Visible Humans Are Vulnerable Humans
The thrills and agonies of being a public person
I am a visible human. Perhaps you are too. I’m not talking about that small elite group of the famous or powerful, characterized by their constant media attention, lavish lifestyles or multitudes of adoring fans. I’m talking about the much larger pool of individuals that includes, among others, minor media personalities, educators, local elected officials, small business owners and church pastors all the way to high school student body presidents. These visible humans are not looking primarily for attention; in fact, they would often rather sit quietly and observe. But they can’t help it. Visibility is part of their identity, part of their jobs and part of their volunteer work. It’s where they live. It’s the skin they’re in.
What makes visible humans? Involvement. Engagement. Visible humans put themselves “out there.” They often gravitate toward positions of leadership and tend to enjoy professions and interests that put them in front of people. They take responsibility. They are usually extroverts (or at least pretend to be), and for them, visibility feels natural.
Granted, that might require, for some, a big ego or desire for power. For others, visibility might be compensation for a loss, counterbalancing a lack of love, even stemming from a deep-seated and pathological hunger for approval. But for most, I think it’s much simpler. I believe visible humans, right or wrong, feel they have something valuable to contribute, whether that means imparting helpful information and service, or simply making someone think or laugh or feel. Most visible humans appreciate being informed and entertained, and they usually like to educate and amuse others.
But visibility also leaves them open and vulnerable. Visible humans walk that precarious line of receiving public praise and appreciation one minute to being the target of harsh disapproval and criticism the next.
Since I was a little boy I knew the consequences of visibility. When I performed puppet shows for my family and the neighbors, I was thrilled when my audiences laughed, but crushed when they booed. I started a garage band that played for friends’ birthday parties and talent shows, reveling in the applause, but taking personally the sarcastic digs at my unsophisticated level of talent. In high school I participated on the debate team and acted in school plays, sometimes earning awards, but also enduring devastating critiques. Eventually I became accustomed to the yo-yo of accolades and ridicule, realizing it just came with the territory.
People are entitled to their opinions of course, and most people express them freely. If we think that a song on the radio is catchy, we encourage others to sing along. If we think an actor or actress is beautiful or talented, we unashamedly voice our praise. And if we decide that a television news anchor’s clothing is outside our concept of appropriate fashion, we don’t hesitate to say so to others in the room. If we think someone on TV is too skinny, too fat, too bald, too ugly, too made-up, too loud, too timid, too rude or too nice, we feel perfectly free to say so. But until recently we’ve been unable to say it directly to that person, and our criticism has fallen on only a few ears.
We now know the rules are different, especially for those who are accessible on social media. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram have allowed all people with computers or mobile devices to appoint themselves as the personal critics of any visible human. If they desire, they may go beyond simple criticism to release from a tiny keypad a barrage of opinionated vitriol with the poisonous power to wound anyone's self-confidence or reputation.
In fact, this type of mean-spirited condemnation toward visible people has become commonplace and expected. Since I work in television I speak from that perspective, having witnessed how freely and cruelly viewers sometimes impart their opinions to the online profiles of my colleagues, writing words directly to them that they would surely never speak out loud to their faces. Unlike the ultra-famous who can hire social media managers to filter unwanted posts, most visible humans I know read every personal comment directed toward them. They digest every piercing remark about their hairstyles, their attire, their bodies, even their choice of words. It is worst for visible women, who sometimes endure name-calling, threats, sexual harassment and the vilest of language.
I don’t believe social media has made people more opinionated or rude. But it has enabled those who are already habitually offensive and ill mannered to hide behind a thin veil of anonymity from which to spew their venom toward people they do not know. I believe these attackers would have just as little sense of dignity or self-respect even if they didn’t have an Internet connection, but their cowardice and lack of discipline are amplified by a false sense of power the online world provides.
It is difficult for me to get into the minds of such bullies, but I wish I could communicate to these offenders that even though they are not acquainted with us personally, visible humans are just as human as the people they do know. Like them, we make mistakes. Like them, we may not have the so-called "ideal" physical features some viewers might demand. Like most people, much of what we say is neither rehearsed nor scripted, so our impromptu words may not always come out the way we intend. We suffer from multiple shortcomings as do all other people on this planet, but unlike most, our gaffes and imperfections in the moment can be witnessed by thousands of others. And working in live television affords visible humans no second chances.
Some viewers understand this. In contrast to the online nitpickers who seem to demand perfection from everyone but themselves, viewers with understanding and humility recognize our desire to help and inform others. They realize that many of us would like to, if possible, please everyone. That's why the majority of visible humans, at least those not insulated by a bubble of false admirers and yes-men, usually welcome true constructive criticism; we are forever trying to improve. Unfortunately, some online offers of "helpfulness" are little more than thinly disguised insults from the most arrogant of attitudes.
This is not always the case. There is one type of criticism that most visible humans actually enjoy, and that is being on the receiving end of a good joke. I said a good joke. Most visible people like to laugh and see others laugh, even if it means others might be laughing at them. Because of my visibility, I have been on the receiving end of jokes from Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and several local radio and TV personalities. These comedians are themselves visible humans, some of whose professions center on cutting humor. Sure, the jokes may be at our expense, but criticism coming from these fellow visible humans is primarily meant to entertain, not tear people down. These are professionals who know the difference between a clever joke and an abusive insult, and they assuredly assume that the objects of their humor know the difference as well.
So I will continue to be a visible human. As a rule, the rewards outweigh the perils. I will continue to try to inform and entertain, knowing I won’t satisfy everyone. But if you decide to engage me on social media with a critique, please say only what you would say to me if we were standing face-to-face.
Or at least make me laugh.
© Nick Walker 2018
Okay, I asked for it. If you have a constructive critique (especially one that will make me laugh), scroll down and leave a comment below.
Click the video above to see David Letterman having some fun at my expense.
Click here to see Stephen Colbert poke fun at me and others at The Weather Channel (Careful, this clip from The Daily Show should be rated R.)