Back before there were social media and even the Internet, Steve Goodman wrote a song called "Video Tape." Part of it went like this:
You could replay all the good parts
And cut out what you don't like
Oh wouldn't you be in good shape
If your life was on video tape.
Goodman couldn't have known how prophetic he was being. These days your life probably is on video, and somebody is posting it on Facebook or YouTube, where it might go viral.
So it was with a video showing a 13-year-old Medford boy bullying and/or joking around and/or trying to start a fight — take your pick — with 53-year-old "Downtown Dan" Doty. Viewers of the 26-second video were outraged, and they didn't hesitate to vent online, often with multiple exclamation points.
If you haven't seen the video, this seems reasonable enough. Doty, who suffered a brain injury in a childhood accident, is a well-liked figure around town, where he's often seen walking and hitting up passers-by for coffee money. That people care about him is a good thing, and it makes you feel good about your community.
But once you see the video (search for "Downtown Dan" on YouTube) you wonder about the vehemence of the reaction. The kid is acting stupid, shadowboxing with Doty in that clowning way Muhammad Ali used to do. He moves in and out. Doty calls him a name. The kid sticks out a fake punch, laughs, then says something interesting.
"I'm gonna laugh when I walk and you can't catch me," he says.
If you have bad intentions toward a guy, you don't tease him about running away from him. This is a kid who was being insensitive and knuckleheaded but not threatening.
Viewers sent the video link to the cops, who cited the boy for disorderly conduct. Lt. Mike Budreau said charges of harassment and intimidation were considered. Cooler heads must have prevailed.
One of those who think the whole thing got way overblown is Doty himself. He told a reporter it was no big deal. He and the boy often play basketball together, and he never felt harassed. He said he won't help in any prosecution of the kid. Everybody "got their panties in an uproar over nothing," he said.
What would online posters whose underthings are roaring think if they could see videos of 13-year-old boys picking actual fights, something that's not exactly rare? Imagine the reaction if a video surfaced of young Mitt Romney cutting that guy's hair while Mitt's friends held him down.
In a few days people will find something else to be outraged about, Downtown Dan still will be walking peaceably around town, and the kid will face the music, probably without becoming the next Charles Manson.
But the notion of bullying is a hot button right now. Southern Oregon University sociologist Echo Field says it's not surprising people framed the incident that way.
"Not boys-will-be-boys," she said, "but bullying somebody who's vulnerable."
Field pointed to the bullied school bus driver in another video that went viral, an incident that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. Influenced by such stories, people tend to see bullying where they may not have in the past.
"It's hurtful, mean," is how she describes posters' take on the kid.
"He's (Doty) one of us, and it's not what we want our community to be."
But that doesn't mean throwing the book at somebody.
"Simply retaliating by trying to bully the bully is not productive," Field says. "It just ratchets up the cycle of violence. What needs to happen is restorative justice. He needs to build empathy, understand the consequences of his actions, what seemed like fun at the moment ... .
"I'd be concerned for him if he has a pattern of bullying in other settings."
What about the venom directed at the kid? In part, that's a function of the anonymity of the online world. Our ferocity increases directly with distance. Somebody who's polite and understanding on foot might just pull a gun on you in traffic. The online world is more like the traffic world.
And there's something else.
"Our tendency to objectify people we define as 'other,' " Field says. "People are objectifying him (the kid), and that's also problematic. ... Objectification is very dangerous. There's a context for what happened. It's the shootings in Colorado, bullying, the tendency of us to relate to each other as objects."
There's even the incivility of today's politics, with the "other" being portrayed as irredeemably evil.
"Being angry and mean is an art form now," Field says.
Online flame jobs also go hand-in-hand with the dumbing down of America as seen online, reflected in a few of the actual headlines on a popular news site the day I'm writing this (Friday):
- Woman fired over how she smells
- Werewolf syndrome is a real condition
- What to order at sit-down chain restaurants
Read enough crap like that and you'll be ready to lynch somebody, too.
A final thought. How quaint does Andy Warhol's 15-minutes-of-fame prediction sound? The videos posted by anonymous Everymen on Facebook and other sites now have a half-life of approximately forever.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to email@example.com.