An old expression that seems to have appeared fully formed on T-shirts and bumper stickers, as it has no author I’ve been able to find, is something about how boys never really grow up, their toys just get more expensive.
So much of our society’s woes are the result of people who should be old enough to know better insisting that they be allowed to play with their toys, wherever and whenever they want.
The most obvious example is guns. Whether it is a mock six-shooter or a semi-automatic rifle with a bump stock attached, the vast majority of gun owners buy and collect their weapons for fun. Maybe careful fun, with respect for the power of the firearm and the history some of them embody. Maybe useful fun, hunting game they really feed to their families.
Or maybe the kind of fun that rightly engenders increasing amounts of fear. The childish desire to carry, and be seen carrying, a large and powerful weapon that nobody really needs unless they are in the armed services and are training for, or deployed in, a really dangerous part of the world.
Yes, in a free society, there is and should be a natural resistance to having the government, or even the wider culture, decide for any individual what they do or do not “need.” But a free society is not the same as an anarchic one. If every person is allowed to decide for him- or her- (mostly him-) self what they need, with no legislative or police power allowed to intervene, then some people will “need” shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and dirty bombs.
In the vast majority of cases, the weapons are carefully cared for — or, like so many other material possessions that were once so eagerly coveted by their owners, left in a closet to rot. They wind up creating no more real damage than so many Barbies or Messrs. Potato Head. Except in the few cases where they fall into the hands of white domestic terrorists — which is the proper word for them — and cause a lot more mayhem than those same people could ever create with a backpack full of Slinkies.
All those guns keep their owners safe in the same sense that that red towel tied around your neck gives you the ability to fly. Except the 5-year-old with the terrycloth cape doesn’t really believe it.
In Utah, one toy that also identifies boys who never grew up is the all-terrain vehicle, a noisy device of the three- or four-wheeled variety designed to create the most obnoxious sounds and destruction of land possible. Or, at least, more than the other guy’s. Clearly, most people who own such things have no demonstrable need for them. They are for recreation. For fun. Toys. And, even though they are not even remotely protected by the Second Amendment, seen by many as some kind of inalienable right.
And now, lest anyone think this toys-gone-wrong theory only applies to Republican white males, comes what may prove to be the most surprisingly damaging toy of all: social media.
Just about every day brings new details about how the ubiquitous yet supposedly meaningless time-suck of Twitter and, mostly, Facebook was weaponized by enemies of the free society to spread propaganda, fear and division, to undermine citizens’ faith in their government.
And, more by accident than design, those toys have also stolen away the audience once owned by, and the trust formerly felt toward, the real news media. So much so that our business model is kaput and our ability to chase down and present the truth is much diminished.
It turns out that the parts of Facebook that seemed the most playful — surveys, fan clubs and memes — were the tools used by nefarious agents to feed us divisive lies. While the more useful and humane part of social media, instant connection with true friends and relatives all over the world, meant little to either the creators or the manipulators of the social network.
In each of those cases, the point is not that guns, vehicles and social networks don’t have a good purpose. It’s that each of them is far too dangerous to be treated, as most of us do, as toys.
It is time to put away childish things. As, more and more, our children are telling us.
George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, has a few toys of his own. None of them explode or burn gasoline. But one or two do involve a small screen and a great deal of wasted time. email@example.com