Our New Torture
By: Grace Castillo
My English class recently finished reading The Scarlet Letter. If you haven’t read this wonderful piece of American literature, I will not tell you what it’s about, but I will give you a general idea. Throughout Hawthorne's novel, theories of punishment are examined, and we as contemporary readers are prompted to think about modern punishment. In Puritan society, public corporal punishment was the norm for those who committed the sin of adultery and other societal “sins.” My students discussed this theme today -- they were unable to come to a conclusion about whether society has evolved past these extreme public forms of punishment. That’s okay; I didn’t want them to come to a conclusion. However, one student made a comment that particularly resonated with me. This student conceded to the fact that while corporal torture is no longer the norm, humans have created a new form of punishment. “Social media is our torture,” she claimed. As those around her agreed and cited personal examples, I understood exactly what she meant and how profound her statement was. How young women (and young men) participate in social media are indeed remnants of those old Puritan days, but with further nuances and perhaps greater consequences.
As I write this, I know that the only way one will read this is through social media. The irony is thick. However, this irony does not detract from the possibility of social media being an authentic form of torture. Each day, I watch students SnapChat themselves multiple times until they get the right shot. I hear them talk about how many “likes” they received and whether or not they saw so-and-so’s post. I see their addiction to their phones increase, I watch their attention spans dwindle with every passing minute. I watch them apply another layer of makeup or redo their hair. Alternatively, I observe their insecurities, their anxiety, their desire to be accepted, their fear of becoming ostracized. Everything that they say and do is made public by their devices. Their every move is watched -- they are constantly scrutinized for their person when they don’t even know who that is yet.
During this discussion, one student argued against this case. “You cannot claim that your media presence is torture when you elect to participate. Walking away is as simple as logging off.” Furthermore, social media can be a positive source of entertainment and information. For social media to be torture, it must be inherently bad, however social media is amoral. While I may be persuaded to agree with parts of this argument, it seems as if this choice to participate is not a choice at all. We have become so dependent on this form of communication that to do otherwise would certainly establish yourself as a social pariah. Their whole lives exist on their devices -- there is no escape.
While the students based their discussion off the characters in The Scarlet Letter, I couldn’t help but feel they were talking about something beyond the novel. They had connected the book to their lives outside -- every English teacher's dream. And yet it wasn’t, because I knew exactly why they felt social media was torture. I knew that they had personally experienced the pain of being bullied online. I knew that they had been “punished” for how they looked, what they said, or what they did by comments on their posts. I knew they remembered friends who had given up the fight against the pressure to be perfect. I knew that everyday, they fought to be themselves in a world that discourages their individuality.
I have faith in my students. I know that their hardships will pass. Still, I fear for their wellbeing as I know the struggles that they face each day. It is my hope that one day they will see what their posts fail to capture -- true goodness and beauty.