When we were kids we learned the difference between right and wrong pretty quickly. If we didn’t get it by the time we got to school, life on the playground set us straight. Every playground had rules, and if you broke the rules there were consequences. For some of us, breaking the rules was a daily event. And then there are those of us who prided ourselves on following the rules. But no matter where you fell on that spectrum chances are, at some point you either made someone cry or someone made you cry. And this is where you learned the most important life lesson—hurting people sucks.
With the right adult guidance, our experiences on the playground teach us empathy. Psychopaths and bullies excluded, we learn how shitty it feels to hurt someone. And when you’re on the receiving end of the hurt, well, you know exactly how shitty it is.
The internet is also a playground of sorts. It’s a place where we make friends, play games, share things, and generally learn about the world. But here’s what makes the internet a much more dangerous playground: there are few rules and few aids keeping watch. As a result, bullies are only reprimanded when they border on psychopath status.
The world of online communication has complicated the delicate balance of playground politics. Louis CK summed up this dynamic in a conversation with Conan O’Brien, “Kids are mean and it’s ’cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, ‘You’re fat.’ And then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, Ew that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that. But they gotta start with doing the mean thing. But when they write, ‘You’re fat,’ then they just go, Mmmmm, that was fun. I liked that.”
People go about writing whatever they please on the internet with little recourse. What’s worse, they seldom see how their words impact others. So when BuzzFeed, Slate, Jezebel, Time, and The Huffington Post recently profiled artist Anna Gensler, I was more than giddy.
In case you missed this titillating bit of news, I’ll fill you in. After six months of receiving inappropriate and demeaning comments from men on dating sites, Gensler started posting nude and unflattering sketches of them along with their lewd pick-up lines on Instagram in an effort to turn the tables on these creeps. In short, she was publicly shaming them.
In the wake of this media attention, a few internet players have criticized her for her posts. She willingly participated on a site based on objectification. So what did she expect?
What I believe she expected was respect. After all, that is what we were supposed to learn on the playground. Anna, unfortunately, is not alone. Ask any woman who has spent time on a dating site and she can attest to the surprising amount of slimy comments and invitations found in her inbox. It’s unnerving, to say the least.
What Louis CK rightfully points out in his spot on Conan O’Brien is that live human interaction has been overshadowed by the world of online communication. We can act without seeing the consequences of our words or actions. This makes it really confusing, especially for those who never really mastered playground ethics. But what we can’t afford to forget is that there is a real person on the receiving end of our comments.
The internet is a really big playground, but it’s a playground nonetheless. And whether someone is watching you or not, there are rules—the rules of life:
- Be respectful of yourself and others
- Be patient
- Be kind
Was Gensler acting kindly? Well, she could have told the “principal” and tried to have each one expelled (i.e. removed from the site). Instead she opted to hold up a mirror to each man, showing them their bad behavior. In essence, she was standing up to a bully. Until our online behavior improves as a whole, I say, well done, Ms. Gensler. Well done. Because no one deserves to open an email and read, “I want to tongue punch your fart box.”
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