Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The New Monster-Under-the-Bed?

The forecast, it seems, is bleak.  With just one click, I managed to find out the weather, but also got a bunch of pop-ups telling me of Tom and Katie’s divorce and other assorted woes of the famous and not-so famous.  I do believe it’s one of the reasons I don’t surf the internet or watch news programs anymore.  Get in and get out, that’s my motto for both television and the internet.  It has, I’m afraid, left me terribly behind in current events; and that’s just fine with me.  As I rapidly approach my fiftieth birthday, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly alarmed by certain trends in the world; specifically the unbelievable amount of news coverage over someone else’s pain.

I will admit that ever since his incredibly embarrassing interview with Matt Lauer almost eight years ago now, sitting through a Tom Cruise movie has proven especially difficult for me - if only for the reason that I’m reminded, with every scene, that I know things about the actor that I don’t think I have a right to know.  While I’ll be the first to admit that celebrities who choose to open their mouths and voice their opinions in public are only asking for trouble, I will also be the first to respectfully suggest that the media outlets have a choice as to whether to air these (rather conspicuous) breakdowns for the whole world to see.
“Schadenfreude” is the german word that simply means “taking pleasure in the misery or misfortune of others”.  Like the Germans themselves - if I may generalize for a moment - the word is efficient, conveying in four syllables what it takes several english words to accomplish.  But leave it up to North American audiences to turn these particular four syllables into an art form, one without compassion or understanding.  And it’s not just found in the media these days.

One of the most depressing things I’ve noticed in this day and age of Facebook and Twitter and Get-The-Latest-News pop-ups and those god-awful reality television shows is the effect it seems to be having on the future generations.  Like many high school teachers, I was patrolling the hallways during lunch and came upon a group of boys, each with their cell phones out, punching away furiously at the miniature keyboards.  A scene I’d witnessed a hundred times before.  I thought nothing of it - wondering yet again - why these same students were unable to show the same focus and attention to detail to their studies.  Then, as I prepared to leave the area to continue my supervision duties, I understood why.  They were all sharing an image, one that had them howling with laughter.

Being an incredibly private person, I’ve always been very respectful of someone else’s space.  So, instead of looking over one of their shoulders, I approached the boys - all of whom I’d taught at one point over the past three years - and asked what was so hilarious.  Looking back now, I understand why most of the boys looked chagrined and closed their phones.  But one boy in particular had no problems turning his cell phone around and showing me a photo that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget.  There, on his screen, was a photo of another student - a female student - lying on the floor.  The boy happily volunteered the whole story:

The female student is diabetic and had collapsed during a class.  Not the first time she’d done so.  You see, she is heavy-set and had confided in me (when I taught her Science)  that she was trying “everything” to lose weight.  I took the opportunity to explain to her about speaking to her doctor about low glycemic index foods; those foods that will not cause her blood sugar to spike and thus eliminate the feeling of hunger later on, and the inevitable need to binge on something handy (but unhealthy) from the vending machine.  It was a teachable moment for me and I enjoyed being able to help her understand that what she eats is as important as how often.  Losing weight, she finally understood, was a balancing act between eating the right foods in the right amount and eating often enough to ensure not only good health, but an appropriate blood sugar level.  Unfortunately, she was looking for something more immediate.  And on this particular day, she’d gone without eating and it had caused her to pass out in class.  It was also unfortunate that she’d chosen to wear a short skirt.

I don’t need to explain why one of the boys had taken the photograph, but I did ask them why they thought this photo was so worthy of their attention.  “If the picture was of your mother or your sister or your grandmother,” I asked solemnly, “would you still be laughing?  Would you still find it so worthy of sharing?”  None of them said anything, but I saw a flicker of humanity when they all stopped laughing.  I expressed my disappointment in all of them, but made sure they understood I wasn’t angry with them.  How could anyone be angry with them?  They have grown up in a world of computers and reality television dedicated to such images:  “Here, take a look, why not delight in someone else’s misfortune?”  These boys are a product of a society that encourages people to display anything and everything, no matter how base or vile or lacking in integrity.  And most importantly, they are still at an age when they must be taught that what they did was wrong.  But who will teach the media?  How will they ever learn that they do not need to publish every story or spend endless hours examining what are, essentially, very private moments in a person’s life?

To be fair, there are more than a few individuals who’ve become famous because it’s what they’re after.  And shows that cater to these individuals would not have an endless supply of these wanna-bes if there was no demand.  Personally, I don’t watch these types of programs during which grown men and women embarrass and debase themselves for money, fame or both.  And I loathe that I’ve started to sound like my parents, but in my day, we had the first moon landing, Sesame Street and the Friendly Giant on our television sets.  I don’t ever remember a divorce or a movie star’s public misery being “news-worthy”.  I remember staying home with my mother - when I was sick - and lying on the sofa watching re-runs of The Brady Bunch where the worst thing to happen was that Jan learned, by the end of the show, that she was her own person, that she did not have to live in Marcia’s shadow.  I grew up at a time when the other students teasing me about my weight was restricted to taunts and jeers in the hallway or in the gym locker room; I didn’t have to worry about photos proving my over-indulgence in ice cream and desserts showing up on the internet.  The taunts and jeers were painful, but there was no reliving them because of a lasting record in anything but my memory.  I grew up during a time when something “viral” was something to avoid.  Sadly, Suri Cruise and the diabetic student will have no such respite; those images and stories are out there forever.

Maybe Tom Cruise is having a breakdown.  Maybe Katie Holmes realized that she could do much better on her own.  Maybe, when they chose to pursue a life in the public eye, they both knew that every minute of their lives would become fodder for gossip; or maybe they didn’t.  Perhaps, they chose their careers based on a passion for acting.  Perhaps, they chose their careers to become famous and compensate for a lack of something.  Only they know for certain.  But what about this student?  What about Suri Cruise?  Are they not entitled to some compassion and some understanding?  Has the line between personal and private become so blurred that we are incapable of recognizing it anymore?  Has the fact that a person chooses to be a public figure completely and irrevocably erased the need to know where that line is?  Or do people in a position to publish (or withhold) these stories see nothing but dollar signs?

Have we, in this day and age of instant communication, lost our way?  Is there no one left to explain to 17-year old boys that the unconscious diabetic in the photo is a person?  That she has parents and friends who care deeply about her?  Is there no one in a position of power at the meeting, where they choose which stories about which celebrities, to stop and say, ‘No, we will not show these photos.  We will not mention the children.  Why don’t we lead with the story about the boy who shaved his head out of empathy for his classmate who is going through chemo.’?

Now that story?  I’ll click on the link for that story.


  1. Me...I love horror stories - ghosts, vampire hotties...yeah...werewolves not so much...zombies not at all...all that pus and drool, ugh. But give me a build up of suspense and things that go bump in the night...love it!

  2. I have to admit, the idea of a Zombie love story squicks me out. At least if the zombie is the love interest. Of course I have always had a love of vampires ::shakes head:: I will give it a chance though...and try to keep an...open mind. :)

  3. @JP: I love all things paranormal. My zombie hero isn't pus-y or drooly at all, just a little less than fresh. ROFLMAO Still, I know it's not for everyone. Then again, there are folks who refuse to read anything paranormal, or any genre really other than contemporary. And folks who only want to read historicals. And so forth. To each his/her own, I say. :)

  4. @JulieBites: Squicks (and I love that word, a holdover from my fanfic days!) are common in our community. I'm certain it holds true for straight romance as well, though. I applaud you for being willing to keep an open mind. You never know what might just surprise you! :)

  5. I completely agree about the truth in blurbing. It's important to know in advance if the "romance" novel you're picking up has elements that are really unusual for the genre and potentially upsetting. I think horror is unique enough in romance that it could be unexpected, especially with a zombie love interest.

    I recently picked up a novel that had a clear warning about a rape and incest. I bought the book anyway, but appreciated knowing in advance that it'd be happening.