Whether we’re talking about school bullies, Daniel Tosh, or the radio personalities who humiliated a nurse into suicide, the worst thing we can do is lose our own sense of empathy.
This story begins happily, with Princess Kate and Prince William expecting a baby. The media, of course, is wild with the news, wondering what the couple will name The Royal Baby and whether The Royal Baby will actually be twins. Then Kate is struck with pregnancy sickness so profound she has to be hospitalized.
As we know, if there is one thing that tabloids love almost as much as a scandal, it’s danger. And for a while, everyone waited with baited breath to find out if the princess and The Royal Baby were going to be okay.
Meanwhile, two Australian radio DJs, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, decide to prank call the hospital and impersonate Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, inquiring as to the health of their future heir. It was a hairbrained scheme, the type of thing that’s been happening on the radio since Howard Stern and other shock jocks started publicly embarrassing people in the early 80s, and certainly no one figured it would work.
But it did. Greig and Christian were transferred through to the nurse in charge of Kate Middleton’s care, and that nurse disclosed personal details about the Princess’ health.
It must have been thrilling. They’d scooped even the scuzziest of tabloid rags!
According to The Daily Mail, the recording of the prank call was screened and edited by producers before the show went live, and the intimate details of William and Kate’s family were made into breaking news. Greig and Christian tweeted and bragged about their success.
This alone is troubling. I don’t care if you’re royalty or work at WalMart, you deserve your privacy, particularly in a traumatic time. However, exploiting people’s privacy for financial gain is nothing new to tabloid journalism.
But what happened next is an acute reminder that such exploitation can have a very high price.
The DailyMail explains:
A nurse who transferred a prank phone call from two Australian radio presenters about the Duchess of Cambridge has died in a suspected suicide – two days after being duped.
Mother-of-two Jacintha Saldanha, who was working on the switchboard when 2DayFM obtained intimate details about Kate, was found dead near the King Edward VII Hospital today.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are ‘deeply saddened’ by the tragedy and a Palace spokesman said the couple had not made a complaint about the prank call.
It’s safe to presume, though we don’t have all the facts, that being the unintended victim of this prank caused a hard-working nurse, whose life was dedicated to helping others, to kill herself.
My first reaction to this story was outrage. I was shaking and had goosebumps. With my work here at GMP, I read a lot of horrific news stories, but something about this one struck me deeply. Not because it’s more tragic than other suicides, or the exploitation of children, or the gunning down of a 17 year-old unarmed boy by police for playing his music too loud. Those are also all horrible stories.
It struck me so deeply because it encapsulates everything I’ve been troubled by in the last few months. It is part of what I believe to be at the root of all the worst things that happen in our society—a profound lack of empathy for other human beings.
In reaction to my righteous outrage, I sent a tweet that I shouldn’t have, just seconds after reading the story. I am not going to delete it because I think it is an example of how we, as humans who consider ourselves moral, often react when we hear about an innocent person being targeted by greedy people.
Yeah, I laid it on pretty thick. I was enraged. And I was being honest—I do think that the tabloid media is a giant, writhing swarm of greedy fame-whores (no offense intended toward sex workers, of course).
However, my outrage wasn’t well thought-out. I made a decision based on emotion, operating upon a basic human instinct: the desire for revenge.
I wanted to get revenge against Greig and Christian for the death of Jacintha Saldanha. They deserved my words of disgust, my public shaming. I also wanted to be a part of teaching society a lesson. Look what you did! Look what happened because of your passion for laughing at others’ mistakes and misfortune!
But I was wrong. It was wrong to send that tweet.
I’m reminded of a story posted by my friend and colleague Jamie Utt on his Facebook page. Two trouble-making high school boys had been caught fighting in the hallway at school, and were dealt an unusual punishment. The teens were forced to sit together, holding hands, while their classmates taunted them, calling them “gay” and “f-gs”. The boys sat, heads bowed, faces covered. The incident became national news when the photo, at left, appeared on Facebook.
In the discussion on Jamie’s page, we tried to get to the root of what was happening. Was this punishment rooted in homophobia? Did the principal, who is generally considered a hero renegade of education, ask them to hold hands because he knew it would draw taunts? Or was this a sort of public “hug it out” therapy?
It seems obvious to me that there are two things at work in this story. First, I believe this punishment is rooted in anti-gay sentiment. If the aim had been to get them to reconcile via a “hug it out” therapy, the principal certainly would have known that men in our society generally do not hold hands as a sign of friendship and peace. A handshake would have been appropriate. I would still disagree with any adult forcing a child to touch a person whom they weren’t comfortable touching, but at least the act of shaking hands would be rooted in some sort of logic.
No, I think this principal knew that if the boys held hands, they would be taunted. He must have known that they would be the butt of jokes and should have assumed that anti-gay hate speech would be used against them.
But even deeper, this principal wanted these boys to be bullied.
And that’s what I wanted for the Australian DJs whose bullying contributed to a woman’s suicide.
I wanted to bully them right back.
A few months ago, comedian and television host Daniel Tosh became world-famous for a rape joke gone wrong. During a performance, he allegedly made a joke about rape that caused an audience member to boo or heckle him. In turn, Tosh directed his biting humor at the audience member as she tried to leave.
As far as we know, this performance was not recorded in any way, so we have to base our discussion upon what those in the audience says happened, and which Daniel Tosh has never refuted. Supposedly he responded by “joking” (purposeful use of scare quotes) that it’d be really funny if she were raped by five guys right then and there.
It’s not funny to me. I don’t care how funny some people found it to be, I see that joke as a threat. Daniel Tosh was exhibiting an extraordinary lack of empathy for that audience member at that moment, not pausing for even a moment to consider why the woman had found his first rape joke to be offensive. Instead, he plunged on as the person in power in the room, the famous one, the one with the mic, and joked about how a woman should be gang raped.
I wrote about this after it happened, when feminists and others were demanding Daniel Tosh’s head, metaphorically. Hatred against Tosh spewed from nearly every media outlet online. Petitions demanded Tosh.0, his Comedy Central show, be pulled from the air and boycotts against the network were planned.
I can’t speak to whether Daniel Tosh is a good man. I don’t know him and I know very little about his personal life. What I do know is that he publicly apologized for what he did and that his apology simply was not enough for many people. They wanted him gone, out of the public eye, defamed, ashamed, and discredited.
Because he’d been a bully. He had bullied that audience member and it was wrong. And ultimately, we wanted to bully him right back.
So what would happen if Daniel Tosh had been taken off the air? If comedy clubs refused to book him? While they have every right to do either of these things, what would it accomplish?
I imagine people felt it would be a big lesson to comedians not to make rape jokes. But where does that “lesson” end? Does Louis CK need to strike his bit, shown below, from his comedy routine—where he actively challenges the way in which the media has completely fucked up the messages we send people about rape and consent? I mean, it’s a joke about rape, right? And while many critics say, Oh no, that’s Louis CK, he’s allowed to make rape jokes because he does it right there are others who say there should be no jokes about rape allowed. Ever.
So who decides? When does that snowball stop rolling?
And what do we really feel, inside of ourselves, when we hurt those who have hurt us?
If Daniel Tosh had lost his career, there would be a whole pile of people patting themselves on the back, believing they had helped stop rape by making a dent in rape culture.
But all they would have done, really, was create a sense of fear within the entertainment community, limiting the ability of people to push the limits on touchy social issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism, sexual assault and any other issues that the vocal social justice community find important. And sometimes, pushing those limits in comedy can be consciousness-raising.
I find all these issues important too, and within my community of friends who are not involved in social justice issues, I sometimes find myself trying to figure out the best way to explain that making fun of an “ugly tranny” is hate speech. Often, these friends or acquaintances of mine truly had never thought about the consequence of what they were doing, even when they joked about “Colored People Time” (referring to someone of color being late) or said that fat people have a disease. But if I explain it compassionately, most of the time people agree, and they regret having bought into the idea that making a joke made something less offensive.
But will I no longer be that person’s friend because of that lapse of judgement? Do I want my friend who said “Colored People Time” to lose her job or be publicly shamed? No. I just want to talk about it with her.
This week, the editorial staff here at The Good Men Project has been discussing a new comment on a blog post, about an out gay teenage boy named Josh who was bullied and subsequently killed himself.
It’s always hard to write those stories. I wrote a similar one a few months ago and had to read a number of articles about the boy and watch interviews with his loved ones. I have little boys of my own, and I don’t know if they’re going to be gay, straight, bi, trans or whatever else when they grow up, but I look at this boy’s mother and I feel like she is my sister. Her boy. Our boys. All these children who are taunted because of their sexuality (or their looks, weight, race, gender expression, etc) are our family. Their parents are our brothers and sisters.
The comment in question was from a person identifies herself as Josh’s cousin:
What should happen to that boy’s tormenters, both children and adults? What should happen to the people who told him that God was going to send him to hell, to be burned alive for eternity, because of the fact that he refused to deny his sexuality? Their bullying led to a death, even if some of them thought it was in God’s name.
And what should happen to Mel Greig and Michael Christian? Should they be fired? The Daily Mail reports that their Twitter accounts are closed, that the station’s website has been flooded with complaints, threats and harassing messages, and that the pair has been suspended.
But what about the producer(s) of the radio show, the ones who approved that prank call for air? Do we want that person gone? To me, the producer failed even more than the radio personalities. It’s their job to push the limits and the producer’s job to make a choice about the legality and ethics of airing the content that is produced. Should the production team be fired, too?
How about legally? Should Greig and Christian be charged with contributing to the death of the nurse? What will that accomplish?
In order to answer these questions, we must check in with ourselves.
What is missing inside of people when they bully someone—when they suggest an audience member should be raped, when they trick a nurse into giving out private details that would probably cost her her job, or when they taunt and shame a gay teen so mercilessly that he commits suicide?
They’re missing empathy—the ability to imagine how the other person feels.
Most likely, they aren’t psychopaths who lack empathy completely, instead they probably experience a lapse of compassion for the human beings involved in their bullying. A quest for popularity, for power, for laughs, for acceptance, for justice, or for revenge becomes so overwhelming that for a short time, they forget the humanity of the person in front of them, or on the other end of the phone.
And sometimes that’s deadly.
That’s why my tweet about the DJs was inappropriate. I had lost my empathy for the human beings who had made a very, very dire mistake that ended up having horrifying consequences. For a moment, in my quest to show the world just how messed up their prank was, I just wanted to make them hurt.
My feeling is that Greig and Christian aren’t bad people. My feeling is that they had a job to do—to provoke, push boundaries, be funny and edgy—and they lost their moral compass along the way. This situation deserves our outrage, as does the threatening joke Daniel Tosh made, as does the death of Josh as a result of bullying.
But if all we do is take down the person we’re outraged with, dancing around singing, Ding dong the witch is dead! we’re not really dealing with the problem, are we? In fact, by pretending that Daniel Tosh or Greig and Christian are actually the problem, rather than symptoms of much bigger problems, we are preventing the conversations that need to be happening from being had. Conversations about how we are all responsible for our culture—one of hate, oppression, greed, celebrity-worship, sexual exploitation and more. Also, conversations about how a person takes responsibility for doing something bad, how they ask for forgiveness, how they grow and how they can show they’ve changed. And conversations about how and when we forgive.
This isn’t to say that people who do something bad shouldn’t suffer consequence. I’m uncomfortable with Daniel Tosh now, and so I don’t watch his show, and I won’t see his comedy shows. Maybe someday I will. But for now, the consequence of what he does is losing a viewer and having people talk about his aggressive comment in public.
The natural consequence for Greig and Christian may be that they lose their jobs, but if that’s the case, then so should their producer who ultimately was the one who put that segment on the air. But I would rather see them, all of them— the production team and the DJs—sit down with a responsible journalist or social activist and talk about what happened. I want to explore the societal and personal factors that led them to air that segment, and it’d be great if their apologies to be as public as their prank.
But let us be sure, as we level attacks, as we send our tweets, as we confront the people in our own lives who have harmed us or others, that we aren’t reacting to a lack of empathy by abandoning our own.