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When good manners flew out of the window, why did they not take some of us with them! Last week, a stranger called me fat and weird on Facebook. While those of you who hang around one of the fan pages of this column sweetly jumped to my defence, the comment, frankly, didn’t bother me. One, because I don’t really see anything wrong with being fat. Or weird. Or both. And two, because I’ve mostly followed the policy that the ones who don’t know better than to resort to personal attacks on strangers just to express a difference of opinion, are best ignored.
But then something happened that challenged my ignore-and-laugh-it-away policy. Two things happened, actually. You may have read about these two incidents in the papers but if you haven’t, let me recap for you. Balpreet, a young, Indian-origin girl studying medicine in Ohio, US, was photographed by a stranger in a shopping mall. He then uploaded the photo on a fun website, mocking the fact that Balpreet had too much hair on her face.
The photo went viral on the Internet and Balpreet’s friends told her about it. She could have chosen the seemingly obvious path of feeling hurt and angry. Instead, she shocked everyone by logging onto that website, commenting under her own pic, and in an extremely sensible manner, informing the stranger about how being a devout follower of the Sikh religion, she has made a conscious choice of not removing the hair. And how she’s proud — and not ashamed, of how she looks. Her comment got an overwhelming response and the guy who had posted her photo ended up writing a long, and well-meant apology to her.
The other incident also happened in the US, when a TV anchor and mother-of-three, Jennifer Livingstone, got a mail from a viewer where instead of commenting on the content of the show, he asked her to lose weight or not appear on TV. Jennifer surprised everyone by reading out the email on the show itself, and told the sender in so many words that he had no business passing a personal comment on her physical appearance without even knowing her or the reasons behind her weight.
Anyway, the reason why I’ve quoted these two of the many such instances is to tell you that perhaps my policy of ignoring a bully is as outdated as some people mistakenly think good manners are. When there was no Internet, bullies were found in schools, colleges and neighbourhood. They would lose in a game, and not knowing how better to hurt you, call you too fat or too short or too dark or too fair and so on. But they always ran the risk of being confronted or complained about to the teacher, or the parents. Now we have a safety wall in the Internet. In the comfort zone of anonymity and not having to face the other person, people are freely trading insults on Facebook or Twitter.
Did not like what the TV anchor said on the show last evening?… tweet about how he has lost all hair and opted for a transplant. Want to dump the girlfriend?… change the relationship status to ‘single’ and post a message about how she doesn’t look as pretty anymore (another true incident, and this led to the girl ending her life). Thrilled about technology having changed our lives, we’ve forgotten that two things haven’t changed — insults still hurt, and bad manners are bad, whether exhibited in person or over a mesh of unseen cables. Here are lessons I’ve learnt from these incidents. Hope you, too, do.
1 It’s not okay to bully – online or otherwise, a stranger or otherwise:
Do you go up to strangers in shopping malls and tell them that they are looking tacky, even if you feel they are? Do you go up to classmates or neighbours and mock at their skin colour or how fat/thin they are, even if you may joke about it privately? No, you don’t. Not just because they may slap you back, but because it is bad manners to do so. And precisely that’s why when you are sitting at a safe distance in front of a computer screen, you suddenly do not get the right to look at peoples’ profile pics and randomly fling an insulting comment their way. It is still bad manners.
2 An obvious reaction may not always be the wisest:
Anyone in Balpreet Kaur’s position would have first thought of taking legal action against a stranger posting her photo on the net without her permission. And it’s well within your rights to do so, if your privacy has been compromised. That said, I doubt if an action of that nature would have fetched anything more than the website taking her photo off and the disgruntled guy doing the same with someone else someday. But how she chose to deal with it made people sit up and take notice. And made the perpetrator feel remorseful of his actions. Sometimes in life, getting angry at an insult is less important than feeling truly proud of yourself and showing it off, calmly. Actually not sometimes, always.
3 Physical appearance is just that — an appearance:
And appearances are deceptive. Before you judge anyone on the basis of just how good or bad looking they are, do remember that someone else may be doing the same to you… and your loved ones. And it would just not feel good to even hypothetically imagine for a second that your sister is being called insulting names because of the acne on her face or your dad being called a fatso by strangers. Then why do that to anyone else? You would think there’s much more to your dad than the pot belly or the balding head. Because you know and love the person that he is. A stranger doesn’t know. And has no right to comment. Do remember that there’s always a story behind how a person looks like what he looks like. You don’t know the story, so keep your mouth shut. And even if you did, it is their story and not yours. Keep it shut, anyway.
Sonal Kalra knows about some crash diets to lose weight. Do you know of some programmes to lose weirdness?