We all have our painful memories. Personal moments that were just so intensely embarrassing that it hurts to even think about it. Care to share those with over 9 million people?
Well according to a discussion on NPR’s Talk of the Nation today, that’s exactly what happened to a portly 14 year-old boy who happened to film himself in private performing a variety of sword fighting and martial arts moves from the Star Wars movies. Apparently a (former) friend got a hold of the tape and posted it on YouTube. Almost 9 million hits later, the poor boy was being laughed at and ridiculed, not only at school, but by millions of people worldwide. Eventually, he had to drop out of school (he’s now being homeschooled) and get therapy. A Google search of his name almost immediately links him to video footage.
The incident highlights, for me, a disturbing turn our culture has taken in only the last several years. Ridicule, shame, and public enjoyment of shame are, of course, nothing new. Yet the scale has been altered. We aren’t just talking about Joey laughing with his friends at the local arcade about that stupid thing Martha saw Frank do. We’re talking about mass dissemination of private information fueled by widely available technology. No matter where you go, the chances are increasingly good that someone with a cell phone is filming you picking your nose and instantaneously forwarding it to the cell phones of three of four of their friends.
Sites like YouTube and MySpace amplify the ripple effect even further by providing a seemingly permanent point of reference for your candid moment, to which people can point and refer for weeks (or more). A resource like MySpace instantaneously allows any savvy teenager to wage an instant negative publicity campaign against selected individuals. It used to be that only wealthy politicians were capable of the sort of public smear campaigns that are now available to any 13 year old with a camera phone and a MySpace account. Online bullying has become a real problem in American high schools. Many school officials are seriously considering banning all camera phones from their campuses (and more power to them).
To make matters worse, popular mainstream media sources encourage this kind of behavior. Shows like Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos have been around for ages, but the shows today take things to a whole new level of meanness. From the untalented being ruthlessly demolished on American Idol, to the personal flaws of reality show participants, to aggressively targeted acts of emotional abuse on shows such as MTV’s “Punked,” Americans everywhere seem to be indulging in a sick fascination with watching the humiliation of others. Even mainstream news shows are increasingly tapping into this “hot market” of American neurosis by filming bystanders reactions to outrageous conduct and then criticizing the public inaction (the most recent example I saw was two actors playing an angry nursing home worker abusing an elderly man in a wheelchair in a public park).
Our kids are being raised to view public humiliation as “cool.” Little wonder that they act out on their friends and enemies at school. I find myself very worried that we are raising a generation of sadists. The question is whether today’s parents have either the inclination or the tech-savvy, to nip this problem in the bud.