Manitoba·Opinion

Litter can be swept away, but regrettable social media posts last forever

When I first moved to Winnipeg, I sometimes took my dogs on long walks during my lunch hour in order to learn more about my neighbourhood.
Winnipeg writer Joanne Seiff says unlike dropping your lunch sack or trash on the boulevard, regrettable comments made on social media may be irretrievable. (Wikimedia)

When I first moved to Winnipeg, I sometimes took my dogs on long walks during my lunch hour in order to learn more about my neighbourhood. 

One day, I found myself walking behind two teenage boys, roaming the neighbourhood in between classes. One casually dropped his trash as he walked along.

As a former high school teacher, I saw a teachable moment. I rushed up, picked up the trash before my dogs could eat it and caught up with them. 

"Excuse me, did you drop something? I saw it fall"

Those boys had two choices. They could have owned up, taken the trash and gotten it into a trash can. Instead, they sneered that I was stalking them and they continued to drop trash. I followed, picking up trash as we went. I eventually asked if I should go back to the high school with them to help find a trash can.

I'm hopeful that they perhaps realized that their littering was not so anonymous after all. It seemed like a good moment to learn that yes, your actions have consequences — or you and for others. Kids still have time to learn these lessons. In the meanwhile, there sure are a lot of coffee cups, beer cans and other bits of trash whose origin may not be as innocent.

When my family picks up trash on the boulevard, I'm less forgiving of the MTS technicians, who leave bits of coloured wire all over the ground after working on the cable box near my house. Despite requests to both individual technicians and MTS that they clean up their wires because it endangers kids and animals, they continue to litter. As a result, I don't do any business with MTS, but I worry over the far bigger consequence of their actions — a small kid or curious animal might pick up the colourful wire twists. Those wires might hurt them or choke them to death.

A New York relative explained to me once that even in densely populated places like Manhattan, you get to know your neighbours. Even if nearly 26,000 people live in a square kilometer, folks know who you are. Your actions, like a rock thrown in still water, ripple outward, affecting those both nearby and farther downstream.

Refuse and reputation

Littering is a great metaphor for something more elusive: one's personal reputation. When the media professionals or others stumble upon political candidates' social media histories, there shouldn't be scary surprises. One would hope that voting in a democracy means getting to choose someone upstanding enough to represent us in good faith in government. 

The internet serves us in much the way a small community would in the "old days," offering us a way to remember what was said in the past. A hundred years ago, we'd need to recall what was said — at dinner parties, in speeches, newspaper articles and conversations — in order to know where our candidates stood on the issues. Today, we rely on good web research.

NDP candidate Stefan Jonasson recently stepped down at the request of his party, due to past statements he made regarding far-right wing Orthodox Jews, or Haredim. However, he stood by his views, explaining his concerns about women's rights and well-being. While his comments may have been a misstep for the NDP, he defended his previous actions.

By contrast, Conservative candidate Gordon Giesbrecht, in a 2009 YouTube video, used anti-abortion rhetoric to make a truly unfortunate statement. He related the number of Jewish people killed in the Second World War and the deaths of 9/11 victims to a legal medical procedure. While abortion rights remain an identifiable hot button issue, aligning it in any way with these other horrors lacks good judgment.

Giesbrecht has not commented on this, and his campaign manager explained that "The prime minister has been clear, we will not reopen the [abortion] debate." It's not surprising that his campaign signage is being defaced after this incident. 

Six years is not that long in an adult's life; if Giesbrecht had said this at a dinner party, guests were likely to have remembered. His lack of comment and unwillingness to participate in debate are puzzling.

While defacing political signs is concerning for different reasons, the act speaks to the obvious concern — his lack of support for women's health choices or well-being.

There are, of course, countless examples of adults who should have known better, whether it's littering or speaking out on a topic that comes to haunt them later. Yet, in the age of social media, it behooves those who are in the public arena to recognize that their words and actions may last forever. Just as we try to protect teenagers from the dangers of sexting, it might be time to have a teachable moment for everybody, including politicians.

Reflect on your characters

Before sending that tweet or publishing that blog post, reflect for a moment. Does this represent who you are? Will you feel comfortable defending your actions later on? Can you live with this years later? 

Unlike dropping your lunch sack on the boulevard, these comments may be irretrievable. How does that rock you threw into the water affect others' wakes?

While it's not OK to litter, others might bend over and pick up that mess on the ground. I sometimes hope that this trash was dropped by mistake or spirited away by a big wind rather than tossed on purpose. Perhaps one day, we won't have to pick up those beer cans or coffee cups because passersby will be thoughtful themselves and remember to put it in a bin. 

Trash can be harmful, whether it is twisted bits of wire or other detritus, but someone can pick it up. Cleaning up after one's statements online may be far more difficult.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.

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