People have been making thoughtless, insensitive, sometimes stupid statements since long before the Internet was even invented, but never more than since it has been.
Some of the finest examples come from Backfire-ers, as I like to call them. These are the people who summon the courage to be the first out of the box to publicly play devil’s advocate with respect to a sensitive or controversial situation, but who, instead of being met with adulation and a bunch of, “good for you!” and “well said!” comments to validate their stance, they are eaten alive for being on the wrong side of an issue.
It happens a lot, especially in these days of keyboard warriors hungry to go viral.
This breed of online essay hero was never more prominent than about a month ago, when a University of Delaware professor decided to publish a post about the 22-year-old student who died shortly after being released from a North Korean prison. In it, the professor said the student, Otto Warmbier, had “got exactly what he deserved.”
I almost couldn’t believe what I was reading, but her post on Facebook continued with the impression that she had a pretty big axe to grind with Millenials and their perceived entitlement issues. She called Warmbier “typical of the mindset of a lot of the young, white, rich, clueless males who come into my classes.”
Another quote, if I may: “These are the same kids who cry about their grades because they didn’t think they’d really have to read and study the material to get a good grade. His parents ultimately are to blame for his growing up thinking he could get away with whatever he wanted. Maybe in the U.S., where young, white, rich, clueless white males routinely get away with raping women. Not so much in North Korea.”
Not surprisingly, since stupidity often breeds more stupidity, the now-unemployed professor received many death threats, and is now, I suspect, wallowing in self-mortification and regret. (Or maybe not. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that what might elicit a bout of deep introspection in one person sometimes serves as inspiration for more bad behavior in another.)
Dettwyler joins a long list of smart people making these kinds of ill-advised comments on-line. Remember James Tracy, the guy who claimed the Boston Marathon was a false flag operation perpetrated by the government? And that the massacre of 26 first graders and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary was staged in order to garner support for gun control laws? Can you imagine an educated, respected person even secretly believing those things, let alone saying them publicly? He was quickly fired from his job, laughed at, vilified, likened to a Holocaust denier, and otherwise obliterated by the vocabularies of millions of internet commenters.
And then there are the teachers in Texas who handed out a “Most Likely to Become a Terrorist” award to a seventh grader the day after the suicide bombing in Manchester, England. Other mock awards during the fake ceremony included “Most Likely to Cry for Every Little Thing” and “Most Likely to Become Homeless.” The fake ceremony was live-streamed on the school’s website, and the school administration was said to be “shocked” at the negative reactions.
Really? Shocked? Giving out a terrorist award, however fake, the day after a significant terror attack – who wouldn’t have seen that backlash coming?
Not to be outdone by regular people, celebrities are guilty of this behavior, as well. Kathy Griffin has lost numerous sponsorship and employment opportunities resulting from her publicity stunt back in May, when she misread the vocal opposition to Donald Trump as a license to pose with what looked like his bloody, severed head. She expected everyone (except Trump supporters) to find it hilarious, but instead she was attacked from all sides and continues to be a Hollywood pariah.
The difference between the inappropriate comments of the past and inappropriate remarks of today is the size of our audience. Social media not only amplifies our mistakes, but also provides a platform to the people who don’t even realize they’ve made them. The result is embarrassment at best, and the loss of a job or reputation at worst.
You would think that the public flogging of these people would serve as a lesson to the rest of us, but it seems like we’re far too enamored of our own opinions and voices and social media’s promise to make us famous. It’s only a matter of time before someone else becomes a Backfire-er and proves yet again that our mouths and fingers work faster than our brains.