Biff America: The subjectivity of cruelty and coolness
Ryan Summerlin January 30, 2014
“He’s my dad’s coolest friend … He’s on TV.”
That rousing endorsement came from Morgan, my pal Danny’s 5-year-old daughter. That was 10 years ago. I’m guessing Morgan doesn’t feel that way about me now. What is “cool” to a 5 year old often doesn’t resonate when that 5 year old turns 15.
Despite the fact that Morgan might consider me now less cool and more of a middle-aged dork, she and I have a fairly close, yet long-distance friendship. Even at the age of 5 she was more high-tech savvy than I. When I got my first iPod, she walked me through its operation.
In turn, I will send her care packages of swag — T-shirts and promotional items given to me that I think she might like. Her dad told me that most of her nightgowns during the years were the large shirts I’ve mailed her.
We became Facebook friends only after I promised that I would never mention to her dad any incriminating photos and posts I saw. (Truth is I would have ratted her out in a New York second had I seen any truly unhealthy behavior, but that has not been necessary.)
Though Morgan no longer considers me cool, I can’t say the same about her. She is a smart, fun, athletic, quirky young lady. Danny should be, and is, very proud of his daughter.
Occasionally, Morgan will flatter me with an email featuring some of her writings or videos that she and her friends recorded with cellphone cameras. Sometimes, it’s a silly song or monologue performed by her friends or soccer teammates, school essays or one of her creative writing efforts. Much of her stuff is fairly silly, but some of her writings are really good; I usually respond with a compliment.
But she sent me something recently that upset me. It was a link to a video about which she commented, “check this out LOL.” The first scene in the video was two teenagers, one with a saxophone, looking at the camera with one kid saying, “Following fat people at school.” Then the video cuts to some overweight gal walking down a corridor with the saxophone guy following her playing “da-dump-da-dump, da-dump-da-dump,” a tune often heard in cartoons when an elephant walks by.
What follows are a few more segments of the sax player walking behind overweight folks playing that same song — most ignore him, others give him a dirty look, but one turns, almost in tears, and says, “Please stop doing that.”
While watching, I kept thinking back to Morgan’s “LOL” — laughing out loud. The video made me sick to my stomach.
I debated how to respond. As a person who has tried to make a living being amusing, I’ve always hated the expression, “That’s not funny,” because in truth “funny” is subjective. I also didn’t feel it my place to lecture Morgan on the difference between comical and cruel. To be clear, she didn’t make the video; she only thought it funny.
I’ve been trying to remember at what age I learned empathy. I would guess it was later in life than many. What I do know is that in my opinion, the one quality that most good people have is the ability to put themselves in the shoes — be they fat, poor, crazy, discouraged — of others. I have no doubt that when I was Morgan’s age (and even much older), I could not see past my own needs and wants.
But during the years you learn perspective and appreciation for your deserved and undeserved gifts. A young person without empathy is a work in progress; an adult without it is simply mean.
I wrote back to Morgan and said, “I watched the video, it was kind of funny if you weren’t one of the overweight people who it featured or an overweight person who might have seen it. All and all it made me sad.”
I thought I might have severed our connection. I heard nothing from her for a couple of weeks. Then finally she wrote, “All my friends thought it funny, but I thought it was cruel but I was afraid to say so.”
I’m sure there are a lot of 15 year olds like Morgan. Sometimes it is the little things that can restore your hope for the future.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.