Celeste Headlee, The Takeaway
Celeste Headlee, is a former co-host of The Takeaway.
I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon and start reviling Glenn Beck or Gilbert Gottfried or the shallow UCLA girl on YouTube. Better minds than mine have already articulated why it's wrong to pile insult on top of deep, tragic injury.
Instead, I want to appeal to my countrymen to rise above these nasty comments. Let me begin with Alec Sulkin, a scriptwriter for "Family Guy" who tweeted the following: “If you wanna feel better about this earthquake in Japan, google “Pearl Harbor death toll.” Let's turn that around and imagine someone had written this ten years ago, "If you want to feel better about 9/11, google "My Lai Massacre." Sure, the first amendment protects that kind of speech, but doesn't your conscience prevent you from saying it?
9/11 shattered me even though I didn't lose anyone in the disaster; Hurricane Katrina also broke my heart, and I didn't lose any loved ones or my home. It's hard to fathom the difficult journey the people of New York and New Orleans made from shock to mind-numbing grief and then, hopefully, to recovery. Does it help them to hear that someone else finds humor in their suffering? And would Alec Sulkin make his comment in the face of a weeping grandmother whose child was swept away in the dark waters?
And then there's young Alexandra Wallace at UCLA, who ranted on YouTube about her Asian colleagues in the library. Here's a portion of her comments: “In America, we do not talk on our cell phones in the library. I will be deep into my studies, in my political science and then all over a sudden when I am about to reach an epiphany [makes offensive mock Asian sounds]. Are you freaking kidding me? In the middle of finals week. And then it's the same thing five minutes later. I swear they are going through their whole families just trying to check on the tsunami thing." She also complained about "hordes" of Asian students bringing their extended families to campus.
To be fair, Wallace later issued an apology that was published in the school paper: “Clearly the original video posted by me was inappropriate. I cannot explain what possessed me to approach the subject as I did, and if I could undo it, I would. I’d like to offer my apology to the entire UCLA campus. For those who cannot find it within them to accept my apology, I understand.”
Perhaps Wallace helps us understand why people say heartless, cruel things. Perhaps the social networks and tweets and blogs and YouTube videos have simply deluded us into believing that every thought we have is worthy of recording and sharing. That UCLA student probably wouldn't be the subject of endless disgusted rants if she were living in a time when paper was scarce, when writing a letter sometimes took days and its delivery took weeks. Or a time when she had to pay per word to send her thoughts via telegram.
Ironic, I suppose, that I'm writing about this in a blog... but at least I'm edited. For many people who tweet and text and make videos, there are no mitigating voices and no chances for reflection. People often sit down to their computers, record their off-the-cuff thoughts on video and immediately upload them. Not smart. And, as it turns out, not nice either.
I'm reminded of the famous proverb of Solomon, adapted by Abraham Lincoln centuries later: Better to remain silent and thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.
The final type of hatred that I want to address is perhaps the most pernicious: the religious belief in disaster as punishment. I have two recent examples, one from Cappie Pondexter of the WNBA's New York Liberty, who tweeted: "What if God was tired of the way they treated their own people in there own country! Idk guys he makes no mistakes." And then there are the very disturbing comments from Glenn Beck on his program: “I am not saying God is causing earthquakes. Well I am not not saying that either. But I’ll tell you this, whether you call it Gaia or whether you call it Jesus and that is, hey you know that stuff we’re doing, not really working out well. Maybe we should stop doing it."
I hope that we are overreacting to the tasteless comments that have been made since the earthquake struck Japan last week. But I also wish that it weren't Americans making headlines with these callous tweets and heartless on-camera remarks. The Japanese gave millions to us in the days after Hurricane Katrina. This story comes from the U.S. Department of State: "The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo was overwhelmed by the generosity of one Japanese individual — Takashi Endo — who donated $1 million from his personal funds to Katrina relief efforts. Endo said he was moved when, during a business trip to London, he saw a televised report about a mother separated from her children in the chaos of the flooding in New Orleans. The story so disturbed him he could not sleep that night; the next morning he resolved to do something to help."
We all have the right to say what we like. And we also have the right to drown out the pitiless voices of those who find humor or smug satisfaction in the suffering of others.
And, we have the right to ignore them.