Humanness is not Repellent but our Words are

Crying isn’t ugly, people aren’t toxic so what’s going on here?

Photo by Customerbox on Unsplash

Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I gasp. It’s as if someone had taken a bicycle pump to my face and inflated it with pain. My eyes are bulging out of my head in a cartoon way, two puffy pink and purple protruding golf balls, blue-green in the middle surrounded by a web of red streaks so numerous the overall effect is pink.

In popular culture, the above is a textbook ‘ugly cry.’

The term has so ubiquitous for decades even Merriam-Webster has an opinion about it: The words haven’t yet met the dictionary’s criteria for entry.

And this, to me, is a relief.

For the record, I cry, I don’t ugly cry. When I’m exceedingly upset — one of the downsides of being a human in general and a highly sensitive person who tangles with chronic depression in particular — it can transform my face into something that would make any special effects make-up artist proud.

This is a human thing, not a personal quirk. Spend some 12 hours in tears and your face will inevitably change, too, but you shouldn’t be ashamed of your own humanness even if you feel embarrassed or awkward. While I tend not to go out when I look like this, it has been unavoidable on occasion.

I’ve needed to travel back from Paris to Amsterdam after a bad night, there was no way around it, and it wasn’t sunglasses season because February in Northern Europe never is. But spending three and a half hours on a packed high-speed train with the face from hell didn’t prevent me from having an interesting conversation with my seat neighbor and another with the catering car manager when I went to get coffee.

I refuse to stigmatize human distress with a poor choice of words. On the one hand, journalism teaches you not to; on the other, compassion toward human suffering starts with how you deal with your own. Some outlets, publications, and editors enforce decency, others do not.

The quality of their output is generally not comparable.

From an editorial standpoint, attaching a value judgment to human distress is as irresponsible as it is indefensible. But unlike journalism, the internet doesn’t have a code of ethics therefore many users do not bother with such considerations despite platform guidelines. In a world when the president of the United States openly flouts social media rules as he does on twitter, it creates a laissez-faire culture of high tolerance for hatred and general obnoxiousness.

Words — as the world belatedly realized when Donald Trump began to bleed them of meaning — are power. Their purpose is always to draw someone’s attention to something and, more often than not, to react. But a culture focused on entertainment at the expense of enlightenment will use anything as the opportunity to gawk and point the finger.

Forget about dialogue, discourse, and spirited debate that might encourage intellectual growth. We prefer opinions to facts, judgment to curiosity, ignorance to open-mindedness. And buzzwords because they’re never not trending online and those who use them are desperate to cash in.

Here’s the problem: Hijacking human traits and turning them into weapons of mass communication that vilify suffering goes a long way toward reinforcing mental illness stigma. This is how we become inured to human pain and may go some way toward explaining why copy is getting more and more sensationalistic, too.

Rubbernecking doesn’t do compassion, it just consumes pain.

Ungenerous words do not yield generous societal outcomes. If words still matter, why do those that do not serve us in any way endure when they’re loaded with disgust? Over time, disgust evolves and turn into other things, like fear and anger but never acceptance. When distress is so irrepressible the dam of appearances bursts, must we really gawk and point the finger at the ‘ugly cry’?

Rubbernecking is never the kind of attention people in tears need.

This has nothing to do with political correctness, free speech, or even hurting someone’s feelings but about respecting and honoring who we are as humans, starting with who you, the person who communicates about such things, are.

We can be descriptive yet dispassionate and discerning without veering into voyeurism; we can be respectful of our own humanness and that of others but this implies some amount of reflection and critical thinking.

Those two elements are often in short supply online; it’s on us.

What to do about ‘toxic’ people though? In a financial context, toxic is the definition of a bad investment or bad asset. Applied to people however, it sounds impossibly cruel. ‘Toxic’ leaves no room for redemption, evolution, or change; ‘toxic’ leaves no room for hope. As for compassion, it remains resolutely absent.

Is this the world we want to live in, pandemic notwithstanding?

Language can stunt or promote it, depending on the words we choose to express ourselves. But first, we must decide whether we want to engage with the root cause of why we express ourselves the way we do. On an individual level, only you can know whether you respect yourself as a person. If you’ve ever described yourself as ‘toxic’ or as someone prone to the odd ‘ugly cry’, chances are you don’t, not much.

When it comes to society, the words that snowball and gain widespread acceptance mirror the zeitgeist. They’re an accurate reflection of our morals, our values. If yours do not align with ruthless and unforgiving language, why use it? If yours do not align with content that uses ruthless and unforgiving language, why even consume it?

No tears are ugly, no person is poisonous, but words can be either or both.

How about writing better ones?

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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