Recently there has been a lot in the news regarding things people did years ago. In a world where nothing can ever be truly removed from the internet, how does this impact the way people live their lives? In a world without erasers, are we judges only by our mistakes?
“I am a garbage human being,” I told a friend last week when they were talking to me about some issues I have been having recently. Depression, anxiety, self-loathing–symptoms of a lasting issue that I have fought with my entire life.
“Why?” my friend asked.
I explained: recently I have been dealing with continued fallout from some drama a few years ago. People I used to associate with, whose behavior was terminally toxic, led me to stop associating with them and move on to healthier and happier parts of my life. But I continue to run to people who “heard the thing” or who saw a quote or statement I made out of context, and immediately passed judgment. Even providing evidence that refutes their stance doesn’t work anymore–the gavel has already landed (but that’s an entirely different societal complaint.)
The advice I commonly get when I mention this situation is to “prove them wrong” by continuing to try my hardest to be a decent human being. To treat people with respect even when we disagree and to recognize the humanity within those I meet.
No More Erasers
But we all know that this won’t work. We live in what I like to think of as a “post-eraser world”: take a look at any articles about James Gunn or Sarah Jeong and you can see a consistent pattern. The sins of the people we used to be are never gone. Society continues to judge us for where we began, and not for who we have developed into.
When did this become the norm? It used to be that you would judge someone for the results of their actions and their impact on the world. You would try to balance them as a person. I was raised with the mantra of forgiveness–Cautious forgiveness. If a person takes actions that are evidence of change, then forgive them. But don’t let them do it again.
Somewhere along the way, this has been lost to society. It is far too easy now to scan a person’s social media for “Dirt” and point to something someone said back in the day and take offense. It’s far too easy to forget that some things that were once socially acceptable now are not. The world changes, and so do we.
It’s no surprise, then, that ABC reported a major trend in self-help books related to anxiety. NCBC reported that Barnes and Noble noticed the same trend. People are living in a world where the smallest mistakes can be used forever as ammunition against a reputation.
The psychology and sociology of personal reputation is interesting. It is distinct and inexorably tied to personal image and confidence–a person will suffer in their confidence if their reputation is tarnished. This leads to additional anxiety, especially among those already prone to it.
The Post-Eraser World is a world where small missteps can become massive. Mistakes forever embedded in a web site or social media account for decisions and opinions that might even have changed can become the knife that cuts the throat of a person seeking personal development. In effect, a person suffering in such a way can never escape their past, and must suffer as the monster they once were.
The Decline of Discourse
What is interesting to me, then, is how this applies to discourse. The purpose of persuasion is to sway opinion–to make others agree with you. But in the post-eraser world, changing one’s opinion has one solitary effect: it brands you a “hypocrite”. Any time you express your new opinion, you will be haunted by those who reply with “well, at [this time] and [this place] you said the opposite!”
Hypocrisy, of course, is a thing. People say one thing and do another–consistently–and yes, those people are in fact hypocrites. The problem becomes when someone actually changes their opinion after any kind of rhetorical discourse, and takes new actions that support a newly-developed opinion. Development as a person is important! It’s how good people become better people. It’s how bad people become good people. They change. Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
Unbroken versus un-broken
“There was only one perfect person who ever walked the earth,” my mother used to tell me after I had made a mistake. It was an assurance that, as we stumble through life, we will invariably make mistakes. What is important is that we acknowledge them, learn from them, and grow.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repair. a piece of Kintsugi work is usually pottery which has broken or crumbled, and which has been repaired with gold or silver and lacquer to not just repair the damage but highlight the repair done. This is tied to the Japanese Wabi-sabi, a philosophy which centers around seeing the beauty in imperfection. The piece is “un-broken” and made whole again, though the damage cannot be repaired to its undamaged state.
In today’s world, however, there seems to be a greater pressure to be “unbroken” rather than “un-broken”. A person must be devoid of flaws in order to be acceptable to the masses, even if those flaws have long since been filled in with better, more admirable traits.
It’s interesting to me, because Kintsugi is not even really an “eraser”. It’s a highlighter. It highlights flaws and celebrates them. You cannot unbreak a bowl. You cannot unring a bell. And you cannot un-make a mistake. What you can do is recognize and acknowledge it while changing yourself for the better. The difference between who you were, and who you are is the basis of development as a human being.
This brings me back to myself–I live in a world that judges me for things I did, or things that people think I did, and I cannot escape it. I press on, trying to do good with everything I have and give more than I receive. And in the end, it seems fruitless. In the end, I come to the inevitable conclusion that I ma a garbage human being, and that nothing I do will ever change that.
I want to live in a world where we judge people on their actions as a whole, over time. Where the flaws we have are fixable, and there is some way to become greater than our pasts. I want to live in a world where the goal is not to be unbroken, but to be repaired. In the world of literature, we celebrate success in the face of adversity. In reality, we denigrate it, with the only end being that we are left seeing only the flaws in the structure and not the repairs over time.
Why else do you think people with behavioral disorders and anxiety disorders feel that there is no end to their suffering? Because there isn’t. There just isn’t.
In the end, we are alone with those flaws. Is that where we want to be?
Sam Swicegood is an author, speaker, blogger, and podcaster from Cincinnati, OH. He is the author of fantasy and science-fiction literature, including the fantasy novel The Wizards on Walnut Street.