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Column: Glenn Beck, Mahatma Gandhi, and you

Two recent news items stuck in the back of my mind and wouldn't go away, like restless ghosts haunting a place until the reason for their haunting is satisfied.

The first was about Glenn Beck, the conservative commentator, that he was sorry that he had been so divisive, that he "played a role... in helping tear the country apart."

A friend suggested that Beck may not be sorry at all but is simply preparing his next career move. Maybe, but I'll take his word for now.

Then there were some pictures of Mahatma Gandhi because we just passed the anniversary of his death. In later life, in his loincloth, he looked the opposite of someone of power and influence, but even as a young man he was a skinny little guy with ears so big they looked like handles on a jug. Yet, of course, he accomplished one of the greatest feats in history.

Leave those two aside for the moment and consider this. Technology enables us to affect the lives of others while being distant from the harm we do them, without having any human connection to them. From the earliest times that humans gathered in big enough groups and with hierarchical organization, a pharaoh or monarch could decide to send young men to war, or to consume the people in slave labor to build a monument, without the ruler ever knowing those affected, or seeing how they were affected.

The most direct example today is drones, the ability for a few top leaders to be able to look at a screen halfway around the world from a drone, and decide we're pretty sure that clump of people is a terrorist and his people, and obliterate them.

People can also harm others with words. A large newspaper, for instance, could shine a spotlight on a particular person or group, muddying a public person's reputation, or propagating misconceptions about some policy. A light that is sometimes truthful, sometimes not, sometimes accurate, sometimes not.

With the Internet, the power to do that comes all the way down to the individual, and the target of it can be a private person. If you want to anonymously post false, bad reviews of your competitor's product, you can. If one neighbor wants to sully the image of another, they can. It is even true where strict anonymity is not the issue. Some of these horrific cyber-bullying incidents, in which a woman who has been raped is accused of lying or of having "asked for it," are sometimes started by someone who is not anonymous, but who can hind behind the safe distance of the Internet. If a bunch of like-minded bullies join in, then they can hide in the pseudo-anonymity of the crowd and claim "everyone" is saying it.

To return to Beck and Gandhi, Beck was perfectly right to raise issues he thought were important and to urge people to stand up against things he thought they should. Gandhi did the same thing, and had the advantage of standing against something so clearly wrong. There is of course a difference between them, and it has to do with what Beck now acknowledges, sincerely or not.

Campaigns for causes are often careless about who gets hurt in the process, the "ends justify the means" idea. Gandhi kept the humanity of every person he was affecting in mind as he led his movement. From the big decisions and big actions of his campaign down to the smallest details of those actions, they were to be done in ways that didn't hurt anyone. He wanted to be able to stand up to those who needed to be stood against, and he wanted to succeed, but he wanted to be able to walk away when it was done with a clear conscience, with the knowledge that he had dealt with them like humans, with respect.

For us as individuals, with our recent power to be anonymous or to become part of a hateful crowd, or to propagate lies, we have to maintain that same standard. It is so easy when sitting in our robe at night, after our nightcap, posting some off-the-top-of-our-head thought about something that has us riled, everything works against our acting as we would with a human connection. Works against dealing with someone the same as you would if you met them face-to-face. Works against being able to disagree, yet walk away with a clear conscience, knowing that the disagreement was respectful, that we dealt with them as a person, that we had that human connection.

When posting things about people, we need to keep in mind that a newfangled age requires some old-fashioned principles. Creates an even greater need for a personal commitment to them. Commitment to respect. Commitment to always keep in mind that human connection.

Tom Cantlon is a local business owner and writer and can be reached at comments at tomcantlon.com.

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