Sometimes, I go for the easy joke and the appreciative chuckle. I have the impish humor of the Irish and the raucous appreciation for farce of the Italians. It’s hard to escape the siren call of laughter. Unfortunately, when it comes at someone else’s expense, without a very good reason, it isn’t worth reading. Let me correct that: It’s worth one quick glance, and then you can discard the contents from your mind.
On the other hand, columns that examine the human condition with both compassion and pragmatism can, with humor, make a lasting impression. So I’m going to start all over again, take a topic I broached last week with casual and biting sarcasm, and try to make something worthwhile of it. I owe it to myself, to the subject, and to you, the readers.
When I wrote last week about Colleen Campbell, I was coming from a place of outrage. I still feel that outrage when I watch the video clip of the former television broadcaster making vile and suggestive comments to a patient police officer. Nothing about those moments, captured by an amazed and opportunistic comic on a public street, makes me feel proud of my race, my gender or the quality of my city’s schools. (Oops, easy humor, gotta watch that.)
I think one of the reasons I was so repulsed by what I saw, and wrote about it with the nerve endings still tingling, was because I’ve seen displays like that in my own life. I don’t drink very much, which I suppose is an anomaly for this Italian-Irish chick, but I have a lot of experience with people who do (or did). Sometimes, they held their liquor well, and other times they were mean, vicious, bordering on the barbaric. Campbell gave me a flashback to the other times I’ve seen people make fools of themselves, and I suppose I found a way to get back at them through her. I’m not saying she didn’t deserve the criticism. I’m just saying I should have been more honest in explaining why I had such a visceral reaction to a drunken woman badgering a gentle cop.
But I should have also used that column to talk about barbaric acts of a different sort, and I missed that chance. I won’t miss it now. After my column appeared, a friend of Campbell’s reached out to me with a long, heartfelt, critical email about the column. It wasn’t preachy or filled with hateful language like so many of the emails I get on a regular basis. It was filled with sound reasoning, as well as an invitation to consider what life was like for Campbell in the wake of the “scandal.”
She apparently has been hounded by people (like me, but worse than me) with attacks on her character, her looks, her education, her reputation and everything that matters to a person on the cusp of their prime. Some of the attacks mentioned sexual violence. It wasn’t enough that she lost two jobs in the space of one evening. She essentially was forced to go into hiding in a place that, I cleverly noted, was reachable only by SEAL Team Six. I was probably not too far off on that assumption.
I should have considered that the blowback from that video would have mammoth repercussions on Campbell, because I’ve tasted the bitter bile from anonymous voyeurs myself. I’ve written this column for almost 15 years, and in a liberal city such as Philadelphia that means 15 years of unprintable comments, poisonous emails, threats to my safety, threats to others and suggestions of violence. I deleted most of them, but there is a file folder where I’ve kept both the email addresses and the contents of some of the most repulsive responses. The internet is a virtual catacomb, where the skeletons of human decency line the damp, mildewed walls. There are some beasts out there. (They visited again this week.)
Last week, with my column on Campbell, I inadvertently gave meat to those beasts in an attempt to find black humor in a humorless situation. A woman made a fool of herself, and was caught on camera committing career suicide. Instead of commenting on the foolishness of her acts and saying, “There but for the grace of God go I,” I managed to exploit her predicament for what I still believe was a cleverly written piece that got shared on Facebook many times (yay, me!) and got me a lot of snarky mileage with readers who were also disgusted with Campbell’s antics.
But I should have gone further. I should have said she might have deserved to lose her job and be ridiculed for her lapse in judgment, but she didn’t deserve to be served up to the hounds of hell. Social media has an awesome, awful power, and the person who enjoys its destructive force today from a safe perch on the outside might be crushed by it tomorrow.
And that’s no laughing matter.
Christine Flowers, an immigration lawyer, can be heard from 8 to 11 p.m. Sundays on WPHT-AM (1210).