I can be a real jerk sometimes. I can be classist and biased and prejudicial against people who have had fewer privileges in life than I have. I have many times — with friends who do the same — mimicked the Boston accents of the “townies” in our neighborhood. I sometimes feel secret disdain when I see very overweight people eating giant ice cream cones.
But I don’t like this about myself. I try hard not to give into these tendencies, and instead to keep an open mind and a compassionate heart; to — as the Unitarian Universalists put it — “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people.”
Sometimes I succeed.
Like the first time I saw the People of Walmart website. Basically, it’s a trove of photos of overweight / not terribly physically attractive /strange looking / tastelessly dressed and tackily-tattooed people. Most of them, I’d be willing to bet, are on the bottom rungs of the economic and educational ladder. Some of them appear to be mentally challenged, ill, or disabled in some way.
And yeah. They look kinda goofy, and not exactly beautiful to behold. But looking at the pictures knowing they were meant to be amusing — even, yes, finding them amusing myself — and reading people’s mean-spirited comments, I felt immediately…icky.
A few years ago, I went to a panel at a writing conference on writing humor, and someone posed the question to David Rakoff (rest his hilarious and thoughtful soul) about what he thinks is off limits to make jokes about. His reply: “People with less power than you.” I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed many times since, but hearing it from David Rakoff — whose humor can actually be quite biting — really stuck with me.
He was absolutely right. It’s not OK to make fun of the have-nots. Just like it’s not OK for the schoolyard bully to jeer at the boy who’s small for his age, or imitate the one who’s effeminate. Just like it’s not OK for the mean girls to make fun of the overweight girl, or the one who comes to school smelling bad because her parents don’t bathe her often enough. Just like it wasn’t OK for some women at the elite, private college I attended to have a “White Trash” costume party for fun.
I’m not saying anyone who laughs at the people of Wal-Mart pics or their equivalent are terrible people. Like I said, I’m guilty of it, too. But I do think that if we want to poke fun or roll our eyes at someone, we should try whenever possible to pick someone our own size and socioeconomic status. Or someone richer or better looking or more powerful. Poke fun at millionaires and movie stars and pilates moms in Porsche SUVs — and the aforementioned Unitarian Universalists, while you’re at it. Snicker at the people of Whole Foods — the uber-crunchies, the hipsters, the people in Priuses with “Coexist” bumper stickers who cut you off in the parking lot.
I mean, probably better not to laugh or roll your eyes at anyone. Maybe I’ll get to a point where I don’t. Even now, though I’m extremely tempted, and suspect it would be hugely popular, I’m not going to start a “People of Whole Foods” website. Because that would be kind of mean spirited, too.
As it is, I felt like kind of a jerk secretly snapping a picture of the woman above, in her gigantic, silly hat. Maybe all my assumptions about her are wrong. Maybe she’s had a rough go of things herself. And maybe if I talked to her we’d be instant friends. Maybe she donates zillions of dollars to charity, has a wicked sense of humor, and a collection of a hundred crazy, awesome sun hats that she gets a kick out of wearing in totally incongruous settings. With olive green pants and sweaters. And hiking boots.
But having a slight chuckle at her expense while she browses the organic onions doesn’t feel like kicking someone when they’re down.
I don’t want to kick people when they’re down. I don’t think any of us should.