Published 11:35 am Saturday, January 7, 2017



I’m kind of put out with Facebook. Oh, I’m just as addicted as the next person. I love seeing what my friends are up to, and I am a little embarrassed to say that I even play a game or two! I have contacts that I’ve known since kindergarten, and friends whom I’ve never actually met in person, but feel that I have known forever. I seek advice from dog experts and watch cute cat videos. But I notice an ominous tendency among we Facebook enthusiasts. Cruelty is a lot easier to perpetrate – and perhaps worse – tolerate, when a person feels anonymous.

I was scrolling through my newsfeed a few days ago when I saw the strangest photo. It was an advertisement, and the friend who shared it meant no harm, but I was immediately up-in-arms, because it was inappropriate and it was horribly cruel.

The ad was hawking a novelty shower curtain that featured a gentleman’s um…primary sex characteristics…and that was bad enough, but superimposed on the giblets was a face; bad taste for sure, but what upset me most was that I knew that face. It belongs to a little girl. A real person, not a cartoon character and not someone made up to appear a certain way. Now ordinarily something like that would cause the entire planet to rise up in moral outrage, but something about this little face made it fair game. It’s different. It’s not like the faces of other little girls. It is funny-looking, wizened, with large eyes and a pointed little nose and a strangely receding chin, and she’s all over the Internet anyway and besides, she’ll never see it, right?

This little girl has Progeria, the disease that causes children to age prematurely. It kills them before they’ve finished growing up, usually before they’re out of their teens. The average life span is thirteen years. This little girl is a spokesperson for those who suffer with the disease, and while most of us find her heroic, there is an element who think that her differentness makes her fair game for their cruelty. She has her own Facebook page, this innocent little one, and the comments range from outpourings of love to suggestions that she commit suicide.

I was not prepared for the reaction of others when I brought it to their attention that the photo was of an actual child. I was expecting commentary and outrage but instead I was completely ignored. The giggles and comments went on as if I had said nothing. They were having fun. I was a stick in the mud.

The shower curtain ad is an extreme example of how easy the internet has made it to dehumanize someone for the sake of “humor.” Photos of people dressed oddly at Walmart, people with fewer than the regulation number of teeth, plump ladies at the beach, all cause us to laugh and laugh. And combined with some clever words into a meme, oh my goodness! Priceless!

I know that I’ve been to Walmart when my appearance caused raised eyebrows. Listen, when the cats are out of food and start looking at you as if you are a giant salmon, you get in the car and go to the store. And when I am at the beach, I am having so much fun that an entire cadre of paparazzi could follow me around snapping unflattering pics and I would never notice.

Those Walmartians, the dentally challenged, the walking beach balls, the sweet and different little girls – they’re us. Somewhere along the line, and I fear that it happened at the first opportunity rather than wearing us down, we began to use the computer screen as a veil of anonymity, something that lets us exercise our most base notions, and one of those is finding humor in the pain and suffering of others. But I am an “Other,” and you are an “Other.” And if we think that it’s okay to make fun of a little girl’s disease or of a man with three teeth smiling right out in the open like he’s a normal human being or something, then what will be our defense when we see a picture of ourselves pop up, when we see why the world wants to laugh at us?

A friend recently had this simple status on Facebook: “When is it okay to be unkind?” I think that we need to re-examine what kindness is, and our duty to it, and realize that we are all Walmartians at one time or another.

As Grandmaw used to say when Brother and I were less than loving to one another, “Y’all, be sweet!”

Pepper Ellis Hagebak spends her days framing other people’s art and her nights lost in the beauty of words.