On being … vilified

By Ingrid Sapona

News stories related to the Winter Olympics and to the Florida school shooting have left me deeply troubled this week. My concern centers on the propensity to vilify people who behave in a way that others judge – almost immediately – as improper or unacceptable.

The Olympic-related story was about Jocelyn Larocque – she’s the Canadian ice hockey player who removed the silver medal that had just been placed around her neck. After removing it, she kept it clasped in her left hand as she shook hands with the women on the winning U.S. team. While that report describes the physical action Larocque took during the medal presentation, it doesn’t talk about the look of sorrow or anguish on her face. It also doesn’t explain what might be behind her look of utter disappointment. Nope, it doesn’t say anything about Larocque’s team losing the gold as a result of a shootout. But apparently Larocque’s action was enough for many to condemn her as a bad sport, a poor loser, a bad role model, and a “disgusting athlete”.[1]

Yet when I saw the video of the medal being placed around Larocque’s neck, my heart broke for her. Truly. Though I’m no athlete and I can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to compete at that level, I can definitely understand the feeling of utter disappointment. Who can’t, I thought? Well, it didn’t take long to learn that many folks can’t. Not only that, they were quick to condemn her.

The vilification of Larocque ranged from the nasty remarks I mentioned earlier, to headlines in major newspapers that claimed she “refused” to wear her silver medal. That’s not how she behaved. She stood there solemnly as it was placed around her neck and then when the medal presenter moved to the next athlete, she quietly slipped it off. I think anyone with any compassion would see what I saw: a drained, tired competitor who had given her all and who was grieving the fact that, in the end, the effort wasn’t enough.

And then there was the horrific – yet sadly not unusual – shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead. Again, an event that I cannot personally relate to at all. Indeed, for people who live outside the U.S., the tragedy of 17 dead as a result of actions of someone who was legally able to by a gun (whether one labelled an “assault” weapon or not) is simply beyond our comprehension.

Of course, even though most Americans seem to willing overlook the obvious cause of such tragedies (guns), that doesn’t mean they don’t struggle to try to make sense of such an event. And so, in the aftermath, we’ve all come to expect talk of things like the signals law enforcement and parents missed or ignored. And these days, finger pointing is especially popular because it’s the favoured diversionary tactic of Trump, the blamer-in-chief. But people vilifying Florida sheriff deputy Scot Peterson for not taking action – in effect making him the scapegoat – is both unfair and cruel.

I can understand it when an angry, scared teenage survivor of the massacre says “shame on him” because she believes Peterson could have saved so many if he’d have gone into the school. That’s a survivor’s emotion talking – perhaps even a survivor’s guilt talking. But Trump calling Peterson a coward for not having the courage to “get in there and do something” was nothing short of disgusting to me. (On the other hand, Trump’s ridiculous statement that he would have gone in there even if he was unarmed is easy to ignore as self-aggrandizing fantasy.)

Why is it that no one seems to care about Peterson’s emotions in the aftermath? He too is a survivor of the terrible incident, yet few people seem willing to try to imagine what he might be going through. Maybe in the wake of such a tragedy, there’s only so much compassion to go around. Well, I feel for Peterson and his family – what an awful thing to have been involved in.  

I realize these stories are very different in scope and gravity. And yet, to me they both reflect an unhealthy a hardening of people’s hearts and an erosion of compassion and empathy. I hope I’m wrong… What do you think?

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona


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