Shouting Down Compassion

Our tendency to post and tweet callous comments reflects a nation lacking in empathy.

As a global community, we have suffered some devastating catastrophes in the past decade: the 9/11 attacks, the 2005 South Asia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, the BP oil spill, and the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Along with these catastrophes, we have a steady flow of news stories depicting the cruelty people inflict upon each other every day around the world.

As these tragedies unfold in the media, there is an outpouring of sympathy from the vast majority of people, along with donations, offers to help, and sincere grief for the fallen. But there is also a disturbing number of people who seem to feel no compassion for others at all, and, thanks to the combination of traditional and ever-rising social media, these hateful voices become viral.

Heartless in the face of natural disaster
Even in the wake of a natural disaster, some people found a way to ridicule, dismiss or even blame the victims. Some high profile figures even seem to feel compelled to make shocking comments and jokes in the wake of tragedy using Twitter where they have thousands of followers. 50 Cent, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, among others posted now-famous comments and jokes in extremely poor taste about the disaster and its victims.

50 Cent joked about having to evacuate his “hoes” from L.A., Japan and Hawaii, while Rush Limbaugh laughed with a caller about the irony that the tsunami hit a nation known for its leadership in recycling and hybrid cars. Glenn Beck not only laughed about the Japanese victims, saying it was a message from God, but in the past he has called Hurricane Katrina victims “scumbags” and mocked the residents who were unable or unwilling to leave before the storm.

These men are known for their “shock value,” but that does not excuse cruelty.

Whom does it hurt?
Clearly, cruel speech hurts the victims who have to endure their suffering being made light of, and despite the outpouring of aid from the U.S., the backlash from these incidents makes us, as a nation, look like selfish, over-privileged fame-seekers. Does it hurt the ones who made the comments? It’s doubtful that 50 Cent, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck gave their comments a second thought. They won’t be hurt professionally or lose their seething audiences. And, as Robert Elisberg mused, that’s troubling. As he pointed out, fans will continue to idolize Beck and Limbaugh, but there is no evidence that even one of them protested and said that in this instance, any of these comments were out of line.

Therein lies the danger. That this shock value is accepted. That this attitude of casual cruelty seems normal and is emulated. Was there backlash? Thankfully, yes. Many people denounced their comments. But, plenty of non-celebrities got into the act of making jokes and calling it, inexplicably, karmic payback for Pearl Harbor, killing whales and dolphins, or other senseless justifications. Hundreds of Facebook statuses and Twitter feeds echoed similar thoughts.

In a rant heard around the world, UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posted a video on YouTube complaining about Asian students in the library disrupting her studying when they called home to check on their loved ones. She mocked the way they spoke and criticized them for not having “American manners.” Looking back, she might be choking on that characterization right about now.

While the hatemongers of social media can only be identified by having their statuses reposted in incredulous news pieces, Wallace’s video went viral. It was the biggest 2 minute 52 second mistake of her life. Unlike the mostly untouchable 50 Cent, Limbaugh and Beck, Wallace has effectively ended her college career at UCLA, destroyed her reputation, and most likely will have torpedoed her entire professional career as that video is destined to live on the internet forever.

In a time where connectivity is bringing us closer together as a global community, we shouldn’t forget that our international neighbors have a front row seat to the insensitive and insulting remarks of the vocal few that overshadow the concerned many.

Unfeeling toward crime victims
Vicious comments aren’t limited to victims of natural disasters, crime victims are fair game, too. In a recent piece, we discussed the public reaction to Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Egypt. Public figures made light of it, a journalist lost his job over it, and the less-than-sympathetic public seemed divided between racist comments about her Egyptian attackers and blaming a woman professional for being there in the first place. In this public poll, more than half of the voters felt that Logan is to blame for her own attack.

Looking back to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, there isn’t a wide electronic trail of negative public opinion. But then, this was pre-Facebook and Twitter. Apps and smartphones make it all too easy; just a decade ago, people didn’t have an instant outlet to broadcast their every vicious thought. There was certainly some anti-Muslim sentiment from the cable news punditry, but save for Ann Coulter lambasting widows and Glenn Beck pronouncing his hatred for some of the “whining” 9/11 families, our nation seemed to join together in dignity and offer support to the victims.

Whether we have coarsened as a people, or whether social media simply provides a more visible mirror, is unclear. Are we teaching the next generation that shock value, even if it’s cruel, is a justified outlet for pain, entertainment, attention? Is that the way our society really feels toward others? In a time where vast numbers of people continue to give to others, despite still-challenging economic conditions, a vocal slice can undo all the good with thoughtless spewing.

image: Rego

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.