Encountering a Culture of “Meanness”

October 2, 2010

“I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” are the final words of and reason given by Charles Starkweather for the murders he and his girlfriend committed as narrated by Bruce Springsteen in his dark folk “Nebraska” song. Springsteen’s song might take creative liberties by narrating the first-person perspective (including that famous line), but the story at the heart of it did happen. That’s not what this article is focusing on though—this is about that “meanness in the world.”

This past week there was a news story about a Rutgers student who committed suicide after being “outed” by a roommate and another classmate who used a webcam to post video of him and a male sexual partner on the internet without his knowledge. After reading a report of this on Yahoo! News I did what I should really get out of the habit of doing—I scanned through the reader comments posted under the story. I say I shouldn’t have done this because I am always angry after doing so; it seems that the majority of people who bother to post an opinion on a news story on such sites are of the bottom of the barrel when it comes to reason, compassion, and being informed. The first comment I read was beyond asinine— it stated that no one should assume they ever have privacy and that a student such as this should have been prepared for his private encounters to become public knowledge. Well, personally, I don’t think I should ever have to worry about being live-streamed on the internet when I’m in my personal bedroom; digital age or not, that should not be a rational worry for everyone to keep in mind. Such a comment also lacks anything approaching proper compassion and it does not admit that speculating about someone’s decision to commit suicide (“he should have been prepared for this to come out”) is preposterous. The comments to follow were most often even worse than that one. Then Ellen released her video statement condemning the bullying that leads to such tragedies—and many not lenient to Ellen’s point of view for whatever reason got very defensive.

The internet atmosphere– such as the continuous hateful comments on each and every new story, social networking which gives a soapbox to every hateful opinion, etc. made me think of some of the points The Christian Science Monitor make in their reaction article to this: “Has Digital Age made students callous?” The ability to stream video, distribute opinions, and anonymously criticize or cyber-bully someone has opened up the realm of possibilities in which to manifest “meanness,” but it’s a bit naïve to blame it only on the “digital age”—this meanness has been around long before the internet and teenage bullying has as well.

Yet it does seem there is a widespread “culture of meanness” that is simply acceptable in our society today; there’s the Celebrity culture of E!, Perez Hilton, and tabloids which delight in any and every story that involves a celebrity with marital problems, scandal, or addictions. The snarky hosts of popular shows like “Tosh.0” who infuse every joke with a look-down the nose that says we who are watching the mishap of others while the host makes fun of them are all in on the joke and are better than they are. It’s funny that the genres of pop culture that many have often pointed at as fostering “meanness” and bad behavior—Horror films, death metal, video games— really are often more of a haven for those that are bullied than an influence for those who are bullies (an interesting recent address by an Anglican priest in England focused on that despite its flaws, heavy metal deals with life, death, and darkness better and more head on than most mainstream venues). No, the things that seem to foster more “meanness” than these such things (for after all, those above mentioned venues often exorcise more demons than they implement) are the acceptable, daily barrage of sarcastic meanness that places all influence on attitude and none on truth and compassion, that is threaded through practically every Fox “News” broadcast, that is present on the cover of every supermarket tabloid, that is posted on the status of every bully trying to get a laugh out of others by belittling someone else. There have been arguments before that humor is rooted in meanness and hatred, be it projected inward or outward. I’m not that pessimistic, but I see the point; I also acknowledge that anger can often be righteous and humor tinged with anger can express some deep truths (Bill Hicks, even Lewis Black). But it’s the pointless meanness that isn’t even passionate enough to be anger, the off-the-cuff “I’m better than they are” attitude that permeates our voyeur culture that is disturbing. When that humor is divorced from figures who are public and accepting of that status and placed on average people and neighbors, through venues like Youtube and Twitter, that is when the ante is upped, so to speak.

So how do we confront this “culture of meanness”? Theologian Nancy Bedford wrote a piece entitled “Little Moves Against Destructiveness: Theology and the Practice of Discernment.” Though she was focused on liberation, economic, and ecological issues, such an idea is applicable here too. Systematic, structural change is long, hit and miss (often miss) work. Sometimes the best we can hope for are these “little moves” that attack these large problems bit by bit (which of course doesn’t ignore the necessity of sometimes making ‘larger moves” but often a lot of little moves become that larger move). We simply must be kind, as generic as it sounds. It’s easy to be hateful; but every day someone you meet might be fighting what feels like a losing battle. Disagreements come and when the issues matter these disagreements must be argued out, but they can be done so with respect for the other as a person. A smile or a kind gesture can often be that thing that eases the pressure another is feeling—there have been many times in my life when someone I don’t think I particularly like or agree with on anything turns out to be the person who does something for me extraordinarily kind—even those acts that seem simple can mean so much more. We can also refuse to sink to the level of going mean for laughs, however easy; it’s simple to do, to make an off-hand remark at someone’s expense to earn a laugh. This may even seem harmless sometimes, but we must realize it’s not always going to be perceived as harmless. Life is tough; we who attempt to hold to any type of faith which sees a larger purpose in life need to be extra-careful to be a light to the people we come into contact with more often than a force that dampens their own light.


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