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.”
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.
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