On April 29, 1986, a catastrophic fire erupted in the main downtown Los Angeles Public Library. By the time the fire was under control, tens of thousands of books had been destroyed, including irreplaceable historical documents. Many firefighters were injured fighting the blaze, and it remains the worst library fire in United States history.
Last week, in December 2019, I saw a video of a respected community leader pontificating foolishly and revealing that he had no idea of the seriousness of the question he was asked. Watching the clip made me feel embarrassed for him and for the community he represents (of which I am a member).
What does a giant library fire have in common with a dignified leader slipping on a verbal banana peel?
When the Los Angeles library burned in April 1986, my husband and I had five children under the age of five. The 29th of the month fell out during Passover when family and communal demands rocket sky-high. In addition to leading our flourishing Jewish congregation near the Los Angeles beachfront, my husband was running a business. We were busy.
Along with everything going on in our own lives, the frenzied 24-hour news cycle was not yet in existence. Since we did not watch television in our home, we would not have seen the library fire on the news. Internet news sites were not to come into existence for nearly another decade, so while personal computers were around, they were not delivering a constant stream of information. Surely, we must have heard about the fire via radio or newspaper? Surely it had to have been a topic of conversation after synagogue services? Neither my husband nor I have any recollection of this inferno.
A well-known saying claims that a picture is worth a thousand words. That is certainly true, not only in conveying ideas but also in influencing how memorable those ideas are. This is true whether what is caught visually is profoundly true or misleading, representative of a greater reality or an inconsequential outlier. Video is pictures on steroids.
The ease with which every step and word today is caught on video magnifies the impact enormously. There is not one of us who has not said foolish, hurtful or false words. Sometimes we realize our mistakes ourselves, sometimes others point them out to us. We have an opportunity to grow from our blunders and, if we are fortunate, we can undo some of the damage we may have wrought.
Yet, today, our missteps remain frozen in time. If reporters and activists bent on malice and mischief comb through old yearbooks looking to destroy political opponents, what hope do those growing up today have? Anyone and everyone around them can capture their lives on ubiquitous cell phones. Privacy is increasingly non-existent both as a concept and as an actuality.
Perhaps the day after the community leader’s ill-conceived remarks, his wife, colleagues or even some of his students offered differing views to him. Maybe he will take steps to be more careful in the future or even to apologize and speak publicly on the same topic in a more thoughtful way. In the “olden days,” we would have called that maturation, repentance and moving forward. Yet, because of the existing video clip that was distributed around the world almost instantaneously, words at an event that I did not attend will most likely stay in my memory in a way that a raging blaze did not. The damage from a misspoken or mistaken word—even an uncharacteristically malicious one— can set aflame far more than stacks of books in a treasured building.