One of the most misunderstood concepts of freedom is that freedom of expression means freedom from consequences. The old saw “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater” when there is no fire, while underpinning this basic thought, does not go far enough. In our so-called digital age, this idea most commonly occurs on social media, when so-and-so posts such-and-such on their Twitter feed, the post is universally offensive, and the person is out of a job 24 hours later. Or when a private organisation bans social media use for its employees and an employee violates that ban simply by having an account, and, after losing their job for doing so, cries out while threatening to sue for wrongful termination, “They are suppressing my free speech!” No, they are not. A private company can set its own rules, provided they do not run afoul of basic protections for workers. If one of those rules is “no social media,” and you want to keep working for that company, then that means “no social media.” The most successful claims against violations of free speech are those against the government; the day the government starts jailing people for the expressions and opinions of its citizens is the day we are truly living in a totalitarian nightmare.
Absent the complex concept of hate speech, the main free speech issues we face today are less about freedom of expression and more about decency. Think about something like pornography and smart phones. A friend of mine with two pre-teen daughters recently had to have a discussion with the parents of two 11-year-old boys who had a habit of watching porn on the bus on the way to school. Though of course they are underage, that’s not the fault of the kids. The boys are technically free—it’s true, there are no laws against it—to watch porn wherever they please, but do we really want young boys or girls to be doing that on a school bus? What about an adult on a public bus? That’s also not illegal. To nuance it further, what about watching porn in the privacy of your car? Back in the day when overworked and overstressed parents were buying mini-vans and SUVs equipped with video screens in the back, invariably someone would come across one of these suburban blights and would notice there were not children in the backseat enjoying Toy Story but rather teenagers or other adults watching Dildos in Paradise: A Toy Story. There’s no easy answer.
Do not underestimate the lure of pornography, especially for young boys. If something is more appealing because it is a) forbidden or illegal and b) difficult to obtain, then how do you explain the power of porn? Smart phones have eliminated whatever mystery of sex remained, and while parental controls work up to a point, teenagers have their ways. I’m not one to claim that things were better when I was younger, but they are no doubt different. The kids are the same—kids have always been the same—but it’s no use pretending circumstances aren’t different.
Only two years ago, when I picked up my daughter from middle school, I would hear the foulest things come out of these kids’ mouths. It’s not that they were cursing—heck, I swore too at that age, but this was pure filth—it was that the presence of an adult did not forestall them. That surprised me, since an adult for my generation was a check on our activities. What also surprised me was their knowledge of the porn industry. “What’s your favourite Web site? No, pornhub is lame, try xvideos or xhamster. Who’s your favourite actress? Yeah, she’s hot, but I hate her fake tits and shaved twat. Give me a real bush any day of the week.” The presence of an adult or not, my friends and I simply did not talk like this, either in private or in public. Whether or not such “locker room” language is harmful or not, these boys talking like that about something they only remotely understand is the perfect summary of the perils of the smart phone.
At times like that—it happened too often—I wanted to say a thing or 20 to these kids, but the twin fears of being “that parent” and embarrassing my daughter stopped me. In retrospect I wish I had said something, and promised myself to step in next time. Only, of course, I didn’t. What could I say? Even now I have no idea what. Sure, there was: Watch your language! Women aren’t objects—do you understand that what you are looking at is technically accurate (it is definitely real people having sex) but not real? Do your parents know you look at porn? You’re what, 11? You know nothing about the real world. Etc.
Again, what could I have said? Teenagers are notorious for not listening even when it’s in their interest to do so, and the smart phone has only exacerbated this trend. (It’s not always a bad thing, since learning to think critically and independently is a fundamental part of growing up.) This generation of young people raised on smart phones from an earlier and earlier age carry with them an air of certitude about the world that is highly misleading; there is a profound difference between looking something up on the Internet and understanding it. The next generation has always been right, of course. It is the curse of youth to know everything. Now these know-it-alls can point out our hypocrisy with evidence culled from their phones to tell us things inconvenient to our attempts at guiding them thru this nonsense. (On a side note, pay attention to how people say they learned something. It is surprising how often you will hear “I looked it up on my phone,” not as an explanation of how they learned but as if the device itself is the Rosetta Stone of knowledge.)
A similar conundrum exists with other aspects of the phone. Regulating phone usage is not easy, and I am not sure it is an individual’s responsibility, even if it should be. The most I will do is to honk at someone who is on their phone while they are driving. I never feel great about it, but something primal takes over when I see someone so recklessly endangering lives over a text or a “like” on their Instagram page. Any kind of distracted driving is dangerous, but using a phone is uniquely hazardous; it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the difference between changing the radio station and using your phone. It’s maddening how stupid we are with these things.
There is also what we can call second-hand phone damage. Unlike second-hand smoke, there is no physical damage to those of us exposed, but there is no doubt people on their phones can be a distraction, and not merely when we see someone on their phone while driving. While travelling from Seattle to California recently I stopped at an In-N-Out Burger in Grants Pass, Oregon, and I started thinking about this anew. Sitting next to me as I ate was what appeared to be a standard family of four: dad, mom, little boy, little girl. The dad—I knew he was the “dad” because that’s what the children called him—was on his phone the entire time I was there, about 15 minutes in all. He never looked up once, even when his daughter tried to talk to him—the most she could get was a one-word response.
When I say “on the phone” of course I do not mean talking on the phone. I mean he was doing what everyone seems to do on their phones: checking their e-mail, updating their status on their social media accounts, choosing which pictures to like on Instagram, looking at the news. Etc. In other words, nothing that most likely couldn’t wait until later—for instance, when you weren’t out to dinner with your family. Keeping in mind I knew nothing of their situation except that they were travelling—I overheard the woman say to the girl they would be at their hotel in two hours—I was miffed at this man. Travelling can be stressful enough without children, and I would have been wise to consider all the possibilities before discarding this father as a swine. He could have had any number of legitimate reasons to be glued to his phone. A sick parent or sibling or other family member. Waiting for news of his own medical test. This could literally have been his first time ever doing this. He was perhaps checking the weather or directions or anything else useful to their trip. On an on I could go.
No matter, at least in my biased mind. As the father of a teenage girl I wanted to scream out to this man: “GET OFF YOUR FUCKING PHONE and pay attention! See those little jewels wiggling around at the table? They grow up FAST.” But that is placing my values on him, and that is not fair. And anyway, he was free to do as he chose while he ate, just as I was free to do as I chose (reading) while I ate.
I realised all this the whole time. That it was my reaction that was wrong, that it was my utter hatred of smart phones that was the problem, not the man. The direction I should have pointed my irritation was in the mirror, at, in the words of my wife’s aunt, “the delightful curmudgeon” I have become. And yet, as is so often the case when we know what we are doing is wrong and shallow, I went right on being irritated with this man, taking pride in the fact I was reading a book and not withering away in front of a screen. There is a slim argument that could be made that his freedom to be on his phone took away my freedom to enjoy my meal. Slim indeed. Bottom line: if we were graded on the cliché that life is less what happens to us and more how we react to it, I would have received and deserved a big fat F in this situation.
What’s most astonishing about the smart phone is not that we can have almost any factual questions answered in seconds, but its newness. It has been around for about 12 years. As more and more research comes in about the effects of this technology, it is clear its dark side is formidable, from increased car and pedestrian accidents to the havoc let loose by, to name just two things, misinformation and social media. The latter problem is most often associated with teenagers and, increasingly, pre-teens, but many adults I know are just as addicted and let themselves get caught down the endless and endlessly vapid rabbit hole of Facebook or Instagram before concluding that everybody else’s life is perfect. Even worse, of course, is using a phone while driving. It’s a bit rich for to tell new teenage drivers to put the phone away when they’re driving when they’ve grown up seeing their parents do it. And when you combine the addiction of social media with a device that feeds that addiction whenever and wherever, especially that time-sucking five minutes from your house to the store? Well.
I have tried to explain to my daughter that it’s not merely that using a phone while driving is dangerous, much more so than any other distraction short of driving while blindfolded. I have tried to get her to think about what it says about us a society that, while we have at most 20 seconds at a stop light, we feel compelled to check our phones.