The Internet can be a very mean place. But it can also lead us to grace.
The dichotomy of meanness and grace was recently displayed on the website reddit.com. The backstory goes like this: A man was waiting in line at airport security. He spotted Balpreet Kaur, a young woman who is a baptized Sikh and a student at Ohio State University. The man surreptitiously took out his phone, positioned the camera, and while Balpreet looked away, he took her picture. Then he posted it to Reddit’s humor section, called r/funny, with the caption, “i’m not sure what to conclude from this.” The picture quickly went viral and people made demeaning comments about Balpreet’s appearance.
What was “humorous” about Balpreet’s appearance? She has facial hair.
It’s a classic example of Internet scapegoating. The original poster, whose reddit username was “european_douchebag,” (Seriously! You couldn’t make that up!) wanted to invite his Reddit community to join him in demeaning Balpreet’s appearance, and his community was happy to join. Balpreet became their scapegoat. As the picture went viral, people began posting degrading comments about her. They accused her of being ugly, and in that accusation they began to feel a sense of their own beauty.
But scapegoating always provides a false sense of beauty. Scapegoating boils down to this: We know that we are “beautiful” by comparing ourselves with someone else that we consider “ugly.” Unfortunately, scapegoating in this way can be seen throughout human cultures. Every culture has arbitrary standards of beauty that lead to scapegoating. When our sense of beauty is based on these arbitrary standards, it leads us into the trap of scapegoating. This is the trap that “european_douchebag” and his community fell into, and it is a trap that we all fall into. Until someone has the sense to pull us out.
And that’s exactly what Balpreet did. A Facebook friend informed her about the picture on Reddit. After she found the image and read through some of the comments, she posted her own response to her image and the demeaning comments:
Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture. I actually didn’t know about this until one of my friends told on facebook. If the OP [original poster] wanted a picture, they could have just asked and I could have smiled However, I’m not embarrassed or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positive] that this picture is getting because, it’s who I am. Yes, I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will. Just as a child doesn’t reject the gift of his/her parents, Sikhs do not reject the body that has been given to us. By crying ‘mine, mine’ and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a separateness between ourselves and the divinity within us. By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello. I appreciate all of the comments here, both positive and less positive because I’ve gotten a better understanding of myself and others from this. Also, the yoga pants are quite comfortable and the Better Together t-shirt is actually from Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that focuses on storytelling and engagement between different faiths. I hope this explains everything a bit more, and I apologize for causing such confusion and uttering anything that hurt anyone.
Balpreet’s response was so powerful. It nearly brought me to tears for two reasons. First, Balpreet has a strong sense of her own beauty. She knows her beauty is not dependent upon arbitrary cultural standards. Rather, her beauty is dependent upon something else: The “Divine Being” that has made her body beautifully sacred – and has made everyone’s body beautifully sacred.
The second reason that my 33 year old eyes nearly teared up was that because Balpreet believes in the sacredness of all human bodies, she broke the cycle of scapegoating. Now, I could easily understand if she responded to “european_douchebag” with her own resentful meanness by saying, “your username is appropriate, you freakin’ jerk!” But if she did, she would simply be imitating “european_douchebag” in defining her own goodness against his meanness. Fortunately, Balpreet didn’t imitate him. Instead, she imitated the “Divine Being” who doesn’t reject any body, but rather makes all bodies beautifully sacred. Even the body of a man with the username “european_douchebag.”
Here’s where the story gets even better – her gracious response softened his heart. He actually imitated her response by responding with a gracious apology on his Reddit account:
I know that this post ISN’T a funny post but I felt the need to apologize to the Sikhs, Balpreet, and anyone else I offended when I posted that picture. Put simply it was stupid. Making fun of people is funny to some but incredibly degrading to the people you’re making fun of. It was an incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant thing to post.
When we imitate someone else’s meanness by responding with our own meanness, it only hardens both our hearts and makes us all mean. Fortunately for us, Balpreet is focusing her “life on creating change and progress for this world.” That change and progress is the courage to end the cycle of scapegoating. We learn from her that when we respond to scapegoating with the spirit of grace and forgiveness, believing in our own sacredness and the sacredness of the other, then our hearts can soften and we have the chance for a better imitation – the imitation of grace.
– by Adam Ericksen
I explored this dynamic of “the imitation of grace” also, in an earlier post. Click here for “Turn the other cheek.”