“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes and prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill. And suspicion can destroy. And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own.”
— The Twilight Zone, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
THERE’S A WOMAN I PASS ALMOST EVERY MORNING on my way to get coffee, an older lady who walks with a limp, who smokes cigarettes on her lawn, who looks like she hasn’t brushed her hair or washed her clothes in ages.
She is odd but harmless. Even when she walks down the middle of the street in our neighborhood, I just slow down and carefully navigate around her. She doesn’t notice me or the car, doesn’t acknowledge the stares or the scrutiny of her neighbors — or if she does, she doesn’t or is unable to care.
I never think about her until I see her. And then I forget just as quickly, as if she never existed, as if she was a blind spot in my rear view mirror.
But what if I did remember?
What if, the next time I saw her, I took her picture or a short video and posted it online. #TustinBagLady, LOL! What if people then shared and tagged and commented, each revolution around the Internet spewing out more laughter and cruelty, mocking memes and ignorance? Not only would she exist, she would become Internet Immortal.
I didn’t do anything wrong, I would argue. Public street, man, you can hardly call that an invasion of privacy. Besides she’s weird and oblivious and she’s got more than one screw loose and c’mon it’s not like I was hurting anybody.
I’m sure that’s what the social media bully said after he called that new girl ugly as fuck and she killed herself. I’m sure it was no big deal to the family who had to sell their house and move because of online harassment. I’m sure that anyone who’s ever made fun of a person’s mental health just says “it’s not a real disease” or “they deserved it” or they’re a public figure and you know, don’t get into the ring if you can’t take a punch, Pete Davidson.
The classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” tells the story of a community gone mad with suspicion and fear. Believing that aliens are among them, residents point fingers and finally guns at each other, resulting in senseless death and destruction.
In 2018, we were the monsters on Maple Street.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We are capable of so much better and have done so many great things with our technology. We have given a voice to those who otherwise would never be heard. The benefits and promise of the Internet far outweigh any drawbacks.
But we are also, at times, scared and brittle creatures. We tear down perfect strangers so that other perfect strangers will pay attention to us. We become the things we despise.
Think about that when you read this article from the Washington Post about the very real and tragic effects of online hate. Think about it the next time you go online and rush to judgement, post something in anger, or have the urge to join the madding crowd.
I thought about it this morning on my way to get coffee, when I saw an older lady who walks with a limp, who smokes cigarettes on her lawn, who looks like she hasn’t brushed her hair or washed her clothes in ages.
I slowed down and lowered my window. She saw me and smiled. A quick “good morning” greeting and we were both on our way.
And I realized, that’s how you do it. That’s how you make sure the monsters don’t win — with kindness, empathy, compassion.
That’s how you fight back.