Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Is Simple Human Kindness Possible in 2012?

**This is an exemplar paper I wrote for an argumentative essay assignment.  I really liked the way it turned out, so I figured I'd share it here and hopefully get some conversation going ... it's a subject I feel incredibly strongly about.

How many people have felt hurt, embarrassed, or even bullied by others?  The number is incredibly high.  Think about how truly sad it is that so many people are mistreated—whether it be at school, at work, or even at home—every day.  Perhaps the most tragic part is evidence shows that those who are treated poorly are far more likely to be cruel to other people, creating a vicious cycle that just makes the problem that much bigger.  There is absolutely no doubt that far too many people are mean to (or, at the very least, insensitive to the feelings of) other people every day.

Feeling helpless at times is part of being human; it is an emotion that we can all relate to, whether we’re talking about driving a car sliding out of control on an icy road or the time we are unable to keep from passing gas in the classroom.  Let’s face it, helplessness goes hand in hand with fear, and there is not much worse in the world than being afraid.  There is an old saying that misery loves company, and this is unquestionably a reason that people mistreat others.  Say you’re having the kind of morning where the jelly squirts all over your shirt when you take a bite of your doughnut, then you spill chocolate milk onto your pants (and somehow onto your hair as well, where it quickly gets crusty and foul-smelling) while reaching for the Tide-to-Go Stick.  When you get to your first period class, Susy Sunshine looks perfect in her
new outfit, wearing just a hint of lovely perfume instead processed strawberries and rotten milk.  There are some people that might feel the urge to “accidentally” spill Susy’s orange juice all over her, just to make themselves feel a little less helpless over their own stinky situation, or even make a cruel comment, something like, “Wow, Susy, you just wore that shirt yesterday, and something smells funny in here.  Didn’t you know you’re supposed to wash your clothes and not wear shirts two days in a row?”  After all, it’s entirely possible that it might take away that horrible feeling of helplessness.

A lot of the time, people that are cruel to others are doing so to deflect negative attention from themselves.  If, for example, you drive a Ford 500 sedan that looks like the kind of car your grandmother would pick out and it embarrasses you, you might make fun of cars that other people are driving so no one will think to make fun of your old lady mobile.  This sort of preemptive strike is very effective; once a few people are making fun of somebody else, a lot of people will jump on the bandwagon and join in just because they are afraid that, if they don’t, they’ll be getting made fun of, too, sooner or later.  Gossip is a cruel sword, and nobody wants to be the subject of nasty conversations, to be the person written about on Facebook, to have their actions exaggerated until the stories that are spreading like wildfire have pretty much no basis in reality.  How to make sure that doesn’t happen?  Pretty simple, really … keep the rumors flying to be sure that everyone is talking about somebody else; that way, you can keep people from getting the chance to even start spreading gossip about you.  This is very sad but, unfortunately, also very effective.
So where do people get the idea that it’s okay to treat people this way?  There’s no question that movies and television have played a role in this for quite some time, with thousands of Americans getting subtle lessons on how to treat each other from Jersey Shore and movies like Mean Girls.  It is impossible to ignore, though, the level of cruelty that became more acceptable through videos on YouTube.  Perhaps the most telling example is the story of Jessi Slaughter, a young middle schooler from Florida who spent a lot of time making YouTube videos talking about how wonderful she was … until she started hearing from followers and comments that she was nowhere near as cool as she thought.  Instead of walking away from the increasingly ugly situation and just letting it go, Jessi posted a video arguing back, basically saying that people were hating on her because they were jealous of her for being so amazing.  To say the least, people weren’t impressed, and her real name, address, and phone number were posted, leading to some potentially dangerous situations.  What ended up happening was that Jessi’s father appeared in a response YouTube video, totally freaking out and saying ridiculous things such as threatening to call “the cyberpolice”, stating that he knew who was harassing Jessi because he “backtraced” the comments, and most infamously yelling, “You done goofed!” at a webcam.  I’ve seen the video, and listening to a southern farmer screaming, “I’m gonna report you to the cyber police!” is really quite funny … until you stop and think about the fact that there are real people involved.  YouTube and reality television have narrowed the gap between real life and entertainment to the point where it is probably difficult for some to make the distinction.  It’s easy to forget that there are real people getting hurt when you’re watching Parkour fail videos or something.  The little screen that we watch has become all too real, and forgetting that is both increasingly common and a little dangerous.  It’s hard enough sometimes to take the thoughts and feelings of other people into consideration; when we see what is often downright cruelty right in front of our eyes, marketed as entertainment, it just reinforces the idea that being mean to others is okay.

But are the people that make a big thing about this overreacting?  After all, there is growing agreement that YouTube videos where people get hurt and reality TV shows, where gossip and backstabbing are par for the course are simply entertainment.  Most people know right from wrong and are not going to change the nature of who they are because they watch The Hills or enjoy watching things get blown up on YouTube.  Furthermore, the world is not always a kind place; unfortunately, there are a lot of adults that never seemed to outgrow the middle school gossipy, backstabbing mentality.  To pretend that most people are good and nice is just not realistic; is there anything wrong with watching TV shows, movies, and internet that reflect the way that life really is in 2012 America? 

The increasing acceptance of cruelty and unkindness in the media is a result of too many people using the pain of others to push away their own feelings of helplessness, of far too many members of society making fun of other people so that maybe, just maybe, nobody will take the time to notice—and start making fun of—them.  I know that it sounds simple, perhaps overly so, but life is much happier for all concerned when we extend a warm smile rather than a sneering smirk.  It’s easy to make fun of those that stand out as different—perhaps they’re too tall, too short, overweight, underweight, owner of an annoying cackling laugh, have clothes exclusively from American Eagle, have close exclusively from Wal-Mart, come to school covered in dog hair, and so on and so forth—because it seems better than looking at the mirror and trying to figure out what about you people could focus in on to make fun of.  If for one day, everyone could make an effort to extend a hand in kindness instead of to tape on a “kick me” sign, if an effort could be made to say something nice about everyone, think about the good things that you would get back in return.  And if nobody was gossiping, nobody would have to worry about who was spreading rumors about them and what was being said and so on.  It’s a leap of faith that is more than likely impossible, but, until we are willing to walk toward that sort of “treat others the way you want to be treated” mentality, people are going to be unkind to each other.  I have faith that this can change, but it would require a huge effort from the entire population; and that’s where, unfortunately, I think the sticking point would be.  I’ll keep hoping, though; if enough of us are thinking this way, perhaps someday kindness can be the reality and norm instead of something unusual and strange.           

Are Minorities Discouraged from Taking Upper-Level Classes?: The Elephant in the Room

As a public school teacher for sixteen years, I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen Standards come and go (and despite the brou...