Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Race to the Bottom
It's amazing how different your world looks when you never turn on your TV. I know firsthand, because I haven't had a cable subscription for nearly a year, and even when I did, I mostly only watched sporting events.

So when I'm on Facebook and I see my friends talking amongst themselves in regard to the latest TV shows, or the newest slice of entertainment gossip masquerading as news, I feel like I'm from another planet. The Duck Dynasty one really threw me for a while. When everybody was talking about the anti-gay comments from one of the show's cast members, all I could think of was how much the title "Duck Dynasty" made me think of Daffy Duck, in "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century." That's what a misspent childhood will do to you.

I could sort of get why everyone kept talking about the hillbilly guy from Duck Dynasty, since apparently everybody watches this show and he's the star. But then there are the manufactured "controversies" that seem to pop up out of nowhere every few months. Those are the ones that really lose me.

For example, Coke ran an ad during the Super Bowl that showed people of various ethnicities singing "God Bless America" in a number of languages. I can tell you that if I'd watched the Super Bowl, I would have found it nice, but probably a bit cloying, and then I never would have given it another thought.

But the next morning, my FB feed lights up with people sharing stories about how the Coke ad sparked a racist outrage!

Uh, OK.

Sorry for my apathy -- it's just that I've been to this show too many times. Remember the Cheerios ad with the biracial family? Never even heard of it, until my social-media hangouts proclaimed that the ad triggered a racist firestorm online.

Or the Miss America pageant, won by a woman of eastern Indian heritage. I didn't even know the pageant was going on, until Facebook informed me of the racist backlash against her victory.

I also remember people talking about the racist meltdown when a Mexican-American kid sang the national anthem at a basketball game.

Seriously, people?

Look, bigotry is an ugly thing. But we seem to keep repeating an unhealthy cycle in which the bigoted reactions to these ads and events get blown out of proportion and become the story themselves. It would be one thing if the nastiness dominated our daily discourse, but it seems more as if media outlets see something coming along that has the potential to provoke controversy, and then they go combing through the Web looking for the revolting comments that they know they're going to find. And then that becomes the story.

The Cheerios ad is the first to come to mind, as the entire dust-up apparently started over some racist bilge that a few knuckle-draggers were spewing in the YouTube comments section. But here's the thing: The YouTube comments section is the cesspool of the Internet. You could find people spewing racist bilge over videos of puppies and rainbows. It's not exactly a representative slice of humanity. 

It's a sad commentary on the state of journalism that so many media outlets seem to go out of their way to hold up the exception as the rule and manufacture all this outrage. But then, what media shop these days is going to pass up some low-hanging fruit to gain clicks, likes, and comments on their pages? And who cares if the bigots, trolls, and bored 12-year-olds who write the offensive posts get way more attention than they deserve? That's apparently beside the point. We all get to rush to our keyboards and denounce the bigotry with one hand, while patting ourselves on the back with the other for being so enlightened. Everybody feels good and goes home. Until the cycle repeats itself again.

Even worse is the frequent implication in these stories that these random bigots are representative of an entire political group. Think about it. Every time a few lowlifes make online comments hostile to some acknowledgment of human diversity, their words get cherry-picked and held up as an example of how backwards conservatives are. There go those right-wing nuts again, with their crazy racist/sexist/homophobic rants. Sites such as Daily KOS, one of the most blatantly Democrats-good-Republicans-bad places you'll ever find on the Web, do it constantly. Others sometimes try to be more subtle about it, but sometimes they can't help themselves, like when MSNBC sent out a tweet proclaiming how a new biracial Cheerios ad -- a sequel to the first one, I guess -- would make right-wingers' heads explode.

Haters gonna hate, and baiters gonna bait.

What's so sad is that stereotyping an entire group of people is the same kind of bigotry that the outlets running these stories claim to abhor.

I think this relentless focus on the bad people also skews our perceptions of any progress we may have made in terms of tolerance and diversity. After all, I'm sure there were bigots going nuts back when Coke ran those nice "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" ads in the '70s. The difference is that the bigots back then didn't have an Internet where they could publicly and instantly share their hate with the world. The Internet magnifies this garbage, and always drawing attention to it just fans the flames, making things look worse than they probably really are. Consider: Do you know anyone in real life, liberal or conservative, who had a conniption over the Coke ad, the Cheerios ad, or the Indian-American woman who was crowned Miss America? I don't.

That's not to say bigotry doesn't exist. It obviously does, and that's not my point. My point is how people so often make things worse by insisting on making a mountain out of a molehill.  

Maybe we could focus instead on things like ... oh, I don't know ... buying the world a Coke and keeping it company.

That's the real thing.