COLUMN: Living in the Age of Mockery
Seen the latest video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford that’s gone viral?
It features a press event before the Grey Cup in which Ford and some staff play a little football. He hikes the ball, goes back a few steps to make a pass, loses his balance and tumbles to the turf.
Fat man falls. Ha ha. Because he’s offended so many people during his time in office, the humour—one assumes—is all the more rich. Regardless, the video spread around the world.
Just before the U.S. election, late night TV funnyman Jimmy Kimmel’s crew hit the streets to ask people what they thought of the second presidential debate. The twist: the debate hadn’t actually happened yet.
That didn’t stop people from commenting. People on camera said things like Obama came off better, and oh yes, the town-hall style event was much more intimate than the previous one and so on.
Funny. And yes, insightful about human behaviour.
Yet it seems humour — from the things we share on social media to the reality shows we watch — is increasingly being characterized by the concept of mockery.
Today we spend a lot of time laughing at people, and often, ridiculing them. Their foibles, their pettiness, their slip-ups.
And what’s wrong with that, one might ask?
I’m not sure. But somewhere in there, it feels off, somehow.
It’s no revelation that we live in an age in which the lens is turned on ourselves and the world around us. We like it real. Reality TV, making videos for YouTube in your bedroom, uploading footage of the riot we stumble across in Greece—real life is exciting.
And as America’s Funniest Home Videos established years ago, we can be hilarious—particularly by accident.
It’s one thing, though, to laugh at ourselves. In fact, it’s healthy and humbling. After all, “self-deprecating” is probably one of the more flattering things you can say about a person’s character.
But what about when we turn it around?
When we’re laughing at others? And what if they’re not laughing? It’s one thing when we laugh at a comedian on stage, seeking to tickle our funny bone, but what if it’s just real folks going about life?
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was U.S. president in the ’30s and early ’40s, the media never showed him in a wheelchair, or being carried, helping to hide the fact he was paralyzed. Perhaps it was media collusion out of respect for office at a time when disabilities were seen differently. And it’s good today that we’ve broken many of those taboos, and acknowledge that frailty exists — even among those in highest office.
But compare the Roosevelt situation to that in the Ford video. When we watch Ford tumble to the turf, what do we think? Fat idiot? Offensive words, but how far off the mark? When we giggle at the people on the street discussing an imaginary presidential debate don’t we, at very least, think them foolish?
So what, one might say. No harm done.
But what if this trend is undermining our respect for others? What if it feeds this culture of mean people are talking about, a culture of mockery that empowers the bullies, feeds concepts of ‘us and them,’ lowers the tenor of public discourse and sends a message that it’s OK to celebrate when a person is hurt, and to laugh when they are embarrassed or humiliated?
How is it different if an unpopular 10-year-old girl stumbles as she walks across the school stage, and the assembled students laugh, then schoolmates continue to badger her for weeks to come?
But it is different, isn’t it?
Rob Ford is a politician. He’s put himself on that platform. He’s exposed himself.
And those people on the streets of L.A., they should have been honest and admitted they didn’t know there was a debate.
And in those cases we’re talking about people in different cities, different situations. Not people in our local community.
It’s different. Right?
• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader, and only laughs when everyone has signed off that it's OK to do so.