Well intentioned Facebook meme misses the point

A ‎15 year old girl holds hands with her 1 year old son. People call her a slut. No-one knows she was raped at 13. People call a girl fat. No-one knows she has a serious disease which causes her to be over weight. People call an old man ugly. No-one knows he had a serious injury to his face while fighting for our country in the war. Re post this if you are against bullying and stereotyping. 95% of you won’t

I keep seeing this Facebook status meme pop up from time to time, and every time, it makes me angry. Sure, I’m against bullying and stereotyping (is anyone really pro bullying and stereotyping?) but I don’t at all agree with the message here.

Sure, it’s important not to assume that all teen mothers became mothers by choice. It’s important not to assume that every teen mother became pregnant through consensual sex or irresponsible behavior. Yes, it’s important to understand and recognize that some pregnancies are the result of rapes, and that some young women are forced to carry their babies to term because of shitty barriers to contraception, Plan B, and abortion access. Maybe she was forced to carry the baby to term because of parental notification laws, or the crowds of anti-Choice protesters outside her local Planned Parenthood, or even simply because abortion is too stigmatizing or incompatible with her family’s beliefs or culture to consider.

But even if a teenage girl did become pregnant through consensual sex – even if she was irresponsible – even if she had consensual, unprotected sex with multiple partners – she still doesn’t deserve to be called a slut. Nobody deserves to be called a slut, ever, for any reason. Because there’s nothing wrong with having sex. Even when you’re young. Even when you’re not married. Even if it’s with multiple partners.

Sure, it’s important to realize that there are a myriad of different reasons why a person might become overweight. It could be the result of an illness, or a medication, or a genetic condition and no fault of her own. But it could also be a result of an eating disorder, or stress eating, or poverty, or a lack of education about nutrition. It could be because she’s too busy working 14 hours a day to shop at a grocery store and prepare healthy meals. It could also be because she loves food and doesn’t really care if she conforms to the unrealistic American beauty ideal of the size 2 supermodel. She might be happy with her body exactly how it is.

But no one deserves to be discriminated against or bullied for being fat, ever, for any reason. Even if their weight appears unhealthy, even if they just fucking love to eat hamburgers. Because fat people deserve respect, even if they’re fat because they’re lazy, even if they’re unhealthy. Because people come in all different shapes and sizes, for all sorts of reasons. Because there’s no wrong way to have a body. And because someone else’s weight is really none of your business.

Yes, it’s important to realize that sometimes people look different and sometimes they were injured while serving our country. But sometimes people look different because they were injured for some other reason. Maybe it was a car accident. Maybe it was a drunken hang-gliding accident. Maybe there was an accident at work because of lax safety standards. Maybe it wasn’t an injury, but an illness, or a condition that developed over time, or maybe they were just born that way. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with a person’s face other than the fact that it doesn’t look like the faces we see in magazines. Maybe it’s not a person’s face, but their body. Maybe they use a wheelchair or a cane. Maybe they sound different when they speak. Maybe they cannot speak, or cannot hear, or cannot see. No one deserves to be called ugly, no matter what they look like or sound like or how they came to be that way.

Though I can recognize that the meme is well-intentioned, it suggests that while some people don’t deserve to be bullied or stereotyped, other people do. Because they “brought it on themselves” by acting irresponsibly or just because they don’t have a “good excuse” for being the way they are. But nobody deserves to be stereotyped or bullied, for any reason.

When someone falls outside the norm, they become a target for bullying and stereotyping just because they’re different. And everyone is different at least some of the time. There’s no point to trying to determine who “deserves it” and who doesn’t. Because bullying and stereotyping is cruelty, and no one ever deserves that.

So if 95% of people aren’t reposting this status meme, let’s hope it’s because they agree that EVERY 15 year old mother, EVERY overweight person, and EVERY person who’s body is in some way “different,” deserves our respect and compassion.

A Society of Guilty Bystanders

We are familiar with the concept of “innocent bystanders”; these are the people who accidentally get injured in cross-fires or explosions. And we are familiar with those who “stand idly by”; they are the people who turn away and knowingly allow atrocities to happen. It’s considered a tragedy when innocent bystanders get hurt and it is repugnant when bystanders stand idly by. But these days, we have a different breed of bystander: the guilty bystander, the absolute worst of them all.

The guilty bystander is worse than the idle bystander because the guilty bystander does not turn their head and ignore atrocity; the guilty bystander watches it happen, records it on his/her phone, and uploads it to Youtube. For example, take a recent story from Vancouver in which a 16 year-old girl was drugged and gang raped at a rave, while onlookers took photos that they then posted to Facebook.  (Some of them are even refusing to take the photos down, despite threats of being charged with disseminating child pornography from the police.) Last year 15 year-old high school girl was gang-raped in the parking lot of her school during a homecoming dance, while a crowd watched, laughed, and took pictures. I do not know exactly how often this is happening, but it’s at least two times too many.

The idea of the watching, laughing, jeering bystander is nothing new; it’s an unfortunate, cowardly, human response. The 21st century addition to this offense, however – which pushes into a whole new category of evil – is that these guilty bystanders are actively participating by recording the rape, and disseminating it to the internet for others to enjoy. By adding those photos to Facebook, the guilty bystanders invited their friends to view them and add comments, all of which were of the slut-shaming variety (e.g. “Straight up WHORE,” a “complete slut”). Discussing why people would look at a photo of a gang-rape and direct their disgust at the victim is a whole other story. Now these photos have been unleashed into cyberspace and there is no way to destroy or delete them all, meaning that the victim will be forced to relive the event, and the subsequent bullying, over and over again each time a photo resurfaces.

So why the hell are people committing such disgusting acts? Why don’t people interfere and stop the rape? Why has the default response changed from “standing idly by” to recording the event with voyeuristic excitement? I really don’t know, but I do have one idea: reality tv.

We are a nation of voyeurs. We are now accustomed to viewing the misfortune of others as entertainment. We also know the rules of reality tv production – the film crew must not interfere, not even when a child (like we have seen on Jon & Kate Plus Eight or Teen Mom) is about to get injured. It’s supposed to preserve the “reality” of the show, but what this expectation has done, in fact, is create a new “reality” in which one does not interfere, not even when someone is getting hurt.

There is no hard data or scientific evidence that media messages categorically change and/or influence behavior; there’s only common sense. And perhaps it’s only common sense that a generation of young people raised on reality tv have gotten some very backwards messages about what is entertainment and what is reality. No wonder they can’t tell the difference between when you are supposed to watch and when you are supposed to intervene.

There was recently a story about a flight attendent who removed a baby from its parent’s custody on a flight because the parents were slapping it. I think the story confused most of us – we weren’t sure if the flight attendant was supposed to be a hero, or if she overstepped her bounds. We are a society that doesn’t have a clear idea of what is abuse and what isn’t, what is violence and what isn’t. (The infamous “Snookie punch” vs. when Amber hit Gary on Teen Mom?) And reality tv, unfortunately, is a part of that.

Now, I obviously have no data or “proof” that reality tv is the cause of disgusting displays like this. I am not trying to claim that I do, or that the issue is simple enough to be boiled down to just one cause. Still, as I sit here fuming with anger and disgust for my fellow members of the human race, it’s the best explanation I can come up with.

We may never be able to eradicate rape from society or cure the impulse to rape in rapists. But it is not a mental illness that causes bystanders to assume that an obviously intoxicated 15 year-old wants to be raped by multiple people in public; it’s a social illness. We CAN teach people to intervene in situations of public gang-rape or other types of violence and/or abuse. We can, at the very least, teach people to recognize public gang-rape ofor what it isn’t: guilty pleasure entertainment.