The Toxic Lure of Instant Celebrity

I have had trouble sleeping after reading about the incident where a group of young teenaged boys willfully assaulted a 26 year old man with intellectual disabilities, all-the-while the man pleading, “What have I done?” Over the years, we have produced many stories featuring people with intellectual disabilities. The first one was several years before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. It was a short film about a Group Home for adult men with intellectual disabilities, then a new concept. It’s easy to remember the spirit, pride and absolute joy these men demonstrated, given the opportunity to live independently in a real home. You know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? The stuff we all want? The stuff most of us take for granted?

We have captured multiple scenes over the years of people with profound physical and intellectual disabilities doing things like racing down zip lines through really tall trees, galloping on horseback, creating artwork by swinging over canvasses with paint on their feet…singing, acting, writing poetry, playing sports, the kind of stuff that “Bucket Lists” are made of, not to mention being engaged in gainful employment. Most recently, we produced a story about a group of college-age people receiving their diplomas from a special program offered through the Center for Disability Studies at the University of Delaware. It was a weighty accomplishment for these young people, some of whom had never navigated a bus route. It took guts and they did it.

Of course until we get the opportunity to know people up close and personally, especially those who are in any way different from ourselves, it is easier to presume, to stereotype, and in the worst cases, to marginalize them. Add to that ignorance, gross immaturity and the toxic lure of instant celebrity afforded by social media, and you get what apparently happened: a cowardly act of cruelty perpetrated by a group of kids completely out of touch with their own humanity, and validated, at least initially, by hundreds of anonymous page views. Instant celebrity!

I taught a course in screenwriting at Delaware State University in which I asked students to consider the notion of celebrity vs. hero in creating original characters and plotlines for their scripts, the “me” vs. “we”. By far, the young writers opted to create heroic characters and storylines in which protagonists chose to act for the greater good. Imagine, after watching countless hours of mindless television programming and You Tube videos featuring vapid people doing vapid things, they took the high road!

The boys who beat and humiliated the defenseless man had to know that what they did was in every way wrong. Interestingly, the same social media that delivered their short lived celebrity, led to their condemnation and ultimate identification. Apparently, many more of their peers were disturbed rather than entertained by this gutless incident. Bravo for now, but there is no guarantee. Yep, the media is the message, and the more outrageous and, or grievous it is, the more page views are accumulated that translate into instant celebrity and ultimately cash…for somebody.

Maybe it will all implode one day but for now I say we use it. In the case of the boys who so gleefully publicized their cruel acts, give them a huge dose of service learning wherein they WORK with and for any of the established organizations in our state who support and serve people with disabilities. They will quickly become educated and hopefully regain their humanity. Next, have them create and post a new You Tube video–one that celebrates the day-to-day achievements of people from our statewide disability community. They might not achieve celebrity but they’d be heading more toward the heroic. Are you with me, friends?

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About Sharon Baker

Sharon Baker’s creative expertise and life long interest in advancing social justice through critical storytelling have been the driving forces behind TELEDUCTION's success since its expansion to film and television in 1982. Expert in the art of the interview, she has documented the struggles and achievements of people in neighborhoods throughout the US, and in settings in Africa, China, Central America and elsewhere, tapping into the humanity of her subjects from the powerless…to Presidents. Her titles include Cartoons Go to War, Whispers of Angels, With All Deliberate Speed: Brown v. Board, Estamos Aqui and Why I Write. TELEDUCTION programs have been broadcast via American Public Television, The History Channel, The BRAVO Network, National Geographic Worldwide, and are in educational distribution throughout the US. Sharon’s extensive experience as a producer, director, writer and photographer has netted her prestigious industry awards Emmys, National Gabriel, bronze and silver Chris Awards) and Palm D’Or at distinguished Film Festivals, including the Heartland International Film Festival(2011).
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