the non-people

blank mannequin heads male and female

Before I even start today’s post, I have a feeling I’m going to upset some people. I suspect that even some avid and supportive readers are going to make frowny faces in my direction. But I just have to get this out.

To set the stage, I want to ask you to go beyond mere reading for a bit and to actually take a moment, as best you can, to imagine that a certain personal situation is true and happening to you right now. Envision it. Feel it. React to it.

I want you to imagine that a concerned friend has emailed you a link to a social media post in which you’ve been the topic of discussion, but yet in which you have not been tagged. You follow this link and find that a group of people – some of whom you know but many whom you don’t – have posted a less-than-flattering candid picture of you (or, perhaps, your kids). You don’t know where this picture has come from, only that you didn’t take it.  The caption added to this picture is ridiculing you. What a train wreck you are. How delusional you are. How monstrously un-cute your kids are. What a god-awful spouse you married, and how it’s no wonder that rumors are circulating that you’ve been cheating with someone else who is named in the post.

Below this is a long train of comments where “friends” and strangers alike are joining in to ad their two cents, mostly agreeing, really ramping up the humor of it. Adding more pictures designed to humiliate or embarrass. They jab at your body type and how you’ve really let yourself go. One person even goes so far as to say your “very existence is an insult to humanity.” Another says they are “surprised evolution allowed such a step backward.” You scroll and scroll, but it never seems to end.

How would you react? How would you feel? Would you keep reading, driven to know every rotten thing people had said? Would you add a comment to spite them, call them out or express how hurtful this was?

Some years back, I was mentoring a group of guys who were hanging out in my living room on a Monday night. The purpose of the group was essentially to create a safe place where very different people who might never consider being friends “on the outside” could come together, talk about real life, and discover that we are more alike than different.  They really formed a shining example of brotherhood and remain pretty close, even nearly a decade later.

While munching on some pizza before things officially got started, the guys got into a full-blown hate storm on Britney Spears. She was a train wreck. A loser. A psycho. A slut (but they wouldn’t mind “getting a piece before it was all used up”). They laughed raucously about the new South Park episode in which a caricature Britney is so depressed that she takes a gun and kills herself in front of the “kids.”

At first, I let the guys go on.  I wanted to know how they perceived the world and the people in it. I soon began to see that they didn’t think of Britney as a real person at ALL.  She was just a sort of fictional character devised solely for the entertainment or ridicule of the masses.

Britney had recently had the infamous head-shaving incident. She’d not yet lost the baby weight and wasn’t the newest kid on the block anymore. She’d now lost custody of her kids. She’d had two failed marriages, one bitter. Her parents were fighting for control of her finances. As I listened to this fantastic group of guys rip her to shreds, I actually welled up.  I had to leave the room for a minute. All I could see was a young woman in her mid-twenties, suffering badly from postpartum depression among other things, having just had her children taken away, and being smeared across the news and tabloids the whole time.

It soon became known online that a company had all but finished a documentary about Britney’s life and tragic death. It was actually posted that they were “just waiting for her to commit suicide so they could finish it and release it.”

Please – really stop and consider the real person behind this. Imagine it was you. Imagine it was your sister. Your kid. Why is any of this amusing or entertaining? Try to defend it to yourself.

This week, while scrolling through my social media accounts, I saw friends and strangers alike behaving very similarly regarding Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. Comments were truly horrific. Judgments were made on every front: moral, ethical, spiritual, personal.  Sneering, dogmatic opinions about eternal destination – one even commented that it would have been better if Jenner had been aborted.

Let me say that I’m not faultless here. I’ve found myself rolling with “creative humor” where people are concerned. Sometimes, they’ve been in my physical space (e.g., at the airport or a restaurant). Sometimes, it’s a celebrity. But I have to say, whenever this has happened, I wind up feeling pretty awful soon afterward – so much so that I’ve become much more aware and much less likely to join in.

How do we justify this behavior in ourselves? No matter how many angles I try to view it from, I only come up with something dark inside of us that leads us to think this is OK. Here are a few options:

1.  We believe that people are deserving of our ridicule simply because they have a higher degree of notoriety, income, beauty, or talent in some area than we have.

2.  We do not think of such people as people at all, but rather existing only as objects for our amusement.

3.  We think of most people as objects on our stage rather than as real people, so those in a higher income bracket are no exception.

4.  We stalk and gossip about these people (isn’t that what it is?) as a result of jealousy at what they’ve achieved that we have not; it is our way of bringing them down to size so that we can level the field in our own minds.

5.  We have ugliness inside of ourselves all the time, and these people are “safe” to unleash it on, because we will never know them; so we can purge the junk inside without interpersonal consequences, rather than letting it out on the people in our everyday circles, which would come at a cost.

As for myself, it’s usually that I’ve somehow forgotten that each person around me is just that – a real person, with a real life just as important and challenging as my own. It feels more like watching life as a movie and making fun of actors, than it does like I’m doing what I’m really doing: being judgmental and unkind.

I hate to say it, but it’s really also a form of arrogance: I’m so much more wonderful and stunning and together than that person.

Just a few weeks ago, I found myself sharing with my grandmother online images of stars whose plastic surgery had been botched, permanently disfiguring their faces. Why did I feel she needed to see that? Why do any of us feel it’s entertaining when people in the spotlight, once adored for their beauty, make desperate attempts to remain young and stay relevant? Or when couples divorce and have nasty custody battles that hurt their kids? Or crack under life’s pressures and become drug addicts?

There’s no other way to put it. It’s just ugly.

Even if we justify to ourselves that a person’s income or public role automatically makes them game for our criticism and mockery, I absolutely believe that in allowing ourselves to engage, we are reinforcing a  character flaw in ourselves every time, making it easier for the bile to spill out onto the people in our everyday lives. You can’t practice hatred in corners and expect it not to seep through the cracks and reveal itself in other areas.

I realize that today’s post is heavier than most. But again, I felt it was important enough to take the risk of saying it. I hope that, for some, it’s a challenge to really make the choice to see every person – famous, infamous or sitting beside us – as a real person: one worthy of understanding, gracious treatment and respect.

make the choice to see every person as a real person: one worthy of understanding, gracious treatment and respect.

I do believe – and have found it to be true in my own life – that really making this shift and commitment to action results in a deeper level of “soul peace,” cooler interactions with people, better relationships, and a more positive outlook on the world and on life as a whole.

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

14 responses to “the non-people

  • duplicity | The Best Advice So Far

    […] don’t know about you, but last week’s post really got me thinking.  It led me to the realization that all of us, to some degree, are […]

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  • Jed Jurchenko (@JJurchenko)

    Great post Erik! People in general have the tendancy to be unnecessarily harsh with others. Since we’re being honest, I’ll admit that I have, unfortunately, been guilty of this at times too. With social media, its all too easy to take “cheap shots” at others who are hurting or different.

    The Bruce Jenner example is perfect & timely. Unfortunately, the Christian community has taken way to many “cheap shots” at the LGBT community & people in general. In fact, there have been times I personally have received more empathy, compassion, & understanding from the LGBT community than from my own Christian community. (Thought I’d share this since it is a very real part of my story & since your post is all about being honest). I’m glad there are people like you who are striving to increase awareness about the need for empathy & compassion for others–love your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Jed, your comment is a perfect example of how helpful it is to every reader when people choose to share their own experiences through the Comment section here. I envision each of my posts as the the beginning of a discussion and a thought process, not the end of one. So thanks for continuing the discussion with insight and much-needed honesty.

      Like

  • Erik

    Thanks to everyone who has read thus far, and especially those of you who have chosen to take the time to comment. What you have added is every bit as important as the post itself in adding to future readers’ benefit and thinking. What’s more, with each comment, you’ve adding to a cumulative effect, allowing future readers to feel comfortable and inspired to share their own experiences or to explore their own feelings out loud, as well.

    Finally, you are a direct encouragement to me as a writer. So thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Sean P Carlin

    Wonderful piece, Erik — not downbeat in the least. Empathy, after all, is a muscle: It grows weaker with disuse; it requires conscious and daily exercise.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Carrie Rubin

    Fabulous post. So happy to see this subject touched on. I’m often stunned by how vicious people can be. Just because someone is a celebrity doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like leaving harsh reviews on even best-selling authors’ books. I try to make even the lower-star ones thoughtful. There’s always a person behind the book, or the picture, or the film.

    That being said, I know some celebrities purposely invite controversy. I’ve been known to get a barb in about Donald Trump a time or too, so I’m not completely innocent. But some of the vitriol out there is mind-boggling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Hi, Carrie! Thanks for stopping by, poking around, reading, and leaving such a well-spoken comment.

      A heated discussion started up over on Facebook around this post, where one reader suggested that Jenner was simply “doing this” as a publicity stunt and a way to get a reality TV show. There, I commented: “I do agree that people make choices to go public and are paid, as well as that networks back controversial topics that will draw advocates and critics, and cause “buzz.” However, I don’t know that this diminishes the real struggle for those people. Lots of stars have lots of reasons for doing what they do: financial pressure, believing in a cause, desperation. I don’t know, so I won’t guess at each. I always wondered why Whitney agreed to do that reality show, “Being Bobby Brown.” Maybe for Caitlyn Jenner, after a lifetime of hiding, going ultra public feels “balanced.” The paparazzi is going to exploit stars no matter what they do; maybe in this case, going public was the only way to have control over it (and therefore, some dignity). I suspect it’s probably more complicated than just greed most of the time. But even if it’s some bad motive, they’re still real people. We all do things for less than altruistic reasons at times; our lives just aren’t on film (and, yes, most of the time because we choose it to be that way).”

      Carrie, I found your approach to even lower-star reviews particularly interesting. I am certainly not for false compliments or accolades. It point people in the wrong direction. Time and time again, I’ve run into people who are not very good singers, or songwriters or writers; and when they ask for my input, I always ask what kind of feedback they’d like, very specifically. There is definitely a place for honest feedback; and to someone personally invested, that feedback might FEEL “mean.” We can’t control that. But we can control the motive with which we share it. Kudos to you for being so mindful of that.

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      • Carrie Rubin

        Agree with everything. As for the reviews, I’ve learned one can give negative feedback in a thoughtful way that reflects the product, not the person behind it. And usually a positive word or two can always be found to include.

        Liked by 1 person

  • D. Wallace Peach

    Wonderful post, Erik. In the very big picture, I think the need to objectify people comes down to fear. For to see all people as valuable and worthy of love, care, and respect would require speaking up and taking a stand. It would demand that we feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, share our wealth and compassion, honor differences, and end war. How frightening is that compared to mockery, which resolves us of any responsibility. When we feel compelled to ridicule, perhaps the question we should ask is: Why am I afraid to embrace this person’s humanity?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Excellent thoughts and questions for self-reflection. I appreciate your sharing them with me and with readers. The point of this post (and most of my posts) is not necessarily to change anyone. That is out of my hands. I just want people to think new thoughts; it’s those new thoughts that may lead to choices of new behavior.

      Liked by 1 person

  • raulrgonza

    You’re totally right! Their ubiquity makes them part of the background. And we all know how we treat those in the background…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Raul, first – in case anyone misses it – I love your byline: “The New World’s most optimistic optimist.” If you can manage living up to that, the New World is a great place to be! And I also love the word “ubiquity,” which just doesn’t get enough air time as far as I’m concerned! We are of a feather regarding the unfortunate tendency to treat people as “background” noise (or as I often refer to it, as props). Thanks for reading and adding your “most optimistic optimist” thoughts!

      Like

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