Thursday, November 10, 2011

Joe Paterno, Ashton Kutcher, and Some Hope in the Distance

I have been disgusted by the Penn State riots over Joe Paterno's firing. Judging from some of the comments I saw in my Facebook feed, some of the people reading this might not share my disgust. While I think you are entitled to your opinion, I do not understand it.

The man covered up a rape, and by not reporting what he knew--which was part of his job, but also part of being a decent human being--he allowed rape to continue. I would say more on this, but plenty of people have already done a great job of it. Not to mention, looking at those pictures of Penn State students overturning media vans as they riot over the decision depresses the hell out of me and makes me sad for humanity. So I'm going to look for a more hopeful perspective instead.

And what do you know, here's Ashton Kutcher, ready to provide me with an opportunity.

See, Ashton Kutcher shared the perspective (at least the general basis of the idea) with those Penn State rioters. And, because Ashton Kutcher won the Twitter war, he had a really powerful tool at his disposal. Kutcher didn't need to overturn vans. He could simply sit down and type a few words.

Kutcher--who uses his celebrity status (and his Twitter account) to campaign against sex trafficking--immediately faced the ire of an enraged Twitter-verse. So much so that he has announced he will hand over control of his Twitter account to Katalyst Media. 

Clearly--like Paterno himself--if Kutcher had been able to see the backlash that would result from his actions, he probably would have done something differently. But there's a difference between citing "hindsight" because you've actually learned something over time and using it to wish you'd never been caught. In this case, both Paterno and Kutcher had all of the information (or at least the opportunity to get all of the information--if Kutcher decided to tweet this without reading a news story, that's his fault). Paterno made a choice not to inform the authorities about the rape. Kutcher made a choice to voice this opinion. Paterno now faces the consequences of his decision: dismissal from his job. Kutcher now faces the consequences of his: backlash over the very social media site that helped him become popular in the first place. 

For both men, the severity of the consequences are tied up in their positions of power. Paterno's conduct (while it still would have been equally damaging) would not have been the source of public attention if he'd been, say, a janitor who had knowledge about the rape. It is precisely because of his power and privilege that his actions are in the spotlight. And there's not much different between what Ashton Kutcher said and what some of my acquaintances said on Facebook, but my acquaintances don't have 8 million Twitter followers. Kutcher used this platform to build up his celebrity, and now he is blaming that very success for the reaction he faces. 

On his blog, Kutcher posted this: 
It seems that today that twitter has grown into a mass publishing platform, where ones tweets quickly become news that is broadcast around the world and misinformation becomes volatile fodder for critics.
He goes on to say that he didn't know why Paterno was fired, and he assumed it was because of "poor performance as an aging coach." While I'm obviously not inside of Kutcher's head, I find that hard to believe. And even if it's true, it doesn't excuse not taking the time to read an article or finish listening to the newscast before spouting off about it to 8 million people on Twitter.

As Gizmodo explains (with some colorful language):
You weren't "spreading gossip or rumors" through your Twitter feed. There was no "misinformation." You were voicing an opinion that turned out to be unpopular. Now, you may have been ill-informed about why Paterno was out, but you weren't spreading misinformation. He really was gone. You just said something stupid and got shit all over in response. And so now you want to take your ball and go home? It's an easy and cowardly thing to do.
Here's the hope part I promised I'd get to.

Kutcher is facing backlash because power and privilege do not have the protective isolation that they once did. Ashton Kutcher faces direct feedback from millions of people across the world. I am appalled by the fact that these rapes were covered up and ignored. I am mournful for the pain and psychological turmoil those boys faced.

And I am hopeful that there are plenty of people in the world who aren't going to nod complacently just because someone with power tells them they should. When the Joe Paternos of the world come forward and self-assuredly announce their retirement without ever acknowledging the wrong they've done, when the Ashton Kutchers of the world shoot off quick remarks because they think their fan base is full of mindless drones, when people with power think that they are buffered from the raw emotion and very real consequences of the world they act in, we can do something about it.

And that is why, even as I stare in confusion at those images of rioters, I still have some hope.

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