Saturday, March 7, 2015

This Is Why We Suck

Odds are you didn't come here prepared to invest 10 minutes of your life on a topic not of your choosing. Out of respect to your time, please know that the below post asks of a reader to watch a 4-minute song and read at least one of the many examples linked below. I ask this of you because the issue deserves our time, our meditation, our concern.

Troutking sent Bob and me a link to the following video the other day. It is no exaggeration to say it has haunted me ever since. It's a song by one of those comedian types who does entire routines around original music. So it's funny while also haunting. It's called "The Ballad of Billy John."

Here, watch:

The Homer "It's funny because it's true" line is apt here. You need go no further than the story of Gabby Schilling, daughter of (hopefully soon) Hall of Fame pitcher Curt. Proud dad Tweets about his daughter taking a college scholarship for pitching, and the Troll Universe swoops in to feed on it. Or, you can read the account from Curt Schilling himself, from his blog 38 Pitches.

You can be horrified by the initial collection of jerks who deserve to have their nuts placed in a vice for five minutes each, or you can be horrified at how quickly the tides can turn into a sort of over-the-top vigilante justice on those trolls whose actual identities can be shared with the world. If you have enough capacity for being horrified, you should be horrified by both the initial instance of collective a-holery of the Internet Borg, and then you should be horrified at how swiftly -- and with equal lack of perspective -- the tides can turn.

Serendipitously, mere weeks from now, So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Joe Ronson hits the bookshelves (or, for you young whipper-snappers, Amazon). Here's the general description:
For the past three years, Jon Ronson has been immersing himself in the world of modern-day public shaming—meeting famous shamees, shamers, and bystanders who have been impacted. This is the perfect time for a modern-day Scarlet Letter—a radically empathetic book about public shaming, and about shaming as a form of social control. It has become such a big part of our lives it has begun to feel weird and empty when there isn’t anyone to be furious about. Whole careers are being ruined by one mistake. A transgression is revealed. Our collective outrage at it has the force of a hurricane. Then we all quickly forget about it and move on to the next one, and it doesn’t cross our minds to wonder if the shamed person is okay or in ruins. What’s it doing to them? What’s it doing to us?
Ronson’s book is a powerful, funny, unique, and very humane dispatch from the frontline, in the escalating war on human nature and its flaws.
Esquire has an excerpt from the book which could be titled, "How an overheard off-color dick joke can lead to the loss of multiple jobs and death threats." It tells a tale similar to the Gabby Schilling incident, except without anyone who was ever in the limelight before their Brush with Internet Shame. No reasonable person can be happy with the course of events described.

In general, I'm fairly mindful of this, and I avoid most of the rush to judge and condemn. But not always. Take Brian Williams. While he seems like a swell guy and sells the news like nobody's business, I still can't quite accept that we should forgive a journalist who makes s*#t up, because it goes to the very core of his duty.

In my mind, a journalist who exaggerates facts for the drama quotient (or for self-endorsement) is no better than a President who invents (or allows to be invented) excuses for war, or two dread-locked singers who don't actually sing, or a scientist who can't actually clone a sheep, or a bicyclist who cheats and pulls everyone into his conspiracy and destroys them when they get crises of conscience. In all cases these are abuses that go to the core of their professional duties.

Yet, in every single case, it's one thing to be offended or even angry by these acts, but I still don't have bloodlust for them. I want the President to lose an election, the singers to stop singing, the scientist to stop researching, the bicyclist to stop being seen as a hero and making money from it, and I want the journalist to become the next host of The Daily Show. These are irrational thirsts for something like "justice" as meted out instinctively by a single flawed person, namely me. And I don't want to be judge and jury. I just want to drink my coffee and think Milli Vanilli sucked for not being real. I don't want one of them to kill himself.

"Just Busted" (by a million different names) sells in convenience stores all over this great land. They're right there at the counter. They're the new National Enquirer except better, because we might actually know these people, and even if we don't, we can celebrate our superior wisdom and intelligence by merely knowing they are nearby.

We spend so much time and energy in our modern culture hungrily seeking out people to judge. Most of us know it's wrong to hate someone, so we seek out, like vampires, people who have done something just despicable enough that we can justify vomiting out our negative emotions on them. And the more people around us who are doing it, the more justified we feel. See? They're vomiting on that guy, so obviously he deserves it, so I'm gonna vomit on him, too!

The local mom who passed out in a parking lot, drunk, with her child in the backseat. The parents who left their children in the car while they attended a wine tasting a few blocks over. The pet owner who left their dog outside during the winter storm.

When oh when will this Winter of Our Outrage* subside? I look forward to the spring of our current zeitgeist, when hope overcomes fear, when empathy replaces judgment, when caring replaces condescension. (* -- From Slate, and one of the best and most damning special web features in the history of the Internets.)

But I just looked, and Angry Groundhog apparently saw its shadow. Spring could be a ways off.

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