This post is going to cover two different themes: social media and the attention it brings people, and Christian privilege in the public square. They’re related, I promise I’ll get to that point.
I grew up in a time that was right on the front end of the Internet age. As a freshman computer science undergraduate student in 1992, the Internet was still a weird buzzword that social rejects and highly specialized academics used.
The host of the local morning show that I used to listen to once told a funny story where he didn’t want to be pestered by the guy sitting next to him on an airplane. “So what do you do?” asked the guy in the story. “Computers,” lied the professional radio host. “That shut him right up!” he bragged. You can imagine how much that story cheered up a guy like me as I wrangled with projects in UNIX and struggled through classes on data structures and algorithms, and got scorned by the frat guys in my dorm suite.
People didn’t really get what was going on with the internet yet. This cartoon was considered very amusing at the time.
Just a few years later, the computer lab at my university was swarming with liberal arts majors checking their email. About half a decade after I received my BS, MySpace was born, opening up the internet to even more casual users. Blogging became a big thing. A few years on, MySpace was eclipsed by Facebook and Twitter. I barely used them for a while, but one day in 2008 I turned around and noticed that everyone I knew had a significant amount of content on there. So I became an enthusiastic Facebook user. This year I’ve finally decided to get more active on Twitter too. (Follow me, @RussellGlasser, if you like.)
Anyway, this whole thing seems to have gone hand in hand with the reality TV phenomenon. People not only expect to get fifteen minutes of fame, as per Andy Warhol, but they seem to presume that they’ll get a low level of attention at all times. You watch a movie, you write a two sentence review of it, and people react to what you said immediately. Sometimes you get into flame wars, and sometimes your friends love and praise your insight. It’s kind of addicting.
Meanwhile, YouTube can make somebody a TV star for a few minutes or longer — randomly, capriciously, but often in an incredibly global way. That Gangnam Style song is topping the charts in 30 countries, and it’s a major victory for the Korean music industry. This is thanks in no small part to the ability of people to spread foreign content they like as easily as emailing a link to their friends. The video has over a BILLION HITS on YouTube.
So I’m assuming that PSY is grateful for social media, that’s all I’m saying.
You don’t have to be a big media backed star to get famous, but it’s hard to predict exactly what will make you famous. A decent amateur video on Funny Or Die may be seen by more people than a big screen comedy that flops. There’s now a whole industry of TV shows in the mold of Pop Idol / American Idol that are selling the idea of yanking schmucks off the street and making them famous, although they can be famous because they’re talented or famous because they really, really, REALLY suck.
The lure of quick fame is so tantalizing that it can cause some people to do incredibly stupid things. For example, a few years ago, world class idiot Richard Heene faked losing his son in a balloon accident, wasting the time and resources of the police and the National Guard and causing the Denver airport to be shut down. He did it because he wanted to get enough national attention so he could pitch his own reality show. He didn’t get the show, and he was convicted on felony charges. But he still got his wish for fame, if only because he’s now famous enough for me to mention him now so I can illustrate what kind of assholes are born of fame addiction.
In pointing out this phenomenon, I’m not trying to except myself from it. I’m always the first one to say that I’ve got an ego. The Atheist Experience owes a lot to Internet word of mouth publicity. We’re a relatively small phenomenon, and I know some people associated with the show (hi Tracie) absolutely hate it when people refer to them as celebrities, but I like reading our fan mail — most of the time — because it’s still fun to hear that the stuff we say impacts people’s thinking some of the time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Our outreach to people is voluntary. We’re never so overly concerned about being popular that we let it get in the way of doing content that we think is interesting. Sometimes we get emails saying that someone intends to quit watching because of something we did, but that rarely concerns us enough to fundamentally change our approach.
Even if the Internet has amplified both the desire and ability to make people pay attention to you, it certainly didn’t invent it in the first place. Some kinds of attention seekers are very familiar to atheists, because a reoccurring topic that comes up a lot on the show is the concept of Christian Privilege. This privilege pops up especially when an issue comes up regarding separation of church and state.
Here’s a joke. I’m warning you in advance, it’s not a funny joke.
A dog had followed his owner to school. His owner was a fourth grader at a public elementary school. However, when the bell rang, the dog sidled inside the building and made it all the way to the child’s classroom before a teacher noticed and shoo’ed him outside, closing the door behind him. The dog sat down, whimpered and stared at the closed doors. Then God appeared beside the dog, patted his head, and said, “Don’t feel bad fella’…. they won’t let ME in either.”
Sound familiar? It’s the same kind of line that arrogant, privileged douche-nozzle Mike Huckabee was pushing on us a few weeks ago, when he said that school shootings are inevitable when “we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.” What his claim boils down to is that the omnipotent creator of the universe is physically prevented from rescuing little kids because there is no organized school prayer.
Similarly, the 60’s atheist provocateur Madalyn Murray O’Hair is frequently described as being the person who “kicked God out of schools.” Student activist Jessica Ahlquist was described as an “evil little thing” by her state representative for pursuing a lawsuit to get a mural with a Christian prayer removed from her public school.
The truth is that prayer has never been removed from schools. Students and teachers alike are free to pray on school grounds, when and where they choose to do so, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their school day or disrupt class for the other kids. What the courts have decided is that, since public schools are public and host people of all faiths (and, of course, people of none), the school may not use their state authority to lead prayers, or otherwise coerce students and employees in the direction of a favored religion. That’s it.
Similarly, in principle the local government should not issue proclamations in promotion of a favored religion; a state sponsored “national day of prayer” shouldn’t exist, and so forth and so on. Private citizens are free to do private things. They’re free to do many of those things in public. They’re not allowed to leverage public resources in order to inflict their prayers or proclamations or endorsements or whatever on the rest of us. It’s that simple.
I like to sum this up issue with this basic one liner: You have the right to say what you want, but you don’t have the right to make people listen. As long as this point is properly observed, this issue hasn’t got a thing to do with free speech.
I’ve raised two distinct points here: One is that the Internet feeds our desire for attention and amplifies our impression that what we say is important. The other is that some people — often Christians looking for a megaphone to broadcast their religion — see “freedom of speech” as synonymous with “forcing people to listen to you.” Let me draw these points together a bit on a recent topic here: Message boards, comment lists, and other outlets of social networking sites.
I’d actually been sitting on this post a few days when I notice that Matt Dillahunty had made a video — or a “drive to work brain dump” as he called it — that kind of touches on this topic. Matt’s been criticized recently for blocking people from his Twitter and Facebook feeds; some people are telling him that he’s somehow violating their free speech. We get the same complaints any time we ban people from the TV show chat room or this blog.
If you get blocked from somebody’s YouTube comments, your free speech rights under the United States Constitution have not been violated. People who complain about being blocked are not complaining because they can’t say what they want. You haven’t been banned from the entire Internet. You’ve just been banned from saying this on one forum. And after all, the Constitution doesn’t guarantee that you can say what you want, everywhere, all the time. If you take a megaphone onto the campus of a private college and start ranting, campus security has the right to remove you. If you jump onto the pulpit of a church, shove the minister out of the way, and start reading from “God Is Not Great,” the church authorities aren’t being thugs and bullies when they ask you to leave — it’s their church.
And if you call The Atheist Experience and we hang up on you, we haven’t censored you. Go ahead, start your own anti-Atheist TV show. Make your own web site telling us we’re bad people. Create yourself a nice little #AtheistExperienceBullies hashtag on Twitter. Just don’t expect that you’ll get to spam our forums, message boards, or Twitter feeds 24/7 with links to your efforts.
What it comes down to is that the web is a big network of various private spaces. My Facebook page, my Twitter account, my blog, and my email are among those private spaces. Some people are more open to comments than others, but there have been many times when I’ve gotten aggressive emails saying “You’re stupid because you’re an atheist and I demand that you address me.” My answer is, “You’re a very rude person, and I’m not interested in talking to you.” My attention, or anyone’s, is not among your mandated rights.