Anybody who's kept up with me on my site or here knows that I have a habit of defending people who say really dumb things, particularly if those dumb things were intended to get a laugh. The issue as far as I'm concerned isn't that you shouldn't expect to face criticism if you say or do something that could easily be perceived as offensive -- it's simply that, with the rise of the internet as a global forum for shaming, retribution and general piling-on, the backlash to a perceived offense is usually so loud and so organized these days that it in short order winds up being anything but a proportional response.
Case in point, America's newest internet pariah: Lindsey Stone.
If you've missed out on this "controversy" over the past few weeks let me bring you up to speed. Last month, Stone, an average citizen from Massachusetts, visited the Tomb of the Unknown soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. While there, she took a photo of herself standing next to a sign that asks visitors to observe "Silence and Respect." So far, so good -- except that Stone thought it would be a clever idea to pose as if she were yelling at the sign and flipping it off, obviously showing neither silence nor respect. Then, of course, because she's apparently possessed of a breathtaking lack of judgment, Stone decided to go home and post the picture on Facebook. The backlash was almost instantaneous.
To Stone's credit, she immediately copped to being an insensitive ass and issued what appeared to be a pretty genuine apology to those who were infuriated by the lack of respect to our fallen military members on display in the photo; she said she was making a bad joke and that no real offense was intended. That did little to quell the snowball of outrage that of course began rolling downhill immediately and which became an unstoppable force in no time at all. The picture was quickly circulated beyond the few Facebook friends she'd intended to see it, no doubt by a concerned citizen whose insatiable need to get upset over every little goddamned thing vastly outweighs his or her desire to have an actual life, and a couple of days ago came the inevitable: a Facebook page called "Fire Lindsey Stone," which aims to hector her employer, LIFE, a Cape Cod-based non-profit that helps adults with learning disabilities, into relieving her of her job. It's got more than 12,000 "likes" so far.
To read this Facebook page is to come face-to-face with the worst kind of psychotic rage the internet has to offer. There's everything from the guy who aims, I guess, to teach Lindsey Stone all about respect and understanding by calling her a "fuckin cunt"; the people posting her private phone number; the guy who says he'd be willing to "pull the trigger" on her; and of course the oodles of partisan jerks who've seized the opportunity, as they do any opportunity, to turn the whole thing into a left-vs.-right battle, with Stone obviously being a dirty liberal who doesn't love our troops with the predetermined but entirely arbitrary amount of zeal necessary to, well, avoid being called a dirty liberal.
Look, I hate to bring back another bad internet meme, but leave Lindsey alone. She did something really stupid and has apologized for it. End of story. It's nobody's God-given right, and certainly not 12,000 people's, to teach this woman a lesson that involves having her livelihood taken away just because she made a joke not everyone is going to find funny and some will find offensive. The response, as I alluded to earlier, is almost unimaginably disproportionate to the offense. I get that this is where we're at as a culture: nobody can ever be offended by anything and when we are we demand satisfaction and immediately marshal our forces via the internet, seeking out like-minded, easily inflamed morons willing to wield social media torches and pitchforks in a virtual riot. But that virtual riot has real-world consequences, and reducing a complete stranger to a single moment of bad judgment and then insisting she pay for it with her very livelihood, the thing that keeps her paying bills and rent and continuing to eat and perhaps feeding her family -- that's what's truly offensive.
A while back, a friend of mine and I were having beers on a Saturday afternoon -- probably too many, to be honest -- and, as is our nature, we decided to play a little game, the goal of which was to come up with the simplest statement or product that would conversely offend the widest swath of people. After quite a bit of back and forth, we hit on it: one of those magnetic ribbons for the back of your car that reads "Fuck the Troops." Do we really have a hatred for America's fighting men and women? No, of course not; my dad was a Navy SEAL, for Christ's sake, and I have an immense respect for him and anyone else who's served this country. The point was merely that an unwavering respect for our military has become possibly the most sacrosanct position our culture has ever produced and, strangely, agreed upon; even more than taking a shot at, say, Jesus, insulting our troops is the one line you simply don't cross, not if you want to continue feeling safe walking outside your front door. Obviously, as such, our bad joke remained just that -- a bad joke, one that never left that pitcher-cluttered table until right now. But the idea, even in our drunken state, was to shatter an oppressive taboo that had become a politically correct article of faith. Besides, there's almost always something funny about going too far.
Lindsey Stone made a bad joke, supposedly at the expensive of our troops although not really, and is now being made to pay for it in ways she probably never imagined. Her life has been turned upside down and there are people calling for her job and her head and basically threatening her life. To those people, I'd say: enough, already. You made your point. You've taught her the lesson that you believe you're entitled to teach her -- now leave her the hell alone. Go find something else to be furious about. I guarantee you won't have to look very hard.