How not to get dragged into other people’s wars: why information-gathering should be compassionate.

When I was in my final year of high school, I was the yearbook editor.

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That’s the book I edited. I took it so very seriously, and loved every second of it. Chronicling the year of my fellow students was an absolute joy, and I tried to cram in as many people and events in there as I could.

But even then, I poked fun at some people: a few of the graduating boys thought they could take silly pictures during the regular school photo day because it was only going to be their graduating picture showing up.

I could not resist to disprove their theory.

For the most part, I was careful not to insult people — or have people get insulted by proxy. I scrutinized obits, and edited a few that I had suspected were insults lobbed at other classmates, and I wasn’t going to aid and abet that kind of bullying. Bullies have to be taught that they are not always the smartest or most determined people in the world.

Why was I so adament?

Because when I was in junior high, something else happened that really shook me up as a kid in the pre-social media/Internet days.

I was in Grade 7 and I walked to school with different people, but one day one of the regulars joined in with a girl who was in Grade 8, and the three of us walked home together. I knew absolutely nothing about this older girl.

I am not going to repeat the horrible name she used to describe another classmate, but she kept using that name to describe her repeatedly, saying matter-of-factly at one point, “I told her that I was going to call her ‘X’ from now on, and that was it.”

I wondered if the teachers would say something, but as I had discovered earlier that year, unless your parents stormed into the principal’s office and made demands, you were on your own.

I never walked with that girl again, or had anything to do with her. I never liked bullies.

But in that school, there was a yearbook as well, and the Grade 8 kids got their own version of obits: each had their individual picture taken, and got to answer a short questionnaire.

When we got that year’s book, I hungrily read every page, and had forgotten about the earlier incident.

Until I came across that bully’s obit.

She literally used that same slur in her answer and it went in unedited.

That truly freaked me out as a kid.

Forever that book would taunt the victim of bullying. The bully won. We can hope that the victim did better in life, but no matter what transpired, I seriously doubt she could even look at that yearbook and not feel small, even if for a moment.

She shouldn’t, but I don’t know too many people who can let go of a scar that was, to be blunt, sanctioned by a teacher who put in that obvious insult in the book without wondering who it could possibly be the secret reference.

I know it stuck with me. I was in the yearbook committee in junior high as well, but we didn’t get to do anything other than hang out and make posters.

Had I, for example, got to read the answers to the questionnaire, I would have flagged it to the teacher.

I would not have found it funny, or think I was in some sort of “know.” I would have loved to have thwarted something so calculated.

So many years later, when I became a journalist, I took that lesson with me: how to make sure, as much as I could, that I wasn’t a pawn who was going to insult or degrade someone by proxy.

Most times, that was not a problem, but every once in a while, something would hint that there was some sort of game going on, and it involved using the press to cause someone some sort of injury.

It wouldn’t make it into my piece, but I often would read news stories where the journalist seemed like an active co-conspirator.

Sometimes people earn their public drubbing, but other times, they don’t.

With #MeToo, for instance, there have been many people a little too quick to declare it a “witch hunt” or claim the movement has gone “too far.”

That implies that people coming forward are lying. In the argument about “presumption of innocence”, that same argument also implies an assumption of guilt on the part of the accusers.

Strength in numbers? Apparently not.

When Steven Galloway was called on the carpet by UBC for his abuse of students, Canadian authors all jumped to his defence, implying all those students (who predated #MeToo) were lying.

And some took that implication very hard.

But journalists had initially rolled with the open letter’s narrative, making the situation worse. The blowback did snap some out of their fantasy world where an author is never, ever wicked or wrong, but the damage was already done.

But it shows a critical weakness: we must be our own agents, not proxies who mindlessly accept an Establishment’s narrative, and imply that those in a weaker position are just evil, crazy, disgruntled, or wrong.

Information-gathering is about the facts, nothing more. We cannot allow cruel pollution to muddy the waters.

Because I still think about that girl who got away with bullying in a yearbook.

And the sad thing is, I never knew the real name of the target of torment.

I never heard that name. Only the degrading taunt. She is faceless to me.

Facelessness is a way to manufacture enemies.

It is a form of propaganda. A junior version of it, to be sure, but it is still propaganda.

But I will never forget the name and face of the victor of that needless little war.

Journalism never learned about compassion. It never answered the question, How do we not enable a bully’s manipulation when we are gathering facts to disseminate to the public?

And that is a big reason why journalism is no longer a thing.

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