On cruelty

I spent a lot of this weekend thinking about cruelty.

It started with a viral video from a YouTube “comedian” named Nicole Arbour. I’m not going to post it here; Google is your friend if you must watch it for yourself. It’s not often I’m utterly blown away by a deliberate act of meanness such as this one. The video, entitled “Dear Fat People,” is a six-minute journey into the unbelievably puerile mind of a pretty young woman seemingly hell-bent on being as vicious as possible, while calling it “satire.”

I’ll give Arbour this: she clearly knows enough about social media to grasp that being really offensive garners more hits, and therefore more followers. This breathtakingly nasty little video has had 1.2 million views in the last four days, and has naturally rallied the Twitter Justice Troops to – in the vernacular of the medium – “drag her ass,” or call her out for, well, kind of failing at that whole empathy thing.

It’s always interesting when this happens. I find myself being secretly thrilled when a dragging takes place, even as I recognize the futility in shouting into the wind, as it were. You can’t really shame someone who isn’t particularly ashamed of herself, as is the case with Arbour, who steadfastly maintains that she doesn’t give a “fuk,” and furthermore has done a unique public service in telling fat people that they’re gross, because now maybe they’ll lose weight. Or something. (This is also known as being a “concern troll.”)

An interesting, if disturbing, thing invariably happens during a dragging. People are outraged over an act of cruelty, and in their outrage tell the person who committed the act a number of rather cruel things. Arbour, for example, has already been told countless times to kill herself. She’s been told she’s a slut. Her own personal appearance has been ridiculed. In the shrieking vortex that is currently Nicole Arbour’s @ mentions, there are very, very few tweets that could be construed as constructive criticism of her “comedy.” And so the cycle of cruelty continues.

I’m not innocent of jumping into these situations, myself, although I can say with certainty that I have never told anyone to kill herself because I didn’t like something she wrote. Likewise, I don’t believe that there are very many situations in which someone deserves to lose his or her job over a lapse of judgment on social media. But I have definitely taken a seat in the Internet Kangaroo Court, and I have definitely appointed myself judge, jury, and executioner. And it’s not something I’m particularly proud of. I’ll say that it’s intoxicating to engage in it. And it’s also very easy to convince yourself that you’re doing the right thing, or at the very least you’re not doing anything particularly wrong.

So I spent the weekend following the Nicole Arbour thing, reading the thinkpieces and watching the rebuttal videos, and cautiously engaging in dialogue about it: why do people like Nicole Arbour think that cruelty is the most effective means of getting a point across? And generally what I heard back was: SHE’S TELLING IT LIKE IT IS.

In the midst of all of this, I got a notification on Facebook that someone had posted to a group I belong to. The group is named something like “You Know You Grew Up In ____ If…”. There are scores of such groups on Facebook. You know you grew up in your town if you went to such and such and bought this or that. You get the idea. And the post was this:

Does anyone remember “Crazy Mary”?

Crazy Mary used to ride her bike all over town. She usually had various bags tied to the handlebars. Her clothes were dirty, she was dirty, and there were all kinds of rumors as to how she got that way. As kids, we’d sing the little bit of Miss Gulch’s incidental music from The Wizard Of Oz whenever we’d see her go by. I also remember a junior high classmate dressing up as her, complete with broken glasses and dirty raincoat, for Halloween, to great appreciation.

My mother corrected me one afternoon when I declared to have spotted “Crazy Mary” downtown: “Her name is not ‘Crazy Mary,’ it’s Kay. And to YOU, it’s ‘Miss Kearns.’”

Kay Kearns grew up in our town, the youngest child of a prominent businessman. Graduated from the high school in 1954.

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Kay went on to get degrees in Biology, and worked as a bacteriologist. Top of her field. But her fiancé was killed, her father died, and Kay simply was not able to cope. She lived in the family home, long after the utilities had been disconnected, cooking for herself on a little Hibachi grill. The house burned down, and her parish chipped in to buy a trailer to put on the property.

I began talking to Kay when I was in high school. I worked in a bakery downtown, and Kay would come in to buy a small blueberry muffin (“heated, with one pat of butter”) and a cup of coffee (“with just enough cream so that it is the precise color of that brown sign behind you”). She was quite adamant about the coffee. If it wasn’t the right color, she’d make you dump it out and start over. For some reason, I was the only one who could get it right the first time, every time, so she’d insist on my waiting on her. She was always polite and well-spoken when I’d take her order, and so long as you were pleasant and polite, she’d have no beef with you.

But she made me cry, once. I saw her coming in, and went to fetch her muffin and coffee. I pushed it across the counter to her. “Here you are, Miss Kearns,” I chirped, thinking I was being nice to have noticed her coming in, and even nicer still that I remembered what she liked.

She scowled at me. “Do I not warrant the right to order for myself? I didn’t ask you for this.”

I stammered in protest. “B-b-but I thought…”

“Pour that out and put that away. I want you to ask me what I would like.”

I dumped the coffee, put the muffin back in the case, and – shaking – I took her order. Small blueberry muffin heated with one pat of butter, and a coffee with cream, the precise color of the sign behind me. I gave it to her, then went into the back room and cried.

She was right, of course.

Kay died in 1990, when a small fire she’d lit in her trailer for warmth wound up burning it down with her still in it.

I think about Kay now, and I am filled with sorrow for the way so many of us treated her. So much of the cruelty heaped upon her was our doing. No matter that we thought it was “funny.” No matter that we were just pointing out the way it was.

Now, we think we know better. We think that we would have been able to help Kay, somehow, or at the very least not have been so ugly to her. Because it’s not okay to laugh at mental illness, right? Generally speaking. Right?

But it’s still okay to laugh at fat people, especially if we couch our derisive laughter in “concern for their health.” It’s okay to make a six-minute “satirical” video complaining about having a fat person sit next to you on an airplane, and then it’s TOTALLY okay to claim that everyone is “too sensitive” when you’re called out on it. Because you’re TELLING IT LIKE IT IS. Comedy!

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not exactly the most PC person in the world. I laugh long and uproariously at all manner of inappropriate things. But there’s comedy, and there’s just viciousness for the sake of getting attention. I’ve been on the receiving end of that. I spent a good couple of years being bullied by classmates who, on the rare occasion I’d muster the courage to defend myself, would tell me precisely what Nicole Arbour and her fans are saying now: “It’s a JOKE. You’re so SENSITIVE.” Bullied, then gaslighted. Bullied, then gaslighted. Over and over again, until I wound up transferring to a different school. I spent a long time questioning whether or not it was as bad as I’d remembered. It was only fairly recently that all of it was validated for me in a very profound way. It did happen, and it was that bad. So I no longer question myself when it comes to recognizing cruelty for what it is.

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