The Cruelty of The Internet, And Everyone Else
There’s nothing funny about the “I Can Count to Potato” meme. There is absolutely nothing funny about mocking people who were born with a genetic disorder that harms their learning ability. It may sound like I’m baiting here, but it’s just a simple thing that, for some reason, in 2012, a lot of people don’t understand. There’s absolutely nothing complicated about this issue. There’s no “gray area”. We don’t make fun of people’s disorders. Done deal.
This meme began in 2009, featuring the face a girl afflicted with down syndrome and a line from the movie The Ringer. The objective of the meme is very simple. There aren’t layers to it. It’s looking at a girl with a disease and laughing at how “stupid” she is. You can attempt to defend the meme and argue that there’s more to it than that, but you’re wrong. It’s a cruel joke that is immature for even a grade-schooler to make. The reason that it’s becoming an issue again is thanks to The Sun, a tabloid based in the UK that doesn’t matter at all unless it is stirring up trouble.
The Sun showed the now 16-year-old girl featured in the meme how her image is being mocked online. For their hard work of ruining a girl’s life, they have been rewarded with a lot of attention that they nowhere near deserve. What they did is disgusting, and exploitative, and wrong. Everyone here is wrong. The original creators of the meme, those who laughed at it and spread it around, and The Sun, for exploiting a girl’s sadness to get “hits” on their website.
There are a number of ways to view this incident. Brad O’Farrell suggests sucking it up and realizing that the Internet is going to be cruel and you just have to accept that. I completely understand where he is coming from. It can be overwhelming to fight every battle the Internet throws at you. In fact, it’s impossible. There are too many assholes given too many positions to speak their mind and collaborate with other assholes. Yes, freedom of speech means you can be a dick if you want (as commenters are quick to point out). Freedom of speech doesn’t pardon you from being a horrible human being, however.
O’Farrell is wrong for the simple reason that to “give up” is the weakest and saddest thing we as a collective society can do. He tells the mother of the meme girl that she can’t sue the Internet for its cruelty. He’s correct, of course, but he’s missing the point. If we just accept that “the Internet is going to be the Internet”, we’re giving up any degree of a higher standard. When a boy pushes a boy, we can say, “boys will be boys”. That’s an isolated incident. When we have a collective as large as the Internet, we can’t just shrug it off. That will allow those pervasive attitudes to fester and grow. Worse, it will teach people like the girl featured in the meme that there’s nothing they can do about bullying, or hate.
I’m not saying we can change people who are terrible. We can’t, and that sucks. What we can do is change the conversation, and hope to marginalize those people. As my friend Taylor Sokoll brought up, there is another incident spreading around the web involving an autistic boy who was teased by his teachers and aides. This was framed as a tragic story (which it obviously is). It allowed us to point our fingers at the teachers. There was an obvious villain, and it wasn’t us. With the down syndrome meme, the fingers would have to be pointed at ourselves. If we admit that the meme was wrong, then we are to blame. Even if we did not support or spread the joke, we are still responsible for creating an environment that let this joke exist. We may not be those teachers, but we’re the principals that didn’t check in often enough.
Unfortunately, if we continue to act as if this isn’t an issue, we’re only helping that environment to grow. I know, it’s difficult to change. But it’s also much better in the long run. A Reddit post about the Sun article featured a terrifying quantity of comments that amounted to “man, that family needs to calm down. This is the Internet.” Almost all of those comments were qualified with “not that I think this is funny”. That’s not ok. We can’t admit that there is a problem, and then say that those affected by the problem should chill because it would be too difficult to solve. The general attitude on the Internet needs to change. We can’t eliminate the assholes. What we can do, and need to do, is start calling them like we see them. As we’ve been taught, ever since we were little kids, not helping is the same as hurting. As that friend, Taylor, admitted, “Everyone is just fucked up”. I agree, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it.