Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Nation of Petty Vigilantes

Those of us who spend time on social media have seen the Facebook memes about rescuing dogs or babies in cars. They’re followed by outraged comments from the huffy judgment posse vowing they’d happily toss a brick through someone’s window to save the day.

We’ve all become very comfortable with minding other people’s business. It’s one thing to save a dog trapped for a long time in a hot car. It’s another to be a jerk to someone who just ran into the store for a few minutes. Then there are those who call the police when they see unsupervised children walking to the park or (as happened to a friend of mine) standing out in front of their house. A practice called “Free Range Parenting” has become a thing, because of the busybodies that call the police about unsupervised children. Free Range parents allow their kids walk to the corner store or the park unaccompanied. The absence of parental hovering is alarming to many people who appear to have little else to do. 

When I was 8 years old, I rode my bike around town, unsupervised. No one called the police. Kids were expected to play outside and entertain themselves. Over the years adults have become conditioned to fear for their children’s lives if they’re outside alone, even though the likelihood of their being kidnapped by a stranger is almost nonexistent.  (At the same time we bemoan the fact that kids sit inside all day.) Actual crime rates are going down, but the perception of crime is going up.

 The US media is better at mongering fear than providing useful information. If you watch morning shows like “Good Morning America” every day there’s almost always some new, dire warning for parents. The average TV newscast involves ginning up at least one kind of fear. That fear endless stream of fear creates a sort of evil combo plate. Combine the ginned up fear with the kind of isolation caused by the constant ginning up of fear, add a side order of overwhelming feelings of powerlessness, another side of anonymous comment sections, and garnish with a constant stream of celebrity gossip masquerading as news and voila - we become a nation of pissy, petty vigilantes.

Homeless children growing up in shelters? Yawn. We save our collective outrage to comment about on a photo of some celebrity dad who puts his kid in a backpack or a car seat the wrong way. Cecil the lion’s death created more outrage than the fact that none of the Wall St. bankers who destroyed the economy went to prison.

WMUR’s website is filled with stories from all over the country that have one specific purpose – feeding the outrage machine. As a result, anonymous commenters leave hundreds of comments about stories they have almost no information on. They all think they’re Sherlock Holmes, but they’re more like Nancy Grace. Those of us who followed the story of a local teen who was missing for a long time read all kinds of terrible comments (before and after she was found) from anonymous comment section vigilantes, eager to pass judgment. It’s awful that she and her family were subjected to that.

At a different place on the outrage spectrum, not everyone who is charged with a crime is prosecuted. The gossipmongers-passing-for-media write huge front-page stories sensationalizing an arrest, and the comment section quarterbacks write hateful comments. They don’t stop there. They harass people on social media, and that harassment can move into the real lives of the falsely accused. Those same media outlets never write big front-page retractions about dropped charges or exonerations. They are unconcerned about being complicit in ruining lives. Sensationalism sells.

This is playing out in our presidential primary. Donald Trump is one of the pissiest, pettiest celebrities on the planet. He believes he’s uniquely qualified to judge women’s looks, and has had plenty to say about them. He churlishly offers up his judgments even though no one has asked for them. In a culture where the most untalented and meaningless of celebrities are lionized by media, he’s the logical end result. He spent years saying that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US. Is it any surprise that he’s announced that all Mexicans are criminals and rapists? He’s the darling of the GOP base. They love him for “speaking his mind.” (So does drunk Uncle Joe at Christmas, but no one wants him to run for president.) How far do we really think Trumpelistiltskin would have gone in life if he hadn’t been born into a wealthy family?

Bernie Sanders is in trouble for not caving in to the gossip media. He was asked about Hillary’s hair over the weekend, and was a bit curt with the reporter about being asked this inane question. Now some folks are miffed that he didn’t answer this Big Important Feminist Question about Hillary’s hair. He talks a lot about income inequality. As a woman who has been paid less than male counterparts in a few workplaces, that’s more important to me than Hillary’s hair, or what Bernie Sanders thinks about Hillary’s hair. Bernie has a stellar voting record on women’s issues. Instead of being asked about his record, he gets asked about hair. It’s enough to make you weep.

 The thing about answering those kinds of questions is that it only encourages the mainstream media to ask more of them. Where are the questions about the $8.5 trillion the Pentagon can’t account for? The Pentagon has never been audited. It gets a huge chunk of our taxpayer dollars, but we are completely unconcerned by what they’re doing with all that money. We’d rather give some poor single mother the stinkeye for buying her kids some sweets with a SNAP card. After all, she’s a moocher wasting our tax dollars! That the Pentagon is the world’s biggest moocher doesn’t occur to them. They don’t know about it, because it’s never mentioned on the nightly news. Reporters aren’t asking about it, because they have important questions about hair. It pales in comparison to crucial issues like “deflategate.”

We deserve President Trump.


published as an op-ed in the August 21, 2015 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper 

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