You know what makes me want to scream? Gossip. The kind of gossip that sounds like, “Oh my God, did you hear that Vanessa gained 10 pounds?! She’s suuuuper fat now!”
And one part of my brain stops and examines it with the morbid curiosity with which one might observe a dog in a closed car on a hot summer’s day. It makes me wonder how? How do we do this to other living things? What drives us, and what kind of person would shut their dog up in that car (or perpetuate these negative attitudes towards fat people)? What do they stand to gain from it, when there is such an obvious loser?
And another part of my brain sees this for what it is: brainwashing. Sheer and utter brainwashing, of the kind that reeks of corporate interests. The kind of brainwashing that ties together every single image we see, shy of the occasional bit of independent media.
There’s a concept (that usually comes up in connection with discussions about either psychology or social justice issues) called gaslighting. Basically, if you’re told over and over again that something is true, and you come to believe that you’re the only one who deviates from that, you begin to think you’re imagining things. There are little seeds of doubt planted (by the gaslighter) that then blossom into us believing that we’re irrational to have thought something that contradicts what the mainstream (or perceived-to-be-widely-held) view is.
Gaslighting is not limited to women believing that having human emotion is irrational. People of all genders are told every day what their bodies are supposed to be, and so these little seeds of doubt are planted. If your partner can plant seeds of doubt about whether or not you remembered to turn the coffee machine off on Tuesday, just imagine the impact the mass media and popular culture can have on us when they join forces.
I see four main reasons why we’re so eager to tear each other down all the time. Not surprisingly, pretty much all of them come from corporations and/or the mainstream media in some form or another.
1. We are in constant competition with each other.
Social competition can be a tricky thing. We’re told all the time that it’s just the natural state of being. After all, in nature, a male will groom for a female and try to win her over, right? Except one thing: we’re not birds. We’re conscious, intelligent animals with the capacity for deep compassion and connection with other humans. In fact, we need connection to feel whole.
But somehow this myth has been perpetuated that we’re playing a sport, and everyone else in the world is on the other team. We need to defeat the other team, all the time. We need to win. So that means that Sarah’s hair can’t be better than ours, because–OH NO!–then you might not be on the top of the imaginary heap. And how on Earth will you snag a man that way?
The whole thing is built on a lie: that there’s not enough to go around. There’s not enough love to go around, so you’d better beat out all those other people competing for potential mates. There’s not enough joy going around, so if someone else just got an excellent test score, you’d better be sure to tell them they’re ugly so you can take their joy from them. There’s not enough health going around, so you’d better make sure that you know full well that your fat friend is less healthy than you (whatever healthy means anyway).
It breeds insecurity, and so we make ourselves feel better by knowing that at least we’re better than this, that or the other person. And this is great for business. Corporations make so much money off of us buying the things that supposedly make us better than this, that or the other person. They make money every time you tell Jenn that she’s too short to get a good man, because unless Jenn has confidence of steel and hasn’t heard that her whole life, she’s going to run out and buy six-inch heels from a happy company. They make money every time you tell James his penis isn’t big enough, because if he doesn’t flat-out invest in products meant to enlarge his penis, he’ll probably try to get a fancy car or nice clothes to make up for how undesirable he must be to potential mates. We’re insecure and corporations are loving it.
But guess what? There is enough to go around. They’d just much rather you didn’t know that so you could keep making them money.
2. Hating on other people is just a matter of doing the right thing.
We will justify the things we want to do, at any cost, no matter what. That’s human nature for you. So when a fitness centre wants to make money, they go to an advertising firm and tell them to dream up an angle. The advertisers are going to find a way to target the majority, because that’s their job. If they notice the majority of people aren’t thin and ripped, they’ll present that as the ideal, often in a way that’s ethically-charged. (Stop and really look at advertising sometime, and notice how much of our personal morality is already outlined for us in advertisements. It’s fascinating.) Campaigns like, “You owe it to yourself to be fit,” which invariably equate being thin and muscular to being healthy (and suggesting the opposite about people who are fat and/or less muscular). It becomes immoral to treat yourself with so much disrespect and lack of care, so you’d better register at the gym!
It’s ideas like this that breed this tendency to justify gossiping and tearing other people down by suggesting that we’re only doing it for their own good. You’re only doing it for Kelly’s own good when you shame her for being fat, because then maybe she won’t be fat and unhealthy anymore. You’re only doing it for Catherine’s own good when you tell her she’s a big slut and needs to stop it, because nobody likes a slut and you just want to be sure she can make friends with people and live a happy life. You’re only doing it for Jacob’s own good when you tell him that he’s not ripped enough, because what if there’s ever a fire and his dog is trapped under a heavy beam and he needs to save her life, and then he can’t, and then he has to live with that guilt for his whole life because he was such a scrawny little chump? (If you think this one is ridiculous, you should have dinner with one of my ex-friends. She’ll wow you.)
Hating on other people is not a matter of doing the right thing. That’s nothing more than a way to justify bad behaviour, and we need to stop it.
3. Human suffering is a spectator sport.
Every single day in movies, on television, the news, radio, and in newspapers (just to mention a few sources), we’re bombarded with images of violence and human suffering. It’s quite amazing, really. You can’t turn on a TV without seeing it. You can’t read a YouTube comment thread without seeing it. People are suffering everywhere. It’s become part of entertainment, in a way. It’s funny to laugh at suffering or stress on the part of other people. (How often are people with OCDs laughed at in films, for instance? And how, realistically, would any of us like to live in a world that isn’t built for us, and then laughs at us to add insult to injury?)
It’s like suffering doesn’t mean anything anymore. We do our damnedest not to suffer, because we’ve seen every day of our lives that it’s funny to watch that guy break his balls on the fence or to see a character on TV have a panic attack. And nobody wants to be a joke. But the reality is that all of us suffer sometimes, and it’s human and totally going to happen. But if we keep running away from our own ability to feel pain, of course we’re going to have to outsource it.
Suffering isn’t funny, and it isn’t entertainment. As long as we see it that way, we’re going to continue thinking it’s no big deal to cause suffering for other people. Can we please re-think this?
4. Misery loves company.
Not so different from using suffering as a spectator sport, misery loving company actually implicates the person doling out the misery. When we finally end up suffering to some degree, despite our best efforts not to, we tend to want to bring the whole ship down with us. “Let’s take them all down, so I’m not the only one feeling awful!”
In a strange way, this is often an attempt to connect with other people. When you’re feeling sad and the whole world seems happy, you feel different, and feeling different makes it more challenging to connect with other people. You feel totally alone. And what’s more, feeling sad (or pretty much anything but happy) is so looked down upon in the media that being alone and sad is seen as one of the worst places to be. But why? Doesn’t everyone feel sad sometimes? Isn’t it OK to be sad sometimes? (Apparently not.)
Imagine your 10-year-old self in the school yard, and the most popular girl in school comes up and says, “You have orange shoes.” You notice she also has orange shoes. Now you’re thinking there may be a connection. But imagine she has purple shoes. The connection isn’t instant. In fact, your first thought might be, “Oh my god, is orange the colour of losers? Is she going to laugh at me?” (True story: I wore a purple shirt to school once in grade 8 and was laughed at all day because it was apparently the colour of gay people and that was something to laugh at, I guess.) Differences can instantly instill fear in the hearts of even fairly confident people. So in a strange and kind of backwards way, when sad people try to tear down happy people, they’re trying to get them on their wavelength, so that the gap between them and others isn’t so huge. So that the happy people aren’t miles above them on the acceptable human emotions hierarchy.
The thing is, this only comes from a sense of feeling alone and insecure in the first place, for the most part. It happens when we’re torn down by ourselves and others. It happens when we’re struggling to connect to other people. And so the only way we can fight this is to not tear each other down in the first place and to learn to accept others and ourselves, as painfully hard as that can be sometimes. And perhaps most practically, we can recognize our own need for connection, before our final, desperate bid of tearing people down becomes our default option.
I’ll leave you with a great quote from a letter written to the Abercrombie dude.
Mike (can I call you Mike?), I’m not only a fat chick, I’m also a “not-so-cool” kid. Always have been, always will be. I’ve had 31.5 years to come to terms with that. Along the way I have been bullied, tortured, teased and harassed. Somehow I came out the other end better for it. In case you haven’t noticed, those not-so-cool kids are the ones who are passing people like you by–and doing some pretty amazing things. […] Funny thing about wearing your struggle on the outside: it makes you stronger. It teaches you how to adapt. It forces you to dig deep and do more. And while people like you are sitting at the cool kids table intent on holding others down, the ragtag team of not-so-cool kids is busy pulling others up…and we’ve become an unstoppable force driving the world forward.