Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Girl They Hated, revisited: Why Amanda Todd?

            Tuesday, November 27, would have been Amanda Todd’s 16th birthday. A milestone for teenagers, she wanted a large party, so last Sunday, her mother decided to throw her one. It was streamed online, you can watch it here:

           Hundreds of people came. People who never knew her came. Celebrities came. The press, both broadcast and print, came. The trolls never came, but that shouldn’t surprise us: that would have required showing their faces.

            They’re still at it though on her Facebook memorial page. It’s impossible to look at now; hatred of that kind is painful to behold, even fatal in some instances. Even if there are ten well-wishers for every hater, even one hater can poison the well, and there are a lot more than one. Nor can they just be ignored; you can’t ignore shit on a gravestone.

            Her page (one of them) has evolved into a repository of inspirational quotations, presumably intended to make people feel better. Personally, I find them cloying, but I realize I’m not their intended audience. Maybe someone out there finds them useful.

            On either her multiple pages or the media discussion, there’s rarely any mention of depression or mental illness.  This is disapointing. The sufferers of chronic melancholy need a champion no less than the bullied*. They will have to wait. Bullying is the theme of the day, and it is against bullying that people will direct their energies. Very well. Maybe it will help. Maybe it will lead to an outbreak of well-meaning but ultimately useless government sponsored public awareness videos, which overlooks the fundamental issue of human capacity for cruelty, but it would be better than nothing. Maybe it will help.

            Maybe there will be a backlash. This cynical age of ours can only tolerate so much sincerity in so short a space of time. Public displays of grief and media saturation always produce a backlash from contrarians and cynics. And there are of course the trolls, who actually love Amanda, albiet for reasons that are twisted and sick. There are the legions of the self righteous who sneer at the suicidal. Most of all, there are the militantly indifferent, who will never forgive a girl for forcing them to take notice.

            A letter to Macleans in its November 12 issue summed it up. While acknowledging Amanda’s case was “entirely heartbreaking”, the writer went on to ask:
“ Why do we all have to focus on the tragic loss of one girl? Someone explain to us, so then maybe all the other families can understand why the deaths of their children don’t seem to be important enough for the world to know about.” 
The writer is more civilized than most who ask the question, but a sense of cynicism still prevades.  From the obnoxious technique of disguising a blanket statement as a question, to the assumption that concern for one victim implies indifference to all others, the writer is not concered about other victims so much as resentful that this one didn’t fade to obscurity like all the others.

            There lies the rub: Amanda had the unmitigated audacity to tell the world what was going on. She made us all take notice, and don’t they all just hate her for it!

            However they phrase it, and whatever they actually want to know, the question is the same: why Amanda Todd? The question deserves an answer, lest the cynics think there isn’t one.  
            To begin with, the deaths of all those other children are most definitely important enough for the world to know about. Whoever said that they weren’t? By all means, make them all famous, stick one on the cover of every newspaper every day and errect a national monument to them in Ottawa with their names inscribed in bronze. Absolutely. How the cynics would nash their teeth over that! If one victim achieving prominence should bother them so, imagine if every victim were commemorated thus.

            They haven’t been, because the public didn’t want to hear it. Bullying? Part of growing up! Get over it! Cyber-bullying? Turn off your computer! An online paedo cyber stalker aided and abetted by his victim’s peer group? Somebody else’s problem! I don’t want to hear!

            Well nobody can ignore it now. Amanda forced us to pay attention.

            Sometimes it takes a human face to make a statistic real. All those stories in the newspaper were only so many numbers on the page without a personal connection. How can one empathize with a number?

            Amanda wasn’t going to be another number. She told us exactly what those numbers meant, dragging us along on her journey into despair, one cue-card at a time.

           "Hello, my name's Amanda. I've decided to tell you my neverending story"
           One by one she details her experiences, a chronicle of humiliation, degradation and betrayal, underneath a bittersweet Jimmy Eats World song. It’s brutal to watch. One wants to look away, cover one’s eyes, pretend it’s just a music video or a Judith Thomson play. It isn’t. The girl holding those cue cards was real. She endured all this. And for her there would be no happy endings. She would go to her grave thinking the world had nothing better in store for her, and there was nothing to be done about it.

           It is a horrible feeling to be unable to help.

            I defy anyone to watch and feel unmoved. That a great many were unmoved, indifferent or even amused, is not surprising: people are vicious animals. What is surprising is how many people did respond with compassion and mercy. This I think is something worth celebrating.  

            A digression: when a child comes to you for help, wouldn’t you do what you could for them? Is it not natural to want to do something? Surely it’s the barest minimum requirement of being a decent human being. Amanda was asking for help; why should we surprised that so many people who heard her call wanted to respond? Isn’t that what empathy is? If they couldn’t help, why shouldn’t they be agrieved, and why shouldn’t this make its way into the news?

            What about all the others??! the naysayers ask. They always ask this when one of the multitudes actually gets noticed.  To them I ask: “If any one of those others came to you, would you not do what you could for them? And if there was nothing you could do, how would you feel? If one of them achieved prominence, would you chop them down as well?” I rather suspect that they would.  When they ask why Amanda got so much attention they’re really asking why she couldn’t stay politely anonymous. In other words, why couldn’t she just shut up? Indeed, “glory-hound” and “attention-seeker” are two things the trolls often accuse her of, as if it was wrong for her to bring attention to her plight.    
            Amanda didn’t shut up. She spoke out, people noticed, and now bullying is on the agenda. At the very least, maybe teenagers will be less trusting of online creeps now. That would be a result: we would have Amanda to thank for it.

            But sorrow needs no justification. If the public wants to mourn a dead girl it’s because the public can still feel something when a girl dies, and that not everyone has been numbed to the point of callousness by the vicious cackling of the blood-soaked media. If the majority of people can watch that video and feel some measure of compassion, that is a relief. If the outpouring of grief brings some measure of comfort to the girl’s family, why stem it? If it raises awareness of an important issue, then why not? And if the girl gains some measure of posthumous fame, then so-fucking-what? I for one won’t begrudge her that epilogue.  Let the girl have her party.

             Why the focus on Amanda Todd? Because she made the issue real in a way no textbook, after school special or public awareness video could. We spent a little time in her shoes and came away shaken, complacency shattered. We couldn’t ignore the victims  any longer, couldn’t pretend not hear those cries. Amanda forced us to pay attention.
            Amanda made us listen.   

* Indeed, Diane Weber Bedeman,  writing in the Toronto Star on October 18, argued that depression and mental illness were more important factors in this case than bullying. Bullying may have been the trigger, but not every victim of bullying kills themselves. Letter writers shot her down, and the issue hasn’t been raised again. It should be: depression is a spectacularly misunderstood topic. Depression is not the same thing as sadness. It isn’t even perpetual sadness.  It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. It numbs the pleasure centres, and interferes with perception.  A depressed person does not see the same world as you or I; it is a different reality. Amanda would seem a textbook case: hundreds of people came to her memorial. She had two parents who loved her, friends who came to visit her, and a school that put measures in place to help her. But she still felt she had “no one”. That’s how it feels to be depressed. 
Her mother Carol has mentioned mental health many times, telling the
CBC that Amanda had tremendous social anxieties that kept her from leaving the house, that she “didn’t always understand the repercussions” of her actions, that “she just felt alone, and that’s part of the mental health issue”.  She told a Vancouver radio station of the disconnect between what Amanda knew logically and how she felt:

                We talked about how it would make her family and friends feel worse for a long,
                long time.  She understood that. But with mental health – something didn’t click.
                                                                                                      (Macleans, pg72,  Oct. 29, 2012)

By all means have the anti-bullying weeks and the pink shirt days, but pray don’t forget the dark place so many young people already find themselves in. No one who knows anything about depression would ever use “cowardice” or “laziness” in the same sentence. Society’s current stigma of suicide is just an extension of it’s stigma against mental illness, which amounts to a superstitious denial of science on par with creationism.

Amanda Todd: The Girl They Hated (part I)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Skepchicks, and the twelve year old slut meme. . .

Okey dokey. Having established beyond reasonable doubt my own position on censorship and freedom of speech, I will now use my own freedom of expression to inform certain people of what slimeballs they are.

            Two stories came to my attention recently. The first was an article by Soraya Chemaly in the Huffington Post concerning a delightful new Facebook page dedicated to a “12-Year Old Slut”.  The slut in question appears to be a young girl wearing an “I love cock” t-shirt. Visitors are invited to comment on this, and other similarly themed photos, submitted by members of the public. Visitors do not provide their own photos of course, but other people’s which they’ve stumbled across and found appropriately slutty. Needless to say, consent of the owners is not required (that would be so twentieth century).    

            Leaving aside for a moment the question of who would allow their daughter to wear such a shirt, one has to wonder what the appeal of such a page is. Who out there finds the sexualization of children funny? Well, the 200 000 people who “Like” the page apparently do. 

            Needless to say, there have been calls to take the page down, to which site-owners Dom & James provided the following eloquent response: 

“"You put something on Facebook, you no longer own it. Sometimes it pays to read the fine print. In short, shut your fucking mouth and accept you're the one that put up that slutty photo, regret and forget, you fucking moron."

            If you find yourself momentarily dazzled by the sophistication of this rebuttal, allow me to translate: it is the God-given right (so these master rhetoricians argue) of every drooling boor to take what he wants and do with it as he will. Dom and James feel themselves entitled to desecrate any photograph they please, and who are the owners to interfere?

            The other story was a piece in Slate by Rebecca Watson, a very smart and funny lady who runs the Skepchicks skeptical network.

            Apparently the mainly-male skeptics community is no freer of boors and lunkheads as anywhere else. Certain members of it have never forgiven Watson for rebuffing their advances: according to her article, her blog and Youtube page have been flooded with rape threats.

            Now really: is this civilized behaviour?

            Now, many claim that Watson is exaggerating, if not out and out lying (she cuts and pastes some of the threats – there’s no exaggeration there). If the comments on the article are anything to go by, there can be no doubt that she has become astoundingly unpopular for not wanting to be hit on at Skeptics gatherings.  

            There’s a story within this story that caught my eye as well: one of the commenters claimed that his children were threatened when he criticized an online conspiracy theory. I had to wonder: who out there thinks their theories are so important as to justify threatening children?

            The point to all this, is what people feel they can get away with on the web, and how they justify themselves. Here we’ve got a woman threatened with rape, and a man whose children are threatened, for no other reason than they annoyed someone by speaking their minds. Tell me: who’s freedom of speech is being threatened here? 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Belieb and Disbelieb. . .

I can't tell you all how thrilled I am to see Justin Bieber on the cover of this week's Maclean's.

So I won't even try.

Clearly a magazine that has its priorities in order. . .

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Conspiracies: The Puppet Master vs The Naked Ape

             For me, “Conspiracy” will always be the name of a King Diamond album. For others, it’s a world-view.

Not this one. . .

            I was uncomfortably reminded of this the other day at a friend’s house as he regaled me with tales of the inner machinations of the Rothchild clan, and their orchestration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Unable to accept that such an earth shattering event could have been perpetrated by “six retards with box cutters”, my friend prefers a vast shadowy infrastructure of practically omnipotent puppet masters pulling strings behind the scenes.

            I had to sigh. I have to confess that this is not an issue I’ve invested a great deal of time or energy in, so I was not always able to explain why all the gold was removed from beneath the WTC, or why all the bigwigs were moved from one side of the pentagon to the other (were they?) or how they came up with the Patriot Act so damn quickly (possibly because it was stitched together from already existing laws? Possibly because lawmakers are very good at coming up with laws?). I am not an engineer, so I could not explain why the towers collapsed the way they did, and I’ve never belonged to an air force, so I could not explain why US fighter jets were unable to intercept the flights. I had no answers on hand, because up until then it hadn’t been my responsibility to provide them. But all the same, I was not, and have never been, convinced.

            The thing you’ve got to remember when faced with any claim, is that it’s not your responsibility to disprove it: it is the claimant’s responsibility to prove it. And the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence has to be. Conjecture, hypothetical scenarios and lists of strange coincidences, do not constitute evidence. If gold was removed, that in itself proves nothing. If W. Bush took advantage of the situation to push through pieces of legislation, that does not mean he (or his puppet masters) caused it to happen. At most, these are anomalies that could have any number of explanations. None of this constitutes evidence.

            What would such evidence look like? Solid documents, eluding to the event before it happened. Transcripts of meetings where it was discussed. Recordings, footage, memos, credible testimony that could be independently verified. A record, somewhere, anywhere, of someone saying “this is what we plan to do”.  Short of that, it’s all just speculation. (And that goes for any claim).
            But it’s not just the lack of evidence though that fails to convince me (though it should be enough). It’s the sheer scale of it. For something like this to work, it would require such a vast umbrella of participants – the government and its bureaucrats, the military and its underlings, the banks, the New York City Fire Department, the media, both print and television, of not just the US but every country in the world, - there’s hardly anyone not involved. It requires an almost Truman Show scenario in which one’s entire environment is a construct. That’s not a theory: that’s paranoia.

            And here’s the funny thing: twenty years ago, I just might have bought into it.

            I was all over conspiracy theories in my adolescence. They were fun, they were exciting. They implied that the world was not so mundane as the adults insisted it was. My imagination was fertile ground, fertilized by early childhood fears of losing one’s parents, later to solipsistic nightmares of one’s entire world proving imaginary and vanishing at any moment. I was thrilled by stories of subliminal messages hidden in advertising, devoured the paranoia of the X-Files and later, the Prisoner, and relished the thought of puppet masters behind every curtain. It was all quite thrilling to think I had discovered their secret, and could maybe cut their strings.

            I even wrote a screenplay with this in mind, in which all of history turns out to have been carefully micromanaged steps toward a grand (undisclosed) goal. I’m still rather proud of it: my English teacher called it “gripping”.

            It all ended when I went out into the real world, and actually saw how it worked. Things like getting a student loan (and paying the damn thing back!) and getting a job, and seeing friends get jobs in banks and insurance companies, getting a criminal records check, or getting a driver’s license in the UK. Seeing how the wheels of civilization actually turned, how the mechanisms of society worked. As a student journalist, going into City Hall, Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill and seeing legislation actually passed, not via the smooth machinations of shadowy puppet masters but loud, clumsy human beings yelling at each other. The Machine was not a well oiled mechanism but a clunky rust-bucket sputtering forth in fits and starts. Its pilots were not captains of fate or puppet masters, but idiots every bit as flawed as me.  

            I read history and realized how little control human beings have over events. Wars weren’t the products of grand design but a long series of fuckups. Science, just lots of accidental discoveries with unforeseen and unintended consequences.  The human race does not control history; we naked apes just muddle through as best we can.

            The conspiracy theorists find our ultimate powerlessness unbelievable and intolerable. They need reasons; they need purpose and meaning. They cannot accept that some things have neither purpose, nor meaning. Thus, even the most ridiculously convoluted conspiracy is more plausible than civilization failing in the face of six retards with box-cutters.