Bill Buckner was an outstanding professional baseball player in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and many believe him to be worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. However, all his accomplishments on the field and in his life were eclipsed by a single incredibly horrible moment in his career, the ground ball that trickled between his legs at the end of Game 6 in the 1986 World Series. His error allowed the Mets to complete an amazing comeback victory when the Red Sox were right on the cusp of winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, and the Red Sox lost the deciding Game 7 to the New York Mets, crushing their fans.
Mr. Buckner just recently passed away, and he tried valiantly to live down what might be the most infamous gaffe in baseball history for the remaining 33 years of his life. To his credit, he bore the constant reminders of the shocking mistake with as much stoicism and grace as any human being likely could ever muster. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and services such as YouTube since 1986, later generations have been able at their leisure to relive the most painful and humiliating moment of his sporting life—again and again and again. How wonderful that must have been for him, his family, and his friends.
Given that so much of all of our lives is now available online for the edification and entertainment of the nosey and the nasty, questions about our personal privacy, the security of our data, and our increasingly shaky right to live away from the unblinking eye of pervasive surveillance become more pressing with each passing year. Privacy and discretion are rapidly becoming artifacts as quaint as 19th century high-button shoes, and we now often know far more about strangers and near strangers than is perhaps either reasonable or healthful.
Moreover, our predatory attitude toward anyone foolish enough to be a “public figure” is astoundingly cruel at times. I cannot even imagine what President Franklin Roosevelt, forced to use a wheelchair and leg braces due to polio from the 1920’s until his death, might have had to endure at the hands of his enemies in today’s mean meme world. The media once understood human decency and consideration and so avoided photographing him in his wheelchair; this type of kindness now seems beyond all imagining.
A society that has raised both voyeurism and public humiliation to a high art is likely neither the healthiest nor most functional. Although it could be reasonably argued that some of the obsessive self-revelation of early 21st century life has exposed injustices and abuses long hidden from view—the #MeToomovement and instances of police misconduct spring immediately to mind—the degradation of personal boundaries and our addiction to gawking at misery and mischief is much less laudable.
Being able to Google a celebrity sex tape or view a cell phone video of someone passed out from a drug overdose is unlikely to promote either individual dignity or social justice. Both the ready availability of this sort of this material and our evident interest in it and other scandalous and salacious fare speaks to our lack of respect and empathy for others.
The fortunes made on trafficking in the unhappiness and mistakes of others is both sad and shameful. In the old days, blackmailers used to extort money from their victims by threatening to reveal an indiscreet letter or photograph; today’s modern blackmailer simply starts a website and sells subscriptions to the scandal-hungry masses. Although making a quick buck by hawking stolen selfies and videos of some embarrassing moment might be good old-fashioned capitalist initiative at its best, the wonder is that we both allow and actively support this ugliness.
Our deeply embedded schadenfreude—our dark desire to savor the unhappiness of others—is likely to blame for much of our willingness to click on a hateful comment or watch a pratfall from respectability, but we also must recognize that the modern monetization of misery has served to extinguish boundaries of propriety and restraint that we are worse off for having lost. A society that ruthlessly extinguishes its heroes for profit also discards any possibility for higher purpose or self-sacrifice because every human thought and action is reduced to sad farce or laughable self-delusion. Even worse, a single misjudgment or misstep now has to power, thanks to the endlessly amplified echo chamber of infotainment and social media, to erase all memory of an otherwise respectable life and transform one into either a devil or a buffoon.
It is terrible that Bill Buckner’s life and professional career will be remembered for a twisting little grounder that danced past his ankles, but this is the reality that we all now face every day. Any person, anywhere, and at any time can—in but a single unguarded or unthoughtful moment—have one’s life become an object of derision or delight for the multitudes who are anxious to revel in the misfortunes of others. Is it somehow hilarious to post videos of the overstressed, overexcited, or overwhelmed? Are accidents humorous? Should we be shocked that humans sometimes make thoroughly human mistakes that seem oddly sinister when removed from their proper context?
To ask these questions is, of course, to question the business model of much of our modern media environment. To answer these questions we need to, of necessity, look within ourselves, study our own hearts, and examine our consumption of our often coarse and cruel culture today. To presume that our current reality is either permanent or desirable is wrongheaded. We have the power to choose the type of world we want to inhabit, and we can certainly find the will to wean ourselves off the drugs of choice today: scandal, sleaze, and stupidity.