Monday, 25 June 2012

Rodney King, Karen Klein and the Global Village

     Like most people, I was appalled and disappointed at the video of a group of junior high school students taunting bus monitor Karen Klein this past week. To be sure, I wasn't exactly shocked; there's nothing new about such cruelty, and it's been with us for as long as we've had feelings to hurt. At least, I wasn't surprised by the cruelty; I was amazed at something else, the unseen upside to this story: that it's even a story.
     Not so long ago, cameras were expensive, both to buy and to operate, what with all that film and processing stuff. Things that happened in your daily life were thus ephemeral and, for the most part, had an illusion of privacy. Things you did in public places went mostly unnoticed, and if they were noticed, they were often politely ignored and generally remained anonymous. Vicious acts of cruelty like the taunting of Ms. Klein happened all the time, but they were mostly invisible to us, often by our own choice through our amazing ability not to see or "get involved" in something that makes us uncomfortable.
     But now, cameras are everywhere, and they are changing things. This past week also saw the passing of Rodney King, whose beating at the hands of LAPD officers was (unbeknownst to those officers) videotaped by one of those video cameras that were just beginning to become inexpensive enough to be in the hands of random passersby. Although the aftermath of the video included a disastrous riot, the longer term consequences have had a positive side, which grows as private cameras become ever more ubiquitous: wrongdoers (including police) can no longer rely on the public at large not to notice something. An eyewitness, present on the scene, may feel vulnerable and be trusted to just look the other way, but a camera, especially one no one else knows is there, changes all that.
     The students who tormented Ms. Klein may have known they were being taped; apparently bullies like to record their victims. But like the officers who beat Rodney King, they clearly didn't expect the public to notice. But we did, and we were outraged, possibly even a little disproportionately so because the boys involved are now facing a great deal of harassment themselves. (Also, the fund set up to take donations for Ms. Klein has taken in more than half a million dollars. Arguably both the punishment and the compensation are way beyond the magnitude of the incident itself, but maybe that's one of the lessons here.)

      So that's what I find remarkable about this story, the way it's part of a trend where otherwise unremarkable acts of cruelty (and of kindness) now find their ways to our collective consciousness in ways that they never did before. Marshall McLuhan's Global Village is here, though not necessarily exactly in the way he expected it to manifest. We all live in the same little village now, where if you act like a jerk in public, someone will tell your parents and you'll be shamed and learn your lesson and behave better next time. That's one of the most basic parts of growing up; we do things as kids we end up being ashamed of, because we just hadn't learned to think about other people yet. I'm pretty sure the kids who taunted Ms. Klein have had that epiphany, which is great, and it's nice that so many people have chipped in to give her a bit of compensation, but to me the bigger picture is that there must be thousands of kids out there who saw this whole thing and suddenly understood their own behaviour in a new light, and who have become a lot nicer to their classmates, teachers, lunch ladies and bus monitors as a result.

     In a very few small but encouraging ways, I really think the world is becoming a better place.

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