alienated, the isolated, the disenfranchised, the frustrated, the angry. They were bullies as children, or bullied as children. They are bullies at work or at home, or they are bullied at work or at home. They need to be recognized, to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be real to someone who does not know who they actually are. They need a persona that impresses and intimidates.
And now they have computers with connections to an entire planet. How heady that must be to someone who is 47 going on 14.
Edit, January 18, 2008: “Maturity refers to the transformation of external norms and rules into internal principles and convictions. This process of assimilation should be conscious and free, as a person gradually learns to recognize and appreciate certain values.” — Father Thomas Williams, LC