When something awful happens, it is easier not to stare directly at it. Instead, we focus on the things around the edges. What did the neighbors hear? How was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
And these days, those edges include What Happened On Social Media afterward. What did they tweet? What did they Instagram? Who was the first to say the Awful, Snarky Thing? What were the relevant status updates?
Those pieces are almost but not quite the story, but they are easier to talk about.
Something awful happened around 7 a.m. Wednesday at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Pa. A student allegedly with two knives began stabbing and slashing people, injuring at least 22. Someone pulled the fire alarm. A security officer and assistant principal subdued the stabber, who is in custody. People were taken, in critical condition, to area hospitals.
But for some people — including at the Washington Post — that wasn't the story. The story was that a student, recovering in the hospital, posted a selfie.
And somehow that was the appalling thing.
"Where to start??" Amanda Lang tweeted in response to the article "Student posts hospital recovery selfie after stabbing" on the washingtonpost.com website.
Other tweets included:
"In case there are questions about western civilization being in decline."
"No sensitivity to the moment."
Are they kidding? It's his moment! This happened to him! He just went through a stabbing and took a picture. What are you people talking about?
I've never seen so much shaking of heads over so little.
Someone was stabbed — and dared to take a picture! (Not just any student, according to what one student told Buzzfeed, but a student who helped protect others and might have pulled the fire alarm to get people out of the building.)
I can't believe we need to go over this, but, in short, there is nothing intrinsically bad or wrong with a selfie. The issue is all in how one uses it. It is a way of taking a picture. If the Founders had had access to cellphones, there'd be an arm in every portrait. The selfie, in itself, is not a sign of narcissism. It can be wielded that way, just as any medium can. Just because a picture is taken by someone else does not mean that it is not the most narcissistic thing possible. Hire someone to paint your portrait in a golden robe in front of your Newport home, holding a luxury dog — and the fact that you weren't the one wielding the brush won't save you.
Now, given the ubiquity of cellphones, selfies are as easy as thought. You have a camera at all times. You don't have 1,000 words to spare. You want to tell people what's happening. This one says, "I'm okay." How else do you tell people that?
Social media is embedded in our lives. What do people want him to do instead, telephone his friends at home on their land lines? Telegraph them? Send them a pigeon? For Pete's sake, this is how we talk now. He shouldn't be smiling. Have you never been a teenager?
Douglas Adams said that "any technology invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things." Selfie has "self" in it. It sounds narcissistic and bad. But it's all in how you use it. And this is being used to communicate.
As Slade Sohmer wrote at HyperVocal.com, this is a picture that says "I'm fine." I just went through something terrifying. It happened. I'm okay now. He was even able to come up with a caption. "Chillin' at Children's." The message? It's okay. Don't worry.
Why is that in poor taste? Or narcissistic?
It happened to him, not to you.
The only sign of a decline of civilization is that someone stabbed his classmates Wednesday morning at school, and instead of being upset about that, some people wasted their indignation on the fact that one of those students took a selfie afterward. That's what I call decline.
It's easier not to talk about the real things. But this is ridiculous.