One of my favorite American short stories is Stephen Crane’s The Blue Hotel. Some people think it is very complex, some think it is very simple. But most critics and scholars agree it is a terribly important piece of literature.
I’d be lying if I said I “enjoyed” reading it. I really didn’t the first time or since. But the theme of shared responsibility for the very things we decry made an impression on me that has only been strengthened with time.
It’s especially significant in American storytelling because it pokes around in our avoidance of shared responsibility for tragic events and human suffering. Our national story is more exhuberant and fun when we focus on individual responsibility. It’s also often more hopeful. If I can focus only on myself, and my exclusive responsibility for my future, things seem more manageable. If others do the same, we should all be fine as wine.
I think about this story often, and today it came up to shine a mirror in my face as I criticized The Charleston Gazette for not better policing their online comments. I swear that site has turned into some kind of Roman coliseum, but all the gladiators and spectators are wearing hoods over their heads. Only the prey in the center are identified by name. A series of recent personal and cowardly attacks on individuals finally pushed me to ask “out loud” on Facebook, what the hell is going on?
One journalist who I deeply admire took the time to write to me in private and encourage me to contact executives at the paper. S/He said they do care what readers think, but the new world of making a living at a newspaper is creating stress and strain for everyone. Website clicks create statistics that help sell advertising. People are prone to click on controversy and, let’s face it, ugliness. There is a degree to which this knowledge and the need to put food on the table sometimes overrides the decency that is most people’s hearts. It’s a very difficult situation.
I had to ask myself, what do I proactively do to support the newspaper financially? Nothing. I no longer subscribe to the paper because I can “get it” for free online. I don’t buy ads. I don’t donate. I don’t give them any financial support at all, and yet I am free to criticize. And how do I know about the troubling comments? Because I click on the comments section. Crane concluded this in his short story: “Every sin is the result of a collaboration.”
It’s a new world for newspapers. I don’t have the answers. But I think it starts with holding online comments to the same standards of printed comments. Who are you really, not what cute online code name do you use? Expect that your actual identity will be attached to what you say publicly in our newspaper when you comment online, just as it is when you comment in print.
From the last lines of The Blue Hotel:
“Fun or not,” said the Easterner, “Johnnie was cheating. I saw him. I know it. I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight it out alone. And you — you were simply puffing around the place and wanting to fight. And then old Scully himself! We are all in it! This poor gambler isn’t even a noun. He is kind of an adverb. Every sin is the result of a collaboration. We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede. Usually there are from a dozen to forty women really involved in every murder, but in this case it seems to be only five men — you, I, Johnnie, old Scully, and that fool of an unfortunate gambler came merely as a culmination, the apex of a human movement, and gets all the punishment.”
The cowboy, injured and rebellious, cried out blindly into this fog of mysterious theory. “Well, I didn’t do anythin’, did I?”