If you’ve written something for public consumption over a long enough period of time, it’s inevitable you will have got it wrong.
You don’t do this on purpose. That joke you told in 2009 sounded harmless when you wrote it. Nowadays, it sounds vaguely sinister.
The moral sands are shifting under your literary feet, constantly, inexorably, and a lot of the time you aren’t wearing the right brain shoes for it.
For this purpose, I have Phil. You can’t do this work without a Phil in your life. Not if you want to stay employed.
Phil is the future saint who regularly edits my copy in the Sports section. I don’t hear from him often, but when I do I know I’ve done wrong.
It’s always a single, snaky turn of phrase. Usually the thing I think is most clever in the whole column (an ominous sign). Somehow, though I hadn’t thought of it that way, I have grievously and pointlessly offended a whole swath of people, or said something so outrageous it will not stand the most basic scrutiny.
From the outside, this job looks easy. And it is. That’s the end of that thought. But somehow I still bottle it on the regular.
Phil never accuses. He’s like a priest that way. He goes all Socratic method on you.
“Are you sure this is what you meant?”; or “Mightn’t it might be better put like this?”; or “What would you think of trying it this way?”
Great editors come in all types, but the ones writers moon about in bars are the word therapists who made the fix that saved the whole thing from going down in Twitter flames sound like it was your idea, not theirs.
Phil has rescued me from myself so many times he ought to be permanently grandfathered into his lifeguarding licence.
Few of us have a Phil.
A version of the result of that is playing out in our popular culture right now.
A hundred years ago, if you said something stupid, no one was there to hear it unless you were … (I was about to write something you can no longer use, but Phil’s voice rang out in my head – “Another word, perhaps?”) … stupid enough to write it down.
Fifty years ago, your stupidity might be captured for posterity by a unionized television crew. Not many people had one of those.
Twenty years ago, it got to be a bit of a free-for-all. Crowding in the media market encouraged a new turn into corporatized “edginess” (which is distinct from actual edginess, wherein nobody uses the word edgy).
People are now angry that Justin Timberlake was mean to Britney Spears, or David Letterman was lecherous around Lindsay Lohan, or Sarah Silverman did comedy. Pick your own example. There will be three new ones by the time you read this.
All this stuff is garden-variety bad behaviour. Some of it barely reaches the bar for naughtiness. But what makes it so apparent in the lives of people exposed to it for the first time is video.
Seeing a visual recording of what happened in 1998 is no different to our lizard brain than seeing something that happened yesterday.
As long as the figures involved are still contemporary, it is – and this is only if you’re the sort of person inclined to feel that things people you don’t know say to each other somehow matters deeply to your life – every bit as shocking.
If Johnny Carson had humiliated Lindsay Lohan on her way out to do The Tonight Show, no one would care right now. Because Carson is dead, and had been for years before his actual expiration.
But Letterman is still a thing. He’s on Netflix. He is more real to most than their second-to-next-door neighbours.
Famous people ask for this sort of trouble. It is, in its way, unavoidable.
What is amusing to one generation will be somewhere between confusing and repellent to viewers/readers/listeners in the future.
Any work that doesn’t meet that criteria and yet is still being widely discussed more than a couple of generations after its creation is, by definition, a classic.
If posthumous fame is your goal, those are your only two options – legend or lowlife.
If you’re really famous, you get to be both.
None of this is interesting, not once you’ve seen it come around the horn for the 10th time.
What is interesting is where it’s headed.
When it comes to recording for posterity, the means of production have been taken over by the proletariat. Everyone has a TV studio on their phone. Everyone has access to a global broadcast network. Everyone’s output is being catalogued forever.
What kind of teenager were you? Probably an idiot. Probably a little too sure of yourself. A bit over-the-top-rope on your opinions. Maybe so far over you were smacking your forehead on the rafters.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a permanent video record of your complete wisdom, circa Grade 12, possibly while doing hot knives in your buddy John’s basement, so that strangers could sift through it and bask in the new Confucius you used to be before you had kids and got a job in insurance?
We were all interesting once. There’s a reason no one’s meant to know about it.
It won’t be resource scarcity that starts the next world war. It’ll be something the future prime minister of Japan said about Russian manliness in a TikTok he recorded when he was 15.
One way to avoid this problem is to post nothing. That ship has sailed, but I wonder if a future generation will retreat into social-media Luddism after watching the Internet wreck their parents’ lives.
Another way is to find yourself a guardian angel like Phil.
Mine is taken.
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