Yesterday, Toronto mayor Rob Ford once again made headlines as the subject of a viral video. This new one sees him standing in some kind of fast food establishment. He is ranting incoherently, in some kind of accent, possibly Jamaican, and gesticulating wildly with his hands. It is amusing in a tragic sort of way, or maybe I should say, in a Rob Ford sort of way:
I’d like to invite you to imagine that you are Rob Ford. No, wait, come back! I do not feel sorry for Rob Ford. He needs to immediately resign his mayoralty, go to a rehabilitative facility, and never come back. I would not ask you to feel sorry for Rob Ford. It’s mostly that Rob Ford is giving me occasion to raise a question I’ve wanted to for some time.
What this video does for me, on some level, is raise a fear I find is growing in me lately. The fear is related to the observation that, on a very, very abstract level, we are all Rob Ford. That is to say, we are all people whose lives are potentially filmable for wide ridicule. That’s because into every person’s daily life a few moments of bare ridiculousness must come. And these days, if that ridiculousness happens anywhere in the vicinity of a smartphone, it’s viewed as open season.
There is a scale to things, yes. Not every 3 AM ranting drunk has the potential for virality within him. It is actually important for the public to know that Rob Ford is potentially a drunk and/or drug addict, and therefore one feels an exception attaches to his own case. But we all know it isn’t limited to that.
Not all of this kind of filming is deliberately cruel, either, or calculated to humiliate. But photographs and their meanings have always had a way of getting away from us. And so the insidious creep of the impulse to photograph people in states of metaphorical undress often ends up being cruel even when not intended that way.
But I feel the creep myself.
Example: Yesterday, in the midst of the New York snowstorm, I was walking down Broadway to get lunch. Three men who obviously did not have the kind of comfortable indoor employment situation I do were carrying a giant neon sign down the street that read “OMG.” It was a spectacle even I wanted to preserve. I reached instinctively for my phone, and then I noticed there were three or four people already posed with their cameras, framing landscape photographs. Some of them stopped dead in a snow-blown but busy street to ensure they’d capture the whole thing at the right angle.
The men, meanwhile, huffed and puffed on. No one asked their permission. I’m not even sure I’d have felt better about it if they’d agreed. For the people on the street they may have constituted a hilarious spectacle; to themselves, they were men trying to get paid and go home. But they were in public, and these days, being in public means, for some people, that you are definitionally on display. Is that really just OK with everyone?