Has Technology Outpaced Common Decency?

By George Kelley

textingAbout a week ago the world lost a wonderful woman in the person of Myra Kraft, the wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.  She died on July 20 and was laid to rest on Friday July 22 with a funeral service held in her synagogue in Newton, Massachusetts.

Earlier this week it was learned that a reporter from the Boston Herald may have been tweeting during this solemn event where friends, family and benefactors were saying good-bye to a much beloved woman.  This begs the question: Has technology once again outpaced our common decency?

Typing a tweet from a seat inside the synagogue to be first is pathetic on its face.  I don’t care if the Herald has to scoop the Globe over which Boston celebrity wore what, said what or cried the loudest.  In fact, I hope to never care.  But someone does, so reporters like this clown will go ahead and whip out a phone in the middle of a eulogy.

Cell phones have, in fact, made life easier.  I remember a serious event at a school I was running while getting my haircut some years ago.  I didn’t carry a cell phone, and I didn’t want to.  I liked having time away from the office.  But as I leaned back in the chair at the salon I heard, “George, you have a phone call.”  That moment made me realize that being in touch is important.  But not every single second of every single day.

I work for a synagogue now, constantly interacting with its youth.  I am always trying to impress upon them when a cell phone is not to be used.  To turn a phone off during a Shabbat morning service seems like a no-brainer.  However, less than a year after taking my job a phone went off during a large family Bar Mitzvah service just as the Torah was being taken out.

A man, well dressed, pulled a phone from his jacket pocket while God and everyone heard him say, “I can’t talk now. I am at my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.  I will call you in about an hour.”  He actually turned in his seat to face away from the front of the sanctuary only to allow his loud voice to reverberate around the whole room.  Every teen in the room looked at me, and I just shrugged.  What could I say to them?  You see, having a cell phone and knowing when to use it are clearly two different things.

The ubiquitous nature of the cell phone today makes it feel like they have been with us since the dawn of time, but it really wasn’t until about 15 years ago that cell phones became common.  And as soon as the cost of the devices and their usage became affordable to the average person, we discovered that people carried on like only the person at the other end of the line could hear them.  If only that were true.  We suddenly found ourselves stuck in the middle of one—or sometimes both halves—of a conversation often personal in nature. We were forced to listen in airport departure lounges, bars, elevators and even public restrooms.

My favorite encounter was going to a hotel lobby bar for a late dinner after a day of travel. As I ordered my meal I noticed the only other patron sitting at the bar was a young man talking on what was surely a new cell phone.  In the time it took me to finish my wine and appetizer I knew he was: gay, in lust (not love, mind you, he made that clear) and that the guy he had spent the last night and most of the morning with was going to have to spring for a more expensive brand of, let’s say, what in polite conversation we might call a marital aid.

His voice most certainly carried into the dining room, but the lateness of the hour meant there were few at tables to hear.  I looked to the bartender for help only to find him as uncomfortable as I was with no recourse to do anything.  That’s when I knew we were living in a new age.

This invitation to invade our privacy permeated the internet and digital photography.  Suddenly a rash of semi-nude, nude and downright nasty photos turned up in our email inboxes and on websites.

Take Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a Ph.D. in Physical Education who passed herself off as a psychologist on the radio. She is well known for her far right wing moralist reputation.  She once asked a rape victim why she was in the parking lot of her job at night without anyone else, blaming her for the rape that took her virginity only a few weeks before her marriage.

Dr. Laura was a cold as ice moralist, playing with people for profit and outrage. So, naturally, a former lover and someone who helped launch her career posted some lurid photos of a younger Laura online, fully nude alongside a story about her using sex to fulfill her ambitions.

While it didn’t cause her downfall, it did hurt her reputation.  It also started a slew of similar events where we were bombarded with home movies of celebrities who, quite frankly, I have trouble looking at clothed in sexual encounters. Then more recently two Congressmen resigned for photos they themselves posted online.  The poorly named Anthony Weiner even spent a week spurting about whether or not the photo, which I am sure you have all seen by now, was really him.

Seriously? I have forgotten many things in my day, but I am pretty sure I could pick myself out of a lineup.

But now with Twitter, Facebook and a plethora of new apps every day that help us find new ways to share our every thought, we are constantly adding to the noise of the universe with our most banal and most private of moments.  It is as if we want people to read our thoughts, reach into our souls, and simply break down any former distinctions between public and private.

We are all responsible, all guilty in some ways.  This very action of writing for a friend’s blog so strangers can see my thoughts adds to the noise.  But I think there is benefit in sharing and doing it appropriately.  The internet has helped so many people live better lives with its ability to bring people together who once felt alone.

People in bad relationships who couldn’t talk to anyone found similar people who felt trapped and gave each other support.  People with embarrassing medical or emotional conditions found information that helped them develop a plan of action that made getting real help easier. And of course places like Post Secret, places that allow anonymous venting of pent up angst, can be credited with actually saving people’s lives.  Sharing information is not the problem.  How, why and when we do it is.

I think of the great lady Myra Kraft, a woman of conviction and determination who once asked her husband not to sign on a player who had a record of abusing women.  A woman who gave to organizations to help educate the poorest children, supported causes to bring peace to Israel, and made a place at the table for those who had none.  Even as she knew she was dying of cancer, she encouraged her husband to work hard at the NFL negotiations settled within a few days of her death. It was a message that prompted a player representative and all-around good guy Jeff Saturday to take a moment to thank her at the announcement that a deal had been made.

This giant of a woman was treated with disrespect as some clown found it necessary to reduce the events of the public, her community and her family saying their final good-bye to a 140 character statement.

Maybe I am an old man struggling to understand this new-fangled world.  But maybe, just maybe, if we thought about the words, images and sounds we sent out before we sent them—perhaps imagining our grandmother reading or seeing or hearing them—then maybe some of the pollution choking us in this electronic environment would clear up.

Then perhaps I wouldn’t have to find ways to forget some of the things I know about people, and you and I could once again hear that wonderful elevator music we all love.

George Kelley

George is the Education Director at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, a storyteller and a speaker. He does a great deal of work in the interfaith community looking for ways people can share community without giving up their differences.  Sometime writer and political blogger, he enjoys pointing out both the absurd and the serious.  His personal blog is at yaakov613.blogspot.com.


Photo credit: Joi

0 thoughts on “Has Technology Outpaced Common Decency?

  1. Well said! I try (with varying degress of success) not to overshare and have retroactively regretted some posts.  I’ve also had to ask others not to share certain things about me – and I have no control over whether they do or not!  This aspect is especially stressful.

  2. Guilty as charged! There is a convincing array of evidence that shows I’ve added quite a bit of noise to these interwebs. Which is probably why I can say without shame that I would have thoroughly enjoyed that inappropriate conversation in the bar and would have had difficulty stifling my amusement.

    I know. People like me are part of the problem and not the solution.

    Excellent post, btw.

    • Oh yeah, Grizzbabe. I’m pretty much right there with you. And I can’t forget that my own personal blog never saw so much traffic as when I was posting about my tumultuous divorce. This stuff is way better than reality TV. 🙂

      That said, there are lines I don’t think either of us would ever cross. And I wouldn’t even have my phone out at a funeral, let alone send Tweets during the services.

  3. Mrs. L says:

    “I think of the great lady Myra Kraft, a woman of conviction and determination who once asked her husband to sign on a player who had a record of abusing women.”            I guess I don’t understand why asking her husband to sign an abusive player makes Mrs. Kraft a great lady. I would expect her to recommend NOT signing a player that abuses women. Not signing a player of questionable character and behavior would make her husband one of the few owners with the conviction and determination to require personal accountability as well as physical capability. 

    • For what my opinion is worth here, I think having any conviction at all elevates her above the rest of the apathetic populace. 

      Other questions to consider might include:

      Is there anything noble about a person’s conviction to help someone, even if that person is/was a criminal?

      Is her help an endorsement of the abuse?

      When (if ever) should a criminal be allowed a chance at normal living again? 

      When (if ever) should a criminal be allowed to live a “celebrity” lifestyle?

  4. Paul Little says:

    I don’t think the lack of common decency is any greater or lesser than it has ever been in the past. Technology does, however, make it ever easier for society’s boors to identify themselves to their neighbours.

  5. Very nicely laid out facts, I agree with you that technology has taken a huge leap and with that has come all these etiquette problems in everyday’s life. There needs to be a containment measure somewhere which will put a hold on this adverse usage of advancement. But I think we are beyond that….

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