The Semi-Agnostic Pedestrian Theatre of the Aggressively Confused Somnambulist presents:

You're Wrong! But Then, So Am I

subtitled
I'm Wrong! But Then, So Are You

by Leo L. Schwab
1996.01.27


No one else seems to have the balls to write this, so it looks like I'll have to.

Has anyone else besides me noticed an unusually high incidence of people trying to tell other people what's best for them? "TV is too violent for you." "Video games are too violent for you." "The Internet is too explicit for you." Has anyone further noticed that these people, not content to simply express their opinion and let it stand on its own merits, are seeking to have their personal views codified into federal legislation?

Does anyone find this trend even the slightest bit unsettling?

History records many attempts by groups of people to impose their views on others. These range from the long dissertations by Concerned Members of the Community on the moral corrosiveness brought on by the then-new jazz music, whose alarmist entreaties now seem humorous to us just seventy years later; to the cataclysmic carnage in 1930's Germany, an event still all too fresh in the memories of those who lived through it.

All minds are vulnerable to this disorder. Even I fell victim to the "I know better than you" disease, firmly believing that rock-and-roll music was the greatest scourge ever faced by mankind. Fortunately for me, the universe saw fit to shatter most of my preconceptions and stereotypes, mostly by living counterexample. I've mellowed considerably since then. The experience also taught me that, no matter how much I may object to some thing or some practice, my right to dictate how that thing or that practice shall proliferate stops at the front door to my home. What the guy next door does is his own damn business. I may object in my thoughts, and even verbalize them, but the choices available to him remain his. I cannot abrogate them, for if I gave myself the right to dictate to him his behaviors, by the same act I give him the right to do the same with me. I regard my right to do as I please as sacrosanct, and am not willing to allow someone else to tell me, without so much as a 'by your leave,' what I can and can't do. So I can't do that to anyone else. "Do unto others," don'cha know?

This, however, doesn't seem to be good enough for those now circling the D.C. Beltway (and most recently, several state legislatures). New laws governing "decency" are being proposed at the behest of individuals not content with the absolute dominion they enjoy over their own lives. Until recently, their entreaties of, "This stuff is bad for you," had been falling on deaf ears as more and more people expose themselves to the Bad Stuff, and find themselves no worse for it.

So they've made a subtle shift in their approach. No longer is the cry, "This stuff is bad for you," but, "This stuff is bad for your children." By this semantic shift, they attempt to position themselves as Concerned Upstanding Citizens rather than as unwelcome busy-bodies. Again, this is not a new approach. The passionate discourses on the corruptive influence of jazz music cited anecdotal "evidence" of children and adolescents whose fall from moral grace could be traced directly to the blight of jazz. Likewise, in 1930's Germany, thousands of "indecent" books were burned in mass rallies, in the name of protecting the formative minds of the nation's youth from improper or immoral influences.

This semantic shift also apparently attempts to exploit a recent social trend. Today, it appears that, while people are still aware of their power over themselves, somehow parents have abandoned their power of judgement in the raising of their children over to "experts." This is puzzling since, while psychologists have been enormously helpful in outlining the forces that shape a child's development, the final arbiter of how the child shall be raised still lies with the parents.

As far as I'm concerned, the only people who have any right to determine what is or isn't too violent or explicit or whatever for a given child is that child's parents. A degreed child psychologist is entitled to make general suggestions based on professional, refereed studies conducted by fellow psychologists. Beyond that, anyone else trying to pass judgement is a rank amateur, and should be regarded in the same light as a person who thinks they're ready for law enforcement work because they watched Cops for a few weeks.

The idea that a rank amateur -- having never met you, your child, or experienced the environment you provide -- could offer useful, detailed advice on the rearing of your child is laughably ridiculous. So their claims of being motivated by a desire to "protect our children" is at best fallacious, since they lack the training and information to offer pertinent suggestions.

A short romp through a good history book will show you examples of attempts to control "indecency," and the horrorific consequences of these attempts. Judaism was held to be indecent by the Nazis. Paganism was held to be indecent by the Catholics (the Spanish Inquisition). Islam was held to be indecent by the Christians (the Crusades). Even Christianity itself was held to be indecent by Imperial Rome. All these efforts to control "indecency" have failed, usually after a long and bloody conflict.

Note that, while the battles have been similar, and the outcomes uniform (those trying to impose control suffering utter defeat), the subject matter is ever-changing. Once it was Christianity. Then it was Islam. Then it was Paganism. Then it was Judaism. Then it was jazz. Then it was alcohol (Prohibition). Then it was Communism (the McCarthy era). What will it be next? Are you safe? Are you free of Improper Influences and Subversive Tendencies? Are you willing to stand inspection by The Protectors of the Nation's Moral Fiber? Or would you rather these people minded their own bloody business?

There is no need to go through this conflict again. The outcome is pre-ordained. Indecency is as much a problem now as it has been over uncounted millenia past, which is to say, no problem at all. How many more wars must be fought, how many more people must die, how many more lives must be ruined before we can finally let go of this urge to evangelize down other people's throat? There are far more important things needing worrying about than whether or not someone somewhere sees a JPEG of a person with no clothes on.

For some reason, I'm reminded of the schoolyard of my youth. Being the geek that I was, I endured more than anyone's fair share of abuse. The social rules of the schoolyard were completely intractable to me; no matter what I did, I got dumped on for it. Popular culture made it very clear to me that I was not welcome (except on their terms). So I returned the favor, and led a very lonely life. (Not that I'm bitter about any of this, mind you... :-) )

Eventually, I found computers, and with it a culture that was far more egalitarian than anything I ever encountered at school. The rules were incredibly simple: Anyone and everyone with a sincere desire to learn, contribute, and help others is welcome. That's it! This simple rule set taught me a lot about seeing how all people have value.

There are people in the industry who have a lengendary history, and their work (in the form of code) bears out their value. However, when I've actually met them, I've discovered, on infrequent occasion, these people had, shall we say, challenging personalities. My way of dealing with that aspect was simply to not interact with them. But their personality did not change the fact that they had made significant contributions, and that they were valuable.

The point I'm trying to make here is that my membership in the computing industry has taught me that, though a person may have qualities I dislike, they still have an intrinsic value. If I were to disregard someone out of hand based on their personality or behavior, I may well also cast aside whatever valuable qualities they have. This was an observation that none of my "peers" in the schoolyard ever learned, thereby throwing away all I had to contribute.

Now these same people, all grown up (chronologically, anyway), have entered in the playground I helped design and build. "COOL!" thinks I. "Now they'll have the opportunity to make the same discoveries I did! I'll show them around and help them understand all the wonderful things we've created. Maybe at last I'll be able to be friends with them, since they'll now see I'm just as valuable as they are."

No such luck. Their callous, almost aggressive, disregard for everything that's happening right in front of them has only added to my frustration. They're ignoring the new social models we've built and hauling in their old stratified ones, which don't map at all well into cyberspace. Then they see the admittedly more explicit stuff floating around, gasp, and say, "How could anyone let this happen?"
"Uh, it's been happening for years, people."
"This is offensive! This is hideous! This is monsterous!"
"Then why did you download it?"
"My children could see this!"
"Then put a password on your Web browser, or on the IP stack itself. I have a copy of a freeware app with me here..."
"My God! My God! This bright new technology is being used for EVIL!"
"Um, I've been doing this for 19 years, and I'm just fine. So's everyone else I know. In fact, why don't you read these postings; I think you'll find that..."
"By God, I'm going to do something about this!"
"But there isn't a problem. Hello? Are you even listening? HELLO? There's no problem!"

So these people, who have contributed nothing to the building of our community, and have deliberately ignored every attempt we've made to share our understanding with them -- these people have swaggered into our universe and are trying to tell us what's good and bad for us, what we can and can't do, and what we can and can't talk about. So I hope you'll forgive me if this situation has left me just the slightest bit ticked off.

Patience and logic appears to have been lost on these people, and it seems the time has come, as a parent might scold an errant child, for direct unmistakable admonishment. So, to these people, I offer the following harsh -- and admittedly arrogant -- rebuke:

Now, as in the past, you are wrong. And now, as in the past, you are incapable of seeing that you are wrong. But that's okay, since the sentiment applies reflexively (i.e. you think I'm wrong). You are trying to recreate the social stratification you enjoyed in the schoolyard. This is perfectly understandable since, as Mel Brooks once observed, "It's good to be the King." But please do not wax passionately and shrilly about "protecting our children" or "making things safer." It is completely within your power to effectively deal with these "problems" within the current socio-political framework, using the tools we have created. We know this to be true because we've done it, and have been doing it for twenty years. If you like, we'll be delighted to teach you how to do it, too; it's really quite easy.

But if, as I suspect, you don't want to learn how to do it yourself, and still insist that the world bend to your whim, then can we please drop the sanctimonious bullshit and honestly state once and for all that what you really want is to have your own way, without regard to what anyone else may want. If we can get to that point, then we can at last deal with that issue for what it is.

You're wrong. But that's okay, because so am I. I'm willing to leave you alone about being wrong, but only if you promise to return the favor. Deal?


"Well, Mr. Dallas, we've heard your smut masquerading as songs, and we've heard how teen prostitution, pregnancy, drug use, cults, runaways, suicide and poor hygiene are sweeping this nation. We thought you might like to share with the committee any particular causes you might see for those latter problems."
"I dunno. Maybe the proliferation of narrow, suffocating zealotry masquerading as parenting in this country."
-- Berkeley Breathed, Bloom County

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Copyright © 1996 Leo L. Schwab. All Rights Reserved.

Leo L. Schwab / Digital Spellweaver / ewhac@best.com