Monday, June 29, 2015

COLUMN: Facebookery

It hasn't been a great week to be a humor columnist.

More often than not, the success of this column hinges weekly on whether or not anything funny happens to me over the past seven days. The problem is, I'm kind of a boring guy, and this has been one seriously boring week. Other than work, eat and sleep, I didn't do a whole lot other than zone out in front of the TV. I thought there was potential when a friend called with a dead car battery and I went charging into the fray with jumper cables like an inept rescue brigade, but alas - no crossed wires, blown engines, or fatal electrocutions to report.

It's okay, though. Whenever I have an uneventful week, I can usually just turn on the news and gain inspiration from world events. But given the happenings of this week, that's a fairly tall order. The horrifying earthquake in Nepal was a tragedy of global proportions, and there's nothing funny about the events in Baltimore. Like I said, it's a lousy week to be a humor writer.

But look on the bright side: If you're a racist homophobic shallow-minded hate-mongering d-bag, you're having a BANNER week.

I have a kajillion "friends" on Facebook. 20% are people I truly care about and call my friends. The rest is a hodge-podge of distant family, loose acquaintances, friends of friends, classmates, colleagues, and crushes. I have contacts from all walks of life all over the globe -- guys and girls, Republicans and Democrats, indie hipsters and aging conservatives. I have friends who move exclusively from one big city to another, and I have branches of my family tree that never see the outside of rural Alabama.

After staring aghast at my computer screen for far too long, one thing's for sure: It is NOT a small world after all. Over the past week, I have seen posts that have been a veritable travelogue of hatred, from shockingly offensive to outright racist, maddeningly ignorant to profoundly stupid.

Some of it I was ready for. I had a feeling the Alabama clan wouldn't be too understanding about the Bruce Jenner thing, and I was right on the money there. Every time I refreshed my screen, my news feed was a cavalcade of transphobia. I tried in vain to admonish one of my cousins for his poor choice at humor and immediately got called (true story) a "libtard" by one of his friends. Swell. I was also prepped for the inevitable groundswell of racism to poke up the minute rioting broke out in Baltimore, and some of my "friends" sure didn't disappoint. The whole thing was just sad, really.

The one I wasn't ready for, though, was a public post from an old classmate that read, and I quote: "I can't believe Facebook is asking for donations to help Nepal. I've got enough bills to worry about as is." Seriously? I mean, there's stupid and then there's just evil. I kept waiting for his friends to tear him a new one, but when the comments rolled in, here were the first three: (1) "Amen, brother." (2) "I don't even know where Nepal is." (3) "Why would I give money to communists? #FixAmericaFirst." There are no words. For the first time in my life on Facebook, I unfriended someone.

But almost as bad as the online hate-mongering has been the OTHER side of the coin. The only thing worse than willful ignorance is watching the overly-engaged politically-correct among us work themselves up into a tizzy over every last Facebook comment. Most of the idiotic comments I read were posted just to bait others into an argument. This, of course, just draws in more idiots, which in turns draws in more righteous indignation, and the whole thing just feeds into an ugly and entirely pointless brouhaha that brings out the worst in everyone.

I don't want to live in a world dominated by ugly offensive hate speech. But I also don't want to live in a world where you can't crack a smile or call people out on their self-righteousness without fear of upsetting the self-appointed morality police among us. We're in danger of becoming SO politically correct that no one wants to say anything because someone somewhere might take offence. The minute that happens, all progress is over. We lose dialogue, and without dialogue, there can be no change.

Nothing that's happened this past week has been a cause for jokes. The devastation in Nepal is nothing less than horrifying. But the fact that an entire country lay in ruins while average America seems WAY more concerned about the gender preferences of an ex-Kardashian-in-law? That's kind of absurd. The ongoing civil unrest in Baltimore is indicative of a national issue that needs immediate reform. It's not funny in the slightest. But watching the cable news networks fumble over themselves in hopes of a juicy story? It's open season on mockery as far as I'm concerned.

If you put 100 journalists on a street corner in an impoverished and disenfranchised neighborhood, light it up with floodlights and camera flashes, and kill two hours going, "We're worried that a riot may break out," you know what's going to happen? A riot's going to break out. I'm watching CNN as I type this and just heard a reporter say, "The police are looking for anything that might incite the crowd." You know what's going to incite the crowd? Having CNN there. Report the news all you want, but stop sensationalizing it. As I type this, it's been over 48 hours since any sign of rioting, but Anderson Cooper's still standing out there in a flight jacket being the cable news equivalent of that annoying Facebook friend trying to bait people into pointless arguments. Will it stop?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. It's going to stop because people are, by and large, good. There's no more resilient a civilization than the Nepalese -- I mean, I hate stereotypes as much as the next guy, but let's face facts: these people exist on limited oxygen in the harshest climates on Earth. We climb Mt. Everest and turn it into a once-in-a-lifetime reality TV special; they climb Mt. Everest and call it an average Tuesday. Nepal will rebuild and the world will help. Eventually, CNN will tire of standing on a street corner and Baltimore will return to measured civility. We, as Americans, will work towards bridging racial and economic divides and bringing about real reform. We're not a great nation for nothing, and don't forget it.

Most importantly, with shared respect, clear heads, and meaningful dialogue, we can once again return Facebook to its real purpose: the sharing of funny cat videos. After this week, I could use a few.

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