Maybe 15 years ago, a climber died—murdered by his girlfriend with an ice ax—and I made a joke about it in an online climbing forum. “I wonder what he did to deserve it,” I wrote, because ha ha men suck sometimes. A friend of mine politely called me out on it, said he expected better from me and pointed out that the victim’s friends and family might be reading my joke.
I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t take his admonishment to heart. Instead, I doubled down by quoting lyrics from the musical Chicago (“He had it coming”). My friend stopped speaking to me, and I resented him for it. I thought he was being a priss who couldn’t take a joke. It took another five years, the loss of my friend nagging at me all the while, his judgement bouncing around in my head, before I matured enough to understand how wrong I’d been.
Leaving aside the dubious humor of that song from Chicago, or the whole thoroughly incorrect idea that it’s less tragic when men are killed by their partners than women, my friend’s point about my joke being seen by the victim’s loved ones was extremely relevant. The climbing forum was a public place, and climbing is a small pond. The possibility wasn’t hypothetical. Almost certainly, people who knew the victim read my joke suggesting he deserved to be murdered.
When I finally recognized how wrong I was, I reached out to my friend and apologized, acknowledging that he’d been right to call me out. As a result, we were able to become friends again.
Yesterday, my cousin died in a hit and run accident that has become political. Social media is full of people making jokes and comments about them, even going so far as to say “good” to news of their death, definitely saying they deserved to die and not even as a joke. My inappropriate behavior fifteen years ago has become commonplace since then. If a person is on “the other side” then they’re fair game for any kind of awful remark. It’s okay to call a woman fat or ugly or old. It’s okay to laugh at someone for needing a ramp or being incontinent. It’s okay even to say “good” when told of their death.
I’m grateful I repented of my bad behavior before this became personal to me, that I can say I know better not just because I’m on the other end of it now, that I restored my humanity ten years ago when I owned up to and apologized for my awful, harmful joke. And I want to urge all of you to wake up to this truth too. If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s relatives at their funeral, then don’t say it online. Because you are saying it to their relatives. They read it. They see it. And if you wouldn’t make fun of a friend for one of their physical characteristics, then don’t make fun of strangers for those same characteristics online. Because you are making fun of your friends. They read it. They see it.
Now, I’m not preaching to “the other side,” because they don’t give a fuck what I think. And I’m not preaching to Russian bots or trolls who get their kicks out of causing emotional pain. I’m preaching to you, my friends, the people who might listen to me. Because our side does it too. And when we do, we hurt ourselves more than our supposed enemies, because this kind of behavior erodes our humanity.
Other people are human beings, even the people doing things I really, really don’t like. When I treat them as if they’re not human beings, the one who becomes less human is me. I’m not saying principles can’t be debated or that public figures with shameful pasts can’t have those pasts called out, but before you say something online, consider whether you’d say it to your target’s grieving grandparents. Before you insult someone, consider which of your friends and family are included in your insult.
I can’t erase the pain I caused to that murdered climber’s loved ones fifteen years ago. I can only try to make amends by stopping others before they do something similar. Stay human, my friends.