Straight People, Listen! The Pervasiveness of Cruelty In Mass Culture

October 5, 2010, 11:47 am

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

                                          Shirley Jackson, The Lottery (1948)

Last weekend the Radical household went to see The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010), otherwise known as “The Facebook movie.”  Starring the eerily enigmatic Jessie Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, it is a must-see, a fast-paced drama about the birth of the social networking site that any fool can use, and any fool does.  I left the theater feeling slightly soiled, in part because scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin leaves enough of the story line unresolved that at the end of the movie I was unsure about exactly how treacherous Zuckerberg was and why.  That he is brilliant is clear; that he is on the Asberger’s spectrum is certainly implied; but whether he betrayed everyone he knew (including his soul-mate, Napster founder Sean Parker, played brilliantly by Justin Timberlake) and everyone who was ever kind to him, is a question the film also never answers.  One of the most highly interpretable lines in the film is when Eduardo, Zuckerberg’s partner and CFO, says accusingly in response to being forced out of Facebook just prior to it becoming a Big Deal:  ”I was your only friend.”  Which is true — and yet we, the audience, have seen breathtakingly cruel moments in which Zuckerberg has expressed a bitterness towards Eduardo that no normal person would express to a friend, moments that Eduardo himself has overlooked.

Needless to say, the urge to run home and open your Facebook is overwhelming, in part to see if it feels like Switzerland.  You know what I mean:  kind and pretty on the surface, and relying on a lot of confiscated wealth from depositors (who “mysteriously” never returned to get their money) to maintain its lovely appearance.  I’ve always thought that Facebook features like Farmville were creepy, but now it’s hard to rid myself of the feeling that the whole thing is creepy.  I’m staying on it, but it’s creepy.

Facebook also feels creepy because recently, at Zenith and at Rutgers, it has been the preferred method for a young person to leave a suicide note.  The Rutgers tragedy has underlined the capacity the internet creates to enhance everyday cruelties that people visit on each other.  As multiple reports describe it, fellow students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei taped freshman Tyler Clementi making out with a new boyfriend and posted it to the internet.  Clementi, overcome with shame, jumped off the George Washington bridge.  Hence, the internet itself is both the beginning of the Clementi story and the end, the medium and the message

Coincidentally, “The Social Network” also begins with bullying.  The narcissistic Zuckerberg unrolls his plans for fame and fortune at Harvard to a girlfriend, who (sensibly) breaks up with him.  Zuckerberg’s response is to go home and, shall we say, “unfriend,” the woman through a vitriolic post on his blog.  Hence, a movie that shows the historical process by which “friend” will become a verb begins by demonstrating the power of the internet to destroy and to give virtual life to the most vicious of human emotions.  The movie that follows is punctuated by lightly coded moments of everyday brutality  in which Zuckerberg sees his status as an outsider graphically demonstrated by others who casually take their own superiority for granted. What you don’t know until much later is that behind his enigmatic, expressionless face, this code-writing genius is also hatching elaborate plots for revenge.

And yet, is it really technology that has created new possibilities for social cruelty?  As our friends at Roxie’s World noted last Sunday, in their post mourning Tyler Clementi, “Technology hasn’t made humans less kind than they were in some non-existent machine-free past. It has only amplified the sound and accelerated the speed at which our unkindnesses circulate. We shouldn’t disparage any act of kindness or any effort to foster greater kindness in the world. Instead, we should commit ourselves to creating a world in which kindness travels as quickly and gets as much attention as its opposite.”

I agree.  I also think that, when older generations criticize the young for how horrible they are to each other, it is worth remembering that teenagers didn’t invent homophobia, and they didn’t invent the cultural fascination for shaming that traditional media are currently using to keep their tottering financial ships afloat.  From the magazines that inform us about every detail of Ashton Kutcher’s betrayal of his (older) wife, to the endless commentary about why Shiloh Jolie-Pitt insists on wearing boy’s clothes (and why Brad and Angelina permit it, thus driving a two by four into the gender system with their awesome social power), to Jerry Springer’s endless “transsexual surprises” (in which apparently “heterosexual” couples are brought out on stage for a “confession” that is invariably followed by a transphobic brawl), to prime-time reality shows in which people agree to be shamed on public television for having bad pets, being fat, depressed, unclean, hoarders and/or single, we are a nation of criticism and wagging fingers.   In fact, much like our forebears, who thought that a day in the public stocks would set things back on track, we seem compelled to separate the few sheep from the mass of unlovely goats.  Shaming is the first step in setting our national house in order.

Cyberbullying is an old phenomenon with a new set of tools available, tools that are only sometimes employed by the young.  And of course, as Shirley Jackson pointed out in 1948, when somebody else is chosen, the rest of us are often impatient to “finish quickly” and move on, shaking our heads sorrowfully about the unpleasant excesses expressed by a few deviant souls who made the mistake of hitting “post” when other, more civilized folk, were just sniggering behind the victim’s back.

Straight people, listen!  Why it is that otherwise “norma
l” teenagers are so profoundly insecure as to look for ways to lord it over their peers, and what kind of behavior has been modeled to them that makes them think it is ok? Why do they choose gay kids? Are they expressing the homophobia that you have come to take for granted?

Straight people, listen.

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