Objectifying Others for Fun, Laughs, and Profit

Long before the first book was published, I thought the site People of Walmart was horrible. Not just because it exploits – for profit! – the unattractive and mentally challenged among us, or because Walmart has allowed it, but because its success has encouraged ever more mean-spirited people to post even worse images of “weird” people who make them uncomfortable, people they consider unattractive, and disabled or mentally ill human beings.

But These Aren’t Real People, Are They?

Dehumanization – the process of reducing certain groups or type of people to something “other” and something “less than human” – is no laughing matter. It is dehumanization that allows real people – especially innocent children, the mentally or physically disabled, and the elderly – to be reduced to memes and made the butt of cruel jokes.  It is something that violent criminals do to their victims; on a larger scale, combined with the labeling of people (“crazy,” “ugly,” “slutty,” “freaky”) is a dangerous thing, indeed.

Classification and symbolization are fundamental operations in all cultures. They become steps of genocide only when combined with dehumanization. Denial of the humanity of others is the step that permits killing with impunity. The universal human abhorrence of murder of members of one’s own group is overcome by treating the victims as less than human. In incitements to genocide the target groups are called disgusting animal names – Nazi propaganda called Jews “rats” or “vermin”; Rwandan Hutu hate radio referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches.” The targeted group is often likened to a “disease”, “microbes”, “infections” or a “cancer” in the body politic. Bodies of genocide victims are often mutilated to express this denial of humanity. Such atrocities then become the justification for revenge killings, because they are evidence that the killers must be monsters, not human beings themselves.[Source]

Kyra Pringle, whose daughter Mariah was born with a chromosomal abnormality, should be able to proudly share photos and video of her daughter without people stealing them and turning them into horrible memes. Let’s be clear about something: No one has the legal or moral right or privilege to steal someone else’s photo and use it for their own purposes.  If you didn’t take the photo and it is not clearly marked, by the person who did, as “Creative Commons,” you must get the owner’s permission. (Newsflash: Sometimes it’s hard to find the real owner. The owner may not be the person on whose Facebook wall you found the image. The owner of the photo may not be the person who created the meme you’re about to share, either – and if they didn’t own the rights to the photo, neither do you! If you can’t be bothered, then leave it alone and take your own photos!)

But it isn’t just the trolls who create such memes that are to blame. Much of the blame lies with ordinary “nice people” having a thoughtless moment and buying into the dehumanization that happens when real people are reduced to Internet memes. “[O]nce people realized that the brave young girl was real and suffering from a condition that has drastically shortened her life expectancy, the negative turned into a positive as some of the strangers said they were sorry.”[Source]

Some of them? When confronted with the truth behind some of the hurtful memes involving purloined pics of people’s children, viewers have written:

“I have to admit that I never thought about where people actually got the pics from to do these memes. Now I know.”

“…the next time any of us, because I am not on my high horse pointing blame but rather also taking responsibility, laughs at a photo of some stranger that has made its way to our feed think about who the person behind the photo is and if they’d appreciate whatever connotations behind why they’re circulated online. We can’t have it both ways…because eventually someone gets hurt and in this case it’s these innocent children and their heartbroken mother.”

Others, though, say things like, “Who puts their kids photo on the Internet in a public forum?” This is victim blaming at its finest, no doubt from well-meaning, caring individuals who fail to see that the real problem is us. Yes – us. We consume these things – like any other spam, if it didn’t lead to more “eyeballs” and “unique visits” and clicks on ads running on the page, if it didn’t get shared and laughed at and passed around “privately” by people who like to see themselves as “good people” – you and me included – there would be no “market” for such nonsense. We want people to think that we are good and nice and kind and would never snicker or laugh at someone else’s misfortune, but the popularity of such memes – the popularity of the “kick to the crotch” and “worst fashion fail” and “demon baby” type videos on the Internet – suggests otherwise. We are all rubberneckers. We keep looking.

I have friends who are shameless in their glee – even when asked to think about the people behind he memes and the videos, they say, “So what?” And these are not the trolls who create the content, laugh all the way to the bank, and sneer at the people sharing it – believing (knowing) them to be just as bad as they are. These are just ordinary people sharing a joke. The joke’s not on the unfortunate subject of the meme or video – the joke’s on us, as our interaction with it reveals something deeply ugly about our character.

But if we blame the victims into submission – if we believe that we have to stop sharing happy times, photos of ourselves, our friends, and our kids, the Internet is nothing but an ugly cesspool of the absolute worst of humanity. We share these things to counter that nastiness in the world – to give ourselves and each other hope that humanity, itself, isn’t just an ugly cesspool. We shouldn’t stop doing that just because there are bitter, mean-spirited, cruel, and hateful people out there who would have us all believe that it is. If we buy into their worldview, all parents are horrible – whether they put their kids’ pictures on the Internet or not. We might just as well ask, “Who brings innocent little babies into such a crappy, hateful, hurtful world?”

Surely, we’re better that that.

Why Models Should Learn Contract Law

You could say that Heidi Yeh – the woman whose “husband” (she’s not married, yet) “sued his wife because their children were too ugly” – had it coming. “Her ‘nightmare’ began in 2012 with a photo shoot for an advertisement aimed at convincing people to get plastic surgery at a Taiwanese cosmetic clinic. The photo showed very attractive ‘parents’ with sought-after big eyes and long, well-defined noses, and their three ‘children’, their images altered to make their eyes look exceptionally small and their noses flat.”[Source]

Yeh knew how the photo would be used, but believed it would be used only by the one clinic for a specific ad campaign. The agency that owns the photo claims she assigned them all rights, including the right to manipulate the photo. As a professional model, she goes where the work is, and probably didn’t think too long and too deeply on the social implications of the ad campaign or how it could be abused by the Internet – by unscrupulous strangers who definitely had no right to use and alter her photo or take it out of context and make up lies about her. Then again, she did know that she was posing for a fake photo with a fake family, touting plastic surgery she never had, having awkward conversations with her fake kids about their parentage, perpetuating racist stereotypes… Here, in the US, that might be frowned upon by the FTC, but doesn’t change the fact that the tabloid story, the memes that grew out of it, and the damage done to these models – including the children (who are not at all unattractive, let alone “ugly”) – is deliberately cruel, morally wrong, and probably illegal.

But we pass these stories around like a dog-eared copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” because they are titillating, appalling, amusing, and “thank God it wasn’t us.” We don’t think too deeply on the long-term implications of our complicity in perpetuating the harm, either. And we struggle with empathy – even if we realize that the tabloid story is a lie, we can tell ourselves that the whole image was staged and the people are paid actors, so who does it really hurt? We don’t check facts, but who can blame us if the major media outlets fail to do the due diligence and repeat the gossip in their rush to market the “news”? “Hey, Fox News published it, so I figured it must be true!”

I want to believe we’re capable of being better than this. We should demand better of the media, too – and hold them just as accountable when, in their haste, they perpetuate the problem or suggest that the victims of Internet abuse “brought it on themselves” by being naive or trusting enough to share a part of themselves and their life with others.

Feathers in the Wind

There is an old folk tale that goes something like this:

One day, in the village, a woman was spreading gossip about a neighbor. They were friends, but the tidbits she had overheard were just too juicy and entertaining to keep to herself. She may have embellished the tale just a bit with each retelling, reveling in the rapt attention of her audience. She learned, later, that the story she had heard, embellished, and repeated was untrue. At first, she merely shrugged her shoulders and laughed it off.

But as the stories spread, they  hurt the neighbor’s business. His friends turned their backs on him – after all, it was his word against the rest of the village. He was so upset, so stressed, that he became distant and unkind, and his wife left him. His children were teased and taunted, daily, at school. Some of their classmates  made up stories about them being such terrible children that they had driven their mother to run away and caused their father to go crazy. Parents began telling their children they couldn’t play with “those awful kids.”

When the gossip heard about this, she felt the terrible weight of guilt pressing down on her. At night, she tossed and turned and cried out in her sleep. She had not imagined the impact her idle tale-telling might have. She tried telling the villagers that the stories were not true.  She even admitted to exaggerating what little she had, originally, believed to be the truth. But the stories had taken on a life of their own. With each re-telling, new “facts” were added and the details became more lurid and hurtful.

The woman remembered that high atop the mountain near her village, a wise old elder lived in a little hut. Surely, if anyone knew how the woman could make things right, it was him. Although she was out of shape, she trekked up the mountain, huffing and puffing, her feet sore and blistered. Finally, she found the wise man and told him her sad story. “Please,” she begged. “Tell me what to do.”

The wise man of the mountains told her that she must find a very thick feather pillow and bring it back to him. The woman nodded. She could do this. She returned to the village and got her very thickest, softest feather pillow, thinking that if she made the old wise man comfortable, all would be made right. The next day, she climbed the mountain again.

“Rip open the pillow,” said the old man.

“What? You want me to ruin this good pillow?”

“Didn’t you ruin your friend’s reputation?” asked the wise man. “Do you value this pillow more?”

The woman was ashamed. She quickly did as she was told.

The man led her to the cliff’s edge, where she could see the curve of the earth below. “Now, take out the feathers, one handful at a time, and throw them over your village, below.”

The woman grabbed handfuls of feathers and tossed them – right, left, and over her head. She scattered those feathers and watched them dance on the breeze and be carried farther than the eye could see. It looked as if a chicken had exploded.

When the pillowcase was empty, the woman looked at the wise man expectantly. “Go, now,” he said. “Collect every one of those feathers and bring them back to me. Do not return until the job is done.”

“But–that’s impossible!”

The old man shrugged. “You can try.”

And so she did. In a month’s time, she had only managed to find about a third of the feathers. The pillow was ruined; bedraggled, sagging, and lumpy, it was a sad reminder that she carried around with her daily. She was exhausted and discouraged, but she could not find any more feathers. She climbed the mountain one more time. “I’ve tried, and done the best I could, but this is all the feathers I was able to collect and bring back,” she explained. She hoped that it would be good enough to set things right.

The wise man explained to her that gossip was just like the feathers, once they were tossed out into the world, the wind would  spread them wide and far. She would never be able to make the pillow, or her friend, completely whole again.



Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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6 thoughts on “Objectifying Others for Fun, Laughs, and Profit”

  1. Thanks so much for this post! Wise words & a lot of food for thought. It’s one thing to laugh at our own gaffes & to tease our friends & such, but to mock others & to laugh at them because of their weaknesses & frailties & disabilities & such is cruel & there’s no excuse for it. As someone who was teased & picked on in childhood (much of it good natured & not meant to be harmful, I do admit, but I didn’t see it then), I know what it’s like to be on the brunt of that. I try to pay attention to when people aren’t happy with being teased & to not do that to them. I’m a firm believer in treating others as you would be treated, although it’s not always to put into practice. Still, if I remember how I want to be treated & do the same to others, it’s a lot easier to treat others with kindness. Thanks again for this post, Holly. 🙂

    1. Thank YOU, Michelle, for reading and commenting. It’s true that a lot of teasing is MEANT to be good natured. I do that, too, to friends – and I think most do know and take it that way (or know that they can feel safe and welcome in calling me on it if it comes across as hurtful, because I want to know and quickly make amends if it does). But this idle cruelty “we” (the Internet masses, all of us, from time to time) perpetuate through thoughtless sharing of crap – that’s something we all need to be more conscious and conscientious about. I don’t want to let the bullies win, and I certainly don’t want to be complicit in their mean games. For me, any photo meme of a child, a disabled or mentally ill person, or an elderly person is automatically a red flag. Politicians and celebs are viewed as “fair game” and to some extent – because of their very public roles – don’t get all the privacy protections the rest of us do, but sometimes the cruelty there goes beyond what speaks well of US. When I feel compelled to defend someone like Donald Trump, someone’s gone way too far. 😀 But I will, if I think they’ve crossed a line. If we all speak up and speak out when we see cruelty – and not just to our friends who already agree with us – maybe we can turn this thing around or at least hold equilibrium.

  2. Well… overall I agree with you. I think taking people’s content and turning it into something harsh and mean and making fun of them is totally wrong.

    I didn’t know about the Walmart site but I used to get those email images, many of which made me laugh. However, in those cases I had no problem laughing at the ones that made me do so and still don’t because those folks decided to come out of the house like that, and the law says if one is out in public there’s no assumption of privacy.

    That might sound a bit mean but you and I are close to the same age. Back in our day, our parents wouldn’t have dared let us walk out of the house like that. When I lived in the ghetto one year sure, the kids might have come to school dirty, some with holes in their clothes, but none of them showed up in pajamas, tutu’s, see through clothes… or some of the stuff I’ve seen in some of these pictures. Goodness, I see some of those folks showing up at the grocery store whose borders I share these days and this isn’t a poor neighborhood; those folks are fair game in my book.

    I believe there are times when lines are definitely crossed. I also believe there are times when people who aren’t concerned about what they look like when they walk out of the house want to be seen that way.
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…I Am A ProfessionalMy Profile

    1. Mitch, if I believed those folks were of sound mind when they decided to dress that way, I’d agree with you. But I don’t. If it were Halloween and they were adults dressing up for a lark, sure – fair game and they’re probably in on the joke and looking for laughs. But most of the folks I’m thinking of, in those photos, are likely mentally ill or intellectually disabled. We’re not just talking “poor fashion choices” here. I’ll send you a couple of links in email later, and you tell me if you can honestly imagine they’re not.

      Also, if you take a photo of someone on the sidewalk, sure – that’s public. But taking and selling photos from INSIDE A BUSINESS? You’re supposed to get a property release. So either Walmart gave them one, or has been happily looking the other way for years. To me, that spells disrespect for their customers, at the very least. Because they KNOWINGLY allow it.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Happy Halloween!My Profile

      1. Actually, it depends on the kind of business whether privacy rights are being violated or not. Large retail stores aren’t considered the same as a lawyer’s office. If the stores don’t have signs up prohibiting it, then it’s all free game. I take pictures of stuff all the time in my grocery store; can you imagine them, or any other store, telling people not to do it? (actually, we had an instance locally where a store got upset with a picture someone took of some nasty produce and they called the guy’s employer about it; turned into a big nasty campaign against the store, went national and they had to apologize to the guy and fired the person who called his employer).

        There’s also a difference between taking a picture of someone in the aisles versus taking a picture of someone in a changing room, where privacy is absolutely expected, and some folks have been prosecuted for that.

        As for the mental illness part… I responded to that in the email. Without the proper time and background to do a good evaluation, we can’t make assumptions on people’s mental illness like that. As for whether or not it’s proper to do in any or all circumstances… well, that turns out to be up to the beholder.

        Someone I know was upset with a picture I took at a hockey game of one of the cheerleaders who was very close to me, saying I was a stalker. No one else agreed with her, but the point is there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like something someone else does. We can only protect our own standards of what’s right and wrong.
        Mitch Mitchell recently posted…Why Are We So Lazy With Our PasswordsMy Profile

      2. Well, actually…

        You go right on taking your chances. But keep in mind: these photos have been published on a for-profit site, published in books, and are part of a commercial venture. It does make a difference. See https://asmp.org/tutorials/frequently-asked-questions-about-releases.html#.VjZCv_mrRhE

        Further, any one of these people or their legal representatives could sue for defamation. Oh, wait – they probably can’t afford attorneys and probably don’t have the mental capacity to do it, in some cases. They don’t know their rights. Yes – if the photographer stood outside the store – OFF the parking lot – he’d be safe. But again, Walmart could prevent this by putting up a sign and enforcing it.

        If the nasty produce pics were editorial and newsworthy, then they’re not protected. 🙂
        HollyJahangiri recently posted…Joanne Harris, A Writer’s Manifesto, and Click-Baity HeadlinesMy Profile

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