Eric Karjaluoto

We, the Despots

This morning, Monica Lewinsky’s name appeared in my Twitter feed. My first thought was to tweet a cheeky one-liner—referencing obvious (and tired) subject matter.

I then went on to read about Lewinsky. She recounted the experience of having her reputation destroyed on the internet. She also described the pain she felt as a result of the public harassment she endured. Since then, she’s made ending cyberbullying her mission.

I felt embarrassed.

Who was I to judge this person? What right do I have to mock another’s personal matters? Why would I trade my decency, just for a quick gag? More importantly: Am I the kind of person who’ll reduce another human being to a crass punch line?

If I’d acted on that dumb impulse, I wouldn’t have been alone. Tweets directed at her ran the gamut from, “Are you available for bachelor parties?” to, “I have a cigar with your name on it……” and “Let me tell u Moni, not all 21 year old suck the presidents dick.” (The sort of retorts one hopes will surface when these folks apply for jobs.)

A few hours passed, and Renee Zellweger’s name was trending. Turns out, the actress looks quite different than before—as a result of plastic surgery.

The public barbs that followed ranged from the cruel to the outright vicious. One compared the actress to Lord of the Rings’ Gollum. Another made an eCard that reads, “May your Halloween costume be as shocking as Renee Zellweger’s new face.” And everyone from individuals, to the “news” media were quick to take a kick at the actress.

A handful spoke to the insidious nature of Hollywood. They noted how it glorifies young actresses only to discard them upon reaching middle-age (and how this effectively forces these artists to undergo cosmetic surgery). Fewer yet acknowledged the systemic nature of sexism in media. I wonder if instead of our jokes, we should ask ourselves some questions. For example, why do we think it’s acceptable to judge, critique, and mock certain women, just because they have public personas?

Perhaps these spiteful leanings were always with us—and it’s just our tools that have changed. The internet, for example, isn’t just a set of technologies; it’s an amplifier. It takes our culture’s bravest moments, and highlights them for everyone to see. It can galvanize the voices of a silenced few, and raise them up for all to hear.

The internet also amplifies our weaknesses, as a people. My examples from this morning are just a couple of the most recent ones. Daily, we’re fed niblets of gossip that we collectively ravage. We extract every last bit of amusement from these, no matter the pain we inflict. Our appetites debase our morals and sensibilities.

But—we can be change.

You, me, every one of us: We can do better. We can think critically. We can challenge ideas. We can discuss issues. We can have heated debates, in which we say what we believe. We can speak with conviction, bias, or even ignorance. It’s in this discussion that we come to understand.

However, what we mustn’t do, is allow our weakest instincts to take hold. While any notion should be open to debate, we must preserve the rights of the individual. Because when we take momentary pleasure in others’ misfortunes, we are all made lesser.

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