Don’t be Big Brother

The most unlikable guy I’ve ever known used to frequent a dive bar I tended. From 5-7 pm the clientele was mostly blue collar guys, primarily consisting of roofers who had no idea that tip was a verb. After they cleared out, the place was up for grabs. My friends might stop in or young people grabbing cheap beers on their way out on the town. As the night wore on, however, the place became a No Man’s Land of boozers, street kids, crack heads, and homeless that had walked out of the pages of a Bukowski story. This bar has made me appreciate every job I’ve had since I walked through its doors on my last day.

The fact that one guy manages to be the most unlikable of all the characters I dealt with is almost dubiously impressive, like being told by Hunter Thompson that he can’t keep up with your drinking.

His most distinguishing feature was a cigarette burn in the middle of an already inadvisable mustache. He was pure asshole; and he played the part well. He would badger me (or others) for money to have another drink even though he never once tipped me, he went on racist rants against his sister’s boyfriend, who had more integrity in his little finger than this guy would ever possess. He was married and had four children to four other women, a fact which he explained scientifically by pointing out that he’d spent his youth “young, dumb, and full of come.” I’m guessing that most who knew him wished he’d remained the latter.

He came in three nights a week to rendezvous with his mistress. He’d stay until his money was gone, spending it on beer, Yukon Jack, and, as he still does in my darkest nightmares, the jukebox. When he’d saunter over and slip those coins in, I knew what was coming next: In the Ghetto by Elvis Presley.

And he sang. Like sang sang. Like drunk Elvis impersonator doing karaoke sang. He’d shut his eyes, stand in the corner, let out a breath as if tantalizing a stadium of people, and then he’d poke a finger into the air and start out about a child born on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’, and he wouldn’t stop until the song was done and I was climbing into the sink holding the radio. He’d then come back to his stool, breathing heavily and triumphant, to reap the spoils of his success in a heated make out session with his mistress.

If he is still pulling this act today, there is a 100% chance that a video of his shenanigans is floating virally around the internet. And as much as I dislike this person, I would detest this. Telling stories about a guy is one thing, videoing him and making him a viral idiot is quite another.

Yesterday I came across a video on Facebook featuring an obnoxious teen having an equally obnoxious conversation in a McDonald’s. Had I been there, I would have rolled my eyes, made a comment to my companion, and sighed in irritation. But I think that videoing her is taking it over the line. She is an obnoxious teen; please raise your hand if you never acted obnoxiously as a teen. Right.

Teens are allowed to be obnoxious, just as people in bars are allowed to act like idiots or indulge in their dream of being Elvis on stage in Memphis. People are allowed to be fat in public, wear crazy get-ups, and even be jerks at times without being doomed to permanent internet infamy.

But our modus operandi these days is to capture social transgressions and share them online. Here’s someone making an ass of themselves, video and post. There’s a fat woman at Walmart, a drunk girl passed out on the floor of a pub’s bathroom, snap a pic and upload on Instagram. There’s a guy in an argument with a cashier at Costa Coffee, what a jerk, video and express outrage.

The next time you are considering doing this, take a moment and think of a time when you acted foolishly and then imagine it recorded on the internet for your permanent humiliation. Because every one of us has those moments. No doubt there are bartenders who can tell stories about my drunken idiotic pub antics.

We always imagine Big Brother to be a faceless governmental committee with a vaguely jargoned title. The People’s Monitor. The Board of Correct Public Activity. But it’s not; it’s us. And why? We aren’t inherently bad. I can’t picture anyone I know personally nonchalantly deciding to humiliate someone or ruin their life. But every day we are getting more desensitized to feelings and less capable of humane empathy.

We are talking about real people, folks. Yes, even people belittling a Costa Coffee employee deserve the benefit of the doubt. You (nor I, for that matter) have any context on the people involved or what has happened to them recently. They aren’t stock characters in a Dickens story, they are human beings with families, coworkers, and friends. For all we know the guy flying off the handle at a Costa Coffee has had the worst day of his life. Maybe my obnoxious bar customer was hiding for a while from his unhappy life and relished those evenings as pleasant. I hope he’s at least started listening to another song.

No matter what we think about some people’s actions or behavior, we should think about them more as people and not as walking barrels of potential entertainment. And if we can start doing that I think we might have a chance.

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