Based on a true incident, a book called The Wave (written by Todd Strasser under his pen-name, Morton Rhue) was published in 1981. It tells the story of a Californian high school History teacher, Burt Ross, who decides to carry out an experiment after his students question him as to why the average German enabled Hitler’s Nazism to rise to such powerful and devastating prominence in the 1930s. The students are incredulous as to why no one challenged it, why no one stopped it. The experiment entailed the teacher acting as leader and the students being subjected to routine discipline and practices, such as standing and saluting when a ‘superior’ enters the room. Within a frighteningly short amount of time, the students are swept along on this wave of habitual obedience. For a time, other teachers in the school respond favourably, their students are now punctual, polite and handing in homework on time.
But they no longer question anything.
The situation spirals out of control when a student is beaten up for the ‘crime’ of being Jewish, while others are threatened for refusing to join The Wave, leading the Principal to enforce its termination. The premise of the experiment? The urge to belong and be part of something bigger than ourselves is both seductive and infectious (particularly for the impressionable young); any one of us can succumb to its lure.
The Social Media Virus
Today, many of us engage in the ‘wave’ that is social media with its intoxicating endorsement of freedom of speech. Social media has transformed the ways in which we receive and discharge information and opinions. Upward of 1.2 billion people use Facebook, while Twitter user numbers are north of 255 million, averaging 500 million tweets per day. Acolytes would no doubt offer convincing arguments in support of such platforms, and it’s difficult to deny that the benefits are numerous, not least the opportunity for discourse on important social issues. Yet the age of social media, particularly during lockdown, has also spawned a behaviour contagion whereby conduct that would not be tolerated offline is not only condoned but often metastasised online. Freedom of speech can easily traverse the border into misuse of speech and descend into what many would describe as bullying, whatever the merits of the motivation behind the espoused opinions. Freedom of speech is important, and first-world countries acknowledge this; in Australia it comprises Section 15 of the Human Rights and Responsibilities Act and in the USA it is the very substance of the First Amendment. But while the world battles a physical virus, lockdown seems to have exacerbated a virus of another sort, one that is worryingly akin to the principle in The Wave: the human need to belong to group, oblivious to its harm.
The Irony of ‘Woke’
Prejudice; be it racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia or one of its many other forms, is alive and well in almost every realm of modern life, including musical theatre. It is right and proper that this is challenged; it is right and proper that we continue to fight for both equality and equity. Social media seems an obvious arena for such campaigns to be showcased. Yet over-stepping is taking place; the R numbers of the aforementioned behavioural virus are on the rise. Many who vehemently stand up for the marginalised consider themselves ‘woke’, in other words, awake to injustices and persecution; ironically, such individuals can occasionally be blind to the paradox that they are themselves complicit in augmenting the limited perspectives they claim to despise. The idea of being woke, is fundamentally a left-wing (and well-meaning, it must be said) concept, yet in the hands of the ill-informed or just plain thoughtless it bears all the hallmarks of right-wing discrimination, albeit in the guise of crusading for a worthy cause. In other words, meting out venom against those with whom you disagree is suggestive of intolerance. Let’s not forget that to be woke is to be aware, yet without offering positive and practical solutions, this state of being is somewhat futile. In itself, it is not an agent for change. Angry and sometimes abusive reactions to injustice do not constitute a solution; they are as hollow as virtue signalling.
It’s All Greek to Me
It’s worth remembering that the Ancient Greeks gave us some basic principles that still pervade and punctuate everyday life. The foremost of these is democracy, a system of government which prioritises the rights of all citizens. Many social media users would do well to remind themselves of the true meaning of this word occasionally, because what we are currently witnessing is something of an online Greek Chorus: a non-individualised group of commentators passing observations on the actions of the main players. ‘Ganging up’, if we’re to use modern vernacular. And those who publically comment without due respect for those they criticise are guilty of another Greek concept: hypocrisy.
The Rules of Civility
The cult of online vitriol is deeply unattractive, as well as harmful to society. Perhaps we could all still learn from George Washington’s 101 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. Many of these hold surprisingly true in today’s cyber world. Perhaps most relevant of these rules is the combination of Rules 1 and 65: ‘Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present. Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest scoff at none although they give occasion.’ Rather fitting, in light of our contemporary virtual culture. We need to offset ‘the wave’ of hate before it gains more momentum. So should the temptation to react in kind on social media rear its ugly head, remember that an eye for an eye, whatever the good book may say, leaves everybody blind.