The Digital Confessional
I’m a cheater, a liar, and a crook. I steal, I take advantage of situations, and I claim to be better than I am. And after all of it, I rationalize every move and believe that I have a good heart and am a good person who has succumbed to temptation.
A friend recently posted the fascinating video entitled “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty” which gives a brief and playful look at the reasons why and how society interacts and inspires honesty, and the ways in which it encourages dishonesty. One of the key points of the video is an examination of Catholic confession and its effects on honesty. Confession, video postulates, doesn’t necessarily offer positive reinforcement for being good or negative reinforcement against being bad, but merely provides a chance to turn over a new leaf. It draws comparisons to dieting, how breaking a diet isn’t perceived as quite so bad if you plan to (and do) come back to it in short order. In essence, the opportunity for a fresh start allows us to rewrite our internal definitions in the most elevating light.
Taking a step back, our desire to define time and segment days, weeks, years, eras, all play into our need to redefine ourselves and society around us. Despite the arbitrary nature of time, American culture has latched on to New Year’s resolutions as a secular new leaf. Scarlett O’Hara’s iconic “tomorrow is another day” allows our actions to ride lighter on our conscience, and the zen mantra of living in the moment encourages followers to ignore past indiscretions and encourages action over indecision.
Being able to segment time is not the only means of reinterpreting one’s morality. I was struck the other day by a friend’s constant need to verbally spew rationalizations for his lascivious leering even as his eyes undressed random strangers. “We are apes,” he likes to claim, “and I am merely acting on the instinct of my ape brain.” In one statement, he absolves himself of responsibility and negates the validity of any complaints his ocular target or companions may have. In essence, he’s turning over a new leaf without ever having to truly abandon the old one. My friend’s moral code and mine do not necessarily match perfectly, but I too leer lasciviously at times, albeit with different rationalizations excusing my actions.
Since morality is by definition the personal code of conduct each person lives with, it’s clearly important that when we perform acts deviant to our moral code, we find ways to balance our image as internally righteous. We don’t necessarily need to be externally righteous in regards to society’s ethics, and in fact our actions may feel moral with one group while immoral with another. There’s often a great deal of movement to a different social circles in search of one in which we can feel good about our choices. As someone who internally defines myself as fat, I dislike gyms for the fact that I feel as though I’m being judged thusly. I know that others, if they are judging me, don’t actually care that I’m there, and the only way to redefine myself externally is by changing via working out at a place like a gym, but the conflict between my internal definition and that of the society present at the gym is strong enough to often discourage me from going.
This universal need to renew ourselves has resulted in many social conventions. Catholics, as the video pointed out, have confessional. American Christians, in addition to the direct channel to God, have congregated in communities that reinforce their chosen mores without internal criticism. Prisons, while pushing reformation, often reinforce a morality that makes lesser crimes seem less criminal than society at large believes, hence producing more skilled and determined criminals. Yet for all our indiscretions, so many of us jump at the chance to wash away our sins as Delmar in O Brother Where Art Thou? believed.
The Internet has provided an interesting combination of public confessional, where we can admit our mistakes and seek reassurance or forgiveness, and private forum, where our words have little to no consequence on our reality away from keyboard. Socially, it has armed us with an army of speech writers ready to defend our misdeeds with no needed acknowledgement of wrongdoing; but woe be unto those who cross the line and find themselves on the wrong side of their Internet’s moral compass.
When I began blogging as a college student it was intended as a means to stop repeating myself. Over time, it became a means to admitting fault and trying to learn from it, each personal post offering a chance to present myself in a different light, making amends for those acts I found shameful enough while rationalizing and seeking approval for more minor acts. It also offered me a forum to criticize those people I disagreed with, who defended their own indiscretions adamantly enough that my voice alone felt inadequate to taking them down the perceived necessary peg. When I did run up against criticism or opposing views, be it from outside sources I never expected to stumble on my musings or close friends whom I suppose I expected to support my choices, I would bristle and fight more often than I ate crow and admitted fault. Sometimes, it was simpler to just ignore the voices railing against to listen to the ones heaping praise. But other times the honest and blunt attacks forced me to reevaluate my own beliefs and shift.
My personal usage aside, the Internet and its forums provide an unrefined space for all comers, whether it’s a mother seeking support for the guilt of properly scolding her child or a pedophile seeking others to tell them their weakness is only natural and they aren’t alone. For many, the Internet’s ability to act as a digital confessional is the only means to self-respect, and the effect of infinite and accessible clean moral slates on society is one worth examining more closely.
For now, my fluctuating morality is remaining constant and I feel no need for a new leaf. I haven’t lied, cheated, stolen, or taken advantage of anything in quite some time. Then again, my computer is online and the day is still young.