entertainment, media

The Quality of Mercy

Once in a while, a story comes along that, as my Granddad would have said, “gets my dander up”. This story in the Globe & Mail is one of them.

Evidently, an overweight (400+ lbs.) woman recently gave birth. Not notable in itself, but the twist comes from the news that she didn’t realize that she was pregnant – again, not unheard of, particularly among women with weight problems. The real problem I have with this story is the reaction she received from people on the internet. She was mocked ruthlessly, belittled and humiliated by hundreds of people she had never met.

Again, we are revisited by the ghost of civility past. It was certainly more difficult to make fun of someone when they were present and could rebuke you for it, or cause you guilt or remorse by their reaction. Those days are long past.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit – I’m as ‘programmed’ to appreciate certain aspects of physical appearance in a woman as the next person. The initial reaction to seeing someone who is morbidly obese is to blame them, to think them less of a person. I should know better. My Mom, a few years before she passed away, was over 300 lbs. at one time, and worked long and hard to lose the excess weight. She was happy and proud, and so was I. The point here being, I should know better, but my initial reaction is still toward the negative.

Which, I suppose, doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person. I try not to judge, but sometimes I do. I’m human, and I’m OK with that. Mainly because I keep it to myself. I don’t feel the need to make myself feel better by belittling someone else.

And that, I suppose, is the point. We have, as I ranted about here, lost the intangible connection we once had with each other. Intangible, but very important, comprised mostly of a recognition that, no matter how we differ from one another, we’re all human, and we’re all along for the ride as this little ball of dirt hurtles headlong through the void. The new generation of emotionally distant, self-centered narcissists that has been bred by the rise in personally customizable technology has no connection to anyone, and could probably survive indefinitely with no human contact, as long as they were sufficiently entertained. I look around, and all I see are MP3 players – everyone is lost in their own personal world of songs that they chose to make them feel good. I’m not criticizing the appreciation for music, and the right to have favourite songs – heck, I have an MP3 player myself – but it’s become less of an enjoyable pastime than a barrier to human contact. The rest of the world becomes, in the age of instant entertainment, instant communication and instant gratification, an inconvenience. Why would you want to speak to a real human when you could be doing something more entertaining?

The need, or from an anthropological perspective, a desire to be creative and entertain or be entertained, is a hallmark of humanity – mice don’t wear tap shoes (there’s an image for you). The problem is, technology has slowly been drawing out of us the need to be creative – music videos made music less of an effort, since you had the images provided for you. Video games, which I remember in their infancy, has gone from a collective endeavour (remember Pong? Can’t play that by yourself), a social entertainment, to predominantly a solitary exercise. But Flash, you say to yourself, I play video games with other people online. Which, if you think about it, is a funny thing to be saying to yourself.

Online games are great – if you haven’t had the ability to interact socially in person with others sapped from you by isolation. The most well-adjusted people I know (counting my amigos here on the ‘Kog and longtime reader Alex [shout out!]), play games online, but they are also capable of making intelligent conversation with a real person. Younger people, who react to people as mere obstacles between self-indulgent entertainment experiences,  don’t perceive people as any more real when they compete with them online. To the narcissist, there is you, and there is a persistent buzzing noise from those things around you that cater to your needs immediately if not sooner.

It is the loss of the social skills we once had, the lack of meaningful interaction, that makes people the way they are, and makes them comfortable in online communities. There, all bets are off. Anything you don’t like about yourself doesn’t have to apply anymore. In the absence of visual cues, we can all be six feet tall and bulletproof, or blonde and perfect. You can be anyone you want – which means you can say anything you want. These aren’t real people, they’re handles or screen names or aliases with no emotional reality – or, in some cases, the emotion can become hyper-real, with no human reactions from which to judge.

Let me ‘splain.

Remember your first date? I sure do. Captain Awkward, that was me. All feet and twisted tongue, with sweaty palms, desperately trying to impress the girl I was with. She, no doubt, was much the same, and in subsequent years, on other ‘first dates’, it helped to dispel the nervousness to actually admit to being nervous – it put us on solid footing, so to speak. The whole thing was a process of finding out who this person was, what they liked, how they reacted when you do X, and so on. Honest reaction, and honest interaction, meant that you got to know someone naturally and gradually.

In the absence of this, boom! People are in love and buying plane tickets to Helsinki in less than 24 hours. In seeking out human contact, we have found voices, but not humanity. If the voice is all we have, it’s easy to decide whether you like or dislike someone  very quickly.

And if you dislike the disembodied voice with nothing but emoticons to judge by, what’s the harm in insulting someone? They’re not real, they don’t have feelings like you did when you were made fun of as a kid. Plus, there are no repercussions. The trucker from California can’t retaliate when the nerd from Crotchton-on-Stoat insults his intelligence, or mocks his photograph, or gets others to help humiliate them. They’re not real like actual people are real. If they’re real.

But they are, folks. These people you flame, or denounce as ‘liberals’ (where have I heard that before?) are actual human beings, with loves, needs, desires, problems and joys like you. We once shared a common set of values and rules of etiquette, but, once your world has a population of one, the rules are what you say they are.

Do we need a ‘code of conduct’? Not really. We already have one, and it’s called civility. Every once in a while, just take the time to realize that all of these shapeless blobs around you, the ones on the other end of the computer, the ones who are victims of misfortune or accident, are just like you.  ‘There but for the grace of god’ and all that.

We share a connection, and it’s not there because of a phone company.

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