If you’ve been online on any social media or news outlet, you’ve heard that the leader of the Westboro church, Fred Phelps, is sick or dying or dead. I’m honestly not sure. I’m too busy doing other things like making sure my kids are at soccer and haven’t dropkicked each other to pay much attention. I tend to take an osmosis approach to world events – if it is important enough, I’ll find out about it whether or not I try. I know that many people are news junkies. I’m not. I won’t judge you if you don’t judge me.
But judgment is really what it comes down to on the Internet, isn’t it? How did I find out that this Fred guy was sick? People celebrating about it on Twitter. For me, Twitter is different from other social media outlets. I specifically follow people who I know, those I want to know, or people I respect. When it is the last category dancing on the upcoming grave of a man neither of us knows except from what we’ve seen on television, color me taken aback.
As I was driving today (I do my best thinking in the shower and in traffic), I was pondering why it bothered me that people were celebrating this man’s illness. I’ll be honest, I deplore the man’s stance on…well…everything I’ve ever read he had a stance on. The ideals he supported and the methods he used to convey them sicken me on just about every level.
But I don’t know the man. More importantly, I don’t know the people who do know him.
Let’s back up. Pretend I was walking through a hospital. Perhaps to visit a sick friend. Now, let’s also pretend I passed a room and glanced at the bed (as we know we all do). Say I recognized the ashen face on that bed and that it was a person I knew from high school. This person was a real bully and had made my high school years hell. So much so that, even now, the thought of them makes my blood boil.
Now, pretend that room is filled with everyone they’ve ever known or loved.
What’s the proper response? Well, I imagine most people would say to quietly walk away and later, when you are at home, to pop open a bottle of champagne. Or beer. Or a fist-bump with your significant other. Or maybe none of the above. Maybe you would keep it inside and feel ashamed that you experienced joy at seeing someone dying.
I feel confident in saying that most would agree that the appropriate response wouldn’t be to run into the hospital room and start laughing in everyone’s faces and throwing a party.
When I discussed this topic with my wife, her first question was, “But what about Osama Bin Laden?”
Good question. You can put Hitler on that list as well. Hell, there are tons of very bad people in history that can make the list of people we are all better without. But I would guess that very few of us would celebrate their deaths in the midst of the few people who knew them not as a dictator or monster, but as a father, mother, or child.
Acts that feel symbolic to some are very personal to others. When people celebrated the 9/11 attacks, were they celebrating the lives lost in the Twin Towers or were they celebrating that “the West” had gotten some form of payback for all the things we had done (or not done) to them? When people celebrate the death of Fred Phelps, are they celebrating the death of the specific man, or more the ideals that he espoused? I’d venture to say it is more the latter. But to his friends and family, it surely feels like the former.
Between Audioholics and AV Rant, I have enough experience online to realize that I’m being more than a bit hypocritical here. Saying something is like “Bose” or “Monster” or “Beats” is shorthand for “Over-marketed and overpriced,” “Decent quality but overpriced,” and “Sucks AND overpriced.” I’ve said these things in the past and gotten my cheap laughs. But behind each of those products are designers, engineers, and teams that have brought them to market. Not only that, they have been huge successes and, for reasons I don’t fully understand, we seem to need to hate them because of it.
For non-AV-related examples see Nickleback, Walmart, and Kim Kardasian.
Lately this issue has been weighing more and more on my mind. It is often said that you shouldn’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say to a person’s face, but that doesn’t seem to be the way we are acting. Instead, we treat the Internet like it is a clique. We don’t have many followers so it is okay to dance on Fred Phelps’ grave. Everyone we follow agrees with us, so it is okay to “be honest.”
But the Internet isn’t a clique – unless your clique has a person named Google that won’t keep their fool mouth shut. All it takes is a search and someone can find out all the hateful things that have been said about him or her or anyone they love. I, for one, am trying to remember that.
In the end, I’m glad there is one less person spewing bigotry and hate in the world, but it is too bad that a bigot and hatemonger didn’t live long enough to realize just how wrong he had been.