This article first appeared on Malta Today
There seems to be a common thread wherever you look, whether it is the implosion of a political party fraught with ugly and unseemly infighting that has spilled over into the public arena, destroying everyone in its wake like our own version of Hurricane Harvey. Or else an incident which becomes ‘news’ because someone has whipped out their smartphone and filmed it. Or the sharing of revenge porn with undisguised relish and smirks.
Somewhere along the way we have lost our ability to feel compassion and empathy or what is commonly known as “putting yourself in the shoes of others”. Either that or social media has simply exposed the ugly side of human nature which was there all along, but which was restricted to whispered conversations and arched judgmental eyebrows whenever someone leaves the room.
Of course, none of us are latter-day Mother Theresas; hold your hand up if you have never been guilty of talking about others behind their back. I think if we had to be honest we would admit that we have all done this at some point or another. Not something to be proud obviously, but there it is. The crucial difference, of course, is where and how this discourse takes place. It is one thing to keep it as a private conversation, by which I mean a really private one between four walls and between a very small number of people. It is another kettle of fish completely to blab every thought that comes into your head about others on public fora like some kind of Pavlovian response, where you see a sensationalist story or ‘scandal’ being shared and your fingers automatically type out your feelings.
There is no filter anymore, except to filter our own carefully posed selfies.
Whether we are passing nasty remarks about the appearance of a Eurovision hopeful or tearing apart a woman under the influence of drink who bizarrely ran naked and climbed into a rubbish truck – everyone is fair game. Just take your best shot and let her have it (for, many times, it is usually a she). Women are always much easier targets for reasons which have to do with our social and cultural conditioning which dictates how they should or should not behave, and anthropological reasons which have to do with the issue of ‘shame’ and the control of women’s comportment within a macho Mediterranean milieu. We often hear the phrase “she should be ashamed of herself”, but less frequently is it applied to men. So strong is the influence of this discourse, that many women also find it difficult within themselves to be kind or forgiving towards one another, and often fall into the trap of pouring opprobrium on other women based purely on perception and personal antipathy. (It doesn’t help of course that from the time we are little girls we are almost encouraged to ‘compete’, forever comparing ourselves to see who is the prettiest or ‘hottest’ and who can snag the most male attention).
Let me make it clear – I am not saying we should all hold hands and sing ‘kumbaya’ based on some kind of 1970s sisterhood concept, because there are nasty pieces of work out there of both genders, as we well know. There are just as many women who make all those around them miserable as there are men who do the same. But can we try not to rush to judgment before we at least attempt to understand the facts behind any story – and if we don’t know all the facts, then can we try a dose of compassion instead? And if the story is about a woman in the public eye and her actions, can we at least try to keep to that topic rather than going straight for the jugular and tearing her looks apart from head to toe?
Take the current discourse about strip clubs, the legalization of prostitution and human trafficking – I saw so many disparaging comments on the lines that these women don’t deserve our pity because they willingly opt to do that kind of work. Does it really take that much imagination to put yourself in their shoes, and understand that we are all born into the families we are born into purely as a fluke? That a girl born to a mother who is already a drug addict and a prostitute, under the grip of a ruthless pimp, is already disadvantaged in life because that is the world she will come to know as ‘normal’?
The interesting thing I see when it comes to this inability to feel empathy, is that the cold, heartless indifference of so many who take delight in ripping others to shreds is suddenly shocked into a diametrically opposite reaction when the person being commented about is someone they know or who is related to them. Then, everything shifts: they protest, they object, they are stunned into speechless disbelief at how catty, cruel and ruthless others can be.
Because, of course, it is always easy to mock and ridicule a stranger – in fact it can be sidesplittingly hilarious – until the day you wake up and it is suddenly happening to you.