There is a picture making its way around the internet of a grossly overweight woman standing in what looks like a cafeteria line. She is wearing a pair of shorts that are several sizes too small and the fat rolls at her stomach and bottom are pushed up and exposed. I don't know who the woman is or where the picture came from, but from what I can tell, it's a picture that both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, men and women, Americans and non-Americans, feel perfectly at ease making fun of.
There is another one of an obese man sitting on a motorcycle, butt crack exposed.
And yet another one where a woman's breasts and belly have been photo-shopped to look like a huge, green Ninja Turtle.
Wander around Facebook or Twitter on any given day and you'll find FB friends and Twitter followers who have posted dozens of pictures like this; where the only purpose for posting is to make raucous, profane fun of a mostly undeserving subject.
Everyone in the public eye can expect to be the subject of speculation and/or ridicule, simply by being in the public eye. When Britney Spears had a public mental breakdown, the internet couldn't get enough of it--not to empathize or commiserate, but to shame her and make her misery complete.
More recently, Renee Zellweger may have had an eye-lift but so far she's not admitting it. Now we're forced to spend hours and hours and hours discussing this important issue, to the neglect of other even more important things. Like whether Monica Lewinsky's entry into the Twitterverse is all about embarrassing Hillary so close to her presidential campaign or is really about the advantage her own experiences might bring during a campaign against cyber-bullying.
After speaking to groups about slut-shaming and cyber-bullying, Lewinsky joined Twitter last week in order to open up the conversation. This is her focus now, she says. After 16 years of having almost universal hatred and ridicule directed at her, who would know better about what that kind of unwanted attention does to a young life? What happened next wasn't surprising: The cyber-bullies came out in full force against her.
The anonymity of the internet allows anyone with a cruel streak and access to Wi-Fi a safe haven for vicious intolerance. Now no one is immune and the meanies are everywhere, hiding behind usernames that keep them safe from the same kind of public scrutiny they're so rabidly enforcing.
Even the websites I normally go to for mostly true news and views profit from sidebar links to photo-stories about former child stars who are now ugly, about celebrities who smell bad, about ridiculously awful plastic surgeries, about female stars with cellulite or without makeup.
Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube build their numbers to sky-high status whenever hatred and ridicule goes viral. The comments and re-tweets are nightmarish, and if I think too long on what kind of people are out there gorging on this stuff I find myself questioning whether, as a civilization, we're even worth saving.
And we're not even talking yet about politics and politicians.
The destructive politics of, say, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, or Chris Christie are enough to be the centerpiece of any conversation. Their looks don't hurt us, their policies do. But whenever their political activities cause some major ruckus, the comment sections invariably devolve into jokes about their personal appearance--as if the only way they can be hurt is by making fun of weight, chin, or skin.
As a political blogger, I'm not above enjoying the hell out of ridiculing certain Right Wing pols whose own meanness goes beyond hurting individuals and leans more toward causing heartache and dismay to multitudes. They deserve it. But going beyond their politics to make fun of their looks, or their spouses' looks, or their children's looks doesn't add to the conversation--it doesn't fix anything. It's a cruel way to get a laugh.
Inflicting personal, psychic pain for the pleasure of an audience isn't anything new. The concept of making fun of other human beings is centuries old. But spreading ridicule to the ends of the earth electronically in a matter of seconds is new. And chilling. Anyone with a camera or a smart phone can snap a picture of someone who looks funny--without them even knowing it--and post it to the internet. Once the deed is done it's out there forever. No taking it back. Forever.
We hear about teen suicides nearly every day. The direct cause of far too many of them is cruel, senseless public shaming and/or bullying on the internet. It's time the shamers take the heat. They're miserable excuses for human beings, made even worse by the fact that they know they can inflict that kind of harm anonymously. They're heartless cowards, blameless as long as they can stay nameless.
The broad scope and openness of the internet is a gift, but when it's used as a tool for abuse we have an obligation to self-regulate it. We have to pay attention. We are the grown-ups here.
(Cross-posted at Ramona's Voices)