Consider a few recent news stories. Then ask yourself how each one made you feel.
The first is a Utahjazz.com report about former Jazz guard Deron Williams, who met with former coach Jerry Sloan at Sloan’s house during the summer and apologized for the way he acted when he was with the team.
Sloan retired from coaching suddenly back in 2011 after a simmering feud between the two men climaxed during halftime of a game. He left the next day, and the team traded Williams a few days later.
Now, Williams’ NBA career is over and Sloan’s health is declining. Writer Aaron Faulk quotes Williams as saying what happened that week “has always hung over my head and affected me.” So he apologized to the coach multiple times.
The second story involves a man on a New Jersey transit train who decided to shave, with lather and a razor, while sitting in his chair, gobs of shaving cream falling around him.
Someone nearby recorded him with a phone, and soon the shave was viewed more than 2 million times on Twitter by people hurling insults and accusations, including that he was a “dumb drunk.”
As NPR reported, no one bothered to learn anything about this man or the context of what they were seeing. They would have discovered he had just spent several days in a homeless shelter and was on his way to stay with a brother. A series of strokes had made it hard for him to get work. And, as his brother told NPR, he often lacks the ability to think about the consequences of his actions.
Just for fun, let’s throw in a couple more. In one, a woman noticed former "Cosby Show" actor Geoffrey Owens working as a cashier at Trader Joe’s. CBS said the woman sent a photo to The Daily Mail saying, “Wow, all those years of doing the show and you ended up as a cashier.”
In another, a man noticed a Burger King worker sleeping on a cardboard box outside the restaurant during a break. He turned on his phone, then recorded himself waking her up and berating her with a multitude of expletives, which he posted to Facebook.
An inc.com account of this said the woman is a teacher working several jobs to pay off student loans.
So, how do you feel?
Maybe you weren’t sure you liked Deron Williams when he left the Jazz. Do you feel differently now?
Do you feel differently about the transit shaver knowing his story? Does a job at Trader Joe’s make you feel differently about the "Cosby" star? How about the teacher who has to work so hard she never gets enough sleep?
Perhaps more importantly, how do you feel about the people who try to get a viral reaction by posting things out of context online?
These are important questions in a world where any of us is a faux pas away from instant infamy. But they go beyond that. They reach back to ancient questions about whether we ever are justified in passing judgment on others without an array of facts and more than a dash of empathy.
As the inc.com writer, Bill Murphy Jr., put it, “We reward people now for their social media prowess. The entire influencer industry is based on it.” That’s a reward system in which people seek to enhance themselves by belittling others.
Jon Ronson, author of the book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” told relate.zendesk.com that he thinks our world of instant and catastrophic judgment is also losing something important.
“I guess what I've learned is that when you're curious and open and empathetic and compassionate, great things happen,” he said. “It's like opening doors into amazing new worlds.
“When you're instantly condemning and judgmental, nothing happens because it just slams doors closed.”
On social media, he said, everyone is either a hero or a villain. Life’s many facets, vagaries, gray areas and odd inconsistencies are lost.4 comments on this story
Science bears him out. Studies have shown that people who forgive enjoy better health than those who harbor grudges. Also, learning to become more empathetic can reduce stress. Imagine how an empathetic response to these incidents might have changed things.
I included Deron Williams not just because he seems to have learned these lessons, but also because many people treat athletes, as well as politicians, as though they are somehow different from other humans, and therefore fair game.
If you don’t believe that, just look at some of the nasty comments people have posted to stories of his apology.
How does that make you feel?