Friday, August 2, 2019

Tom Brady "scandal" demonstrates once again how something isn't right with social media

It's a story that has become all too prevalent. In what, for my money, might be the most uninteresting video ever to capture national attention (worthy of the Boring Vacation Slides Hall of Fame, for sure), New England Patriots QB Tom Brady and his 6-year-old daughter Vivian are seen standing hand-in-hand, looking over a small waterfall cascading into a greenly idyllic Costa Rican pool, like something out of Jurassic Park. Father and daughter count to three and then, together, jump into the water below.

Brady shared the video on Instagram, but instead of "the crowd goes wild", social media went apoplectic. Thousands of digital voices (or maybe just dozens shrieking like thousands) instantaneously became a collective parenting expert, social worker, police officer, judge, juror and executioner. Working with an alarmingly precise synchronicity worthy of the technology that allows them to do it at all, they rushed to disapprove, denounce, discourage and disavow, while making sure to avail themselves of the opportunity to explain why (which is really the only thing that matters to most of them). The haters, the naysayers, the trolls, what comedian Bill Maher has called the "professionally outraged", have unprecedented influence nowadays, thanks to social media. Each and every one of Tom Brady's 6.3 million Instagram followers can share this video with their own followers after slathering their outrage all over it like spicy mayo on a sushi roll (👎), and then those people can do the same. It's a true phenomenon of this day and age that isn't leading anywhere good and is not the least bit necessary. Outside of those rare events that actually shape our society's path, determine our future as a species, nothing that happens on this Earth - nothing - deserves 6.3 million things said about it, or even 6.3 million people knowing about it.  Absolutely fucking nothing.

Social media is like a lame pyramid scheme for opinions. I don't buy that it represents a majority of people, or that, despite the numbers that may or may not be involved, it's an accurate barometer of what people really think, collectively or individually. Just as people don't act real when they know cameras are rolling (rendering the term "reality TV" the ultimate misnomer), people stop being honest or judicious, place no value whatsoever on being informed or temperate in their response, when they know they can remain anonymous, or at least not have to look anyone directly in the eyes. Yet, for some reason, our legitimate news outlets have started picking up on social media's bullshit outrage and turning it into news, reporting on it, as though it's an "influencer" itself (instead of just a smoldering ash heap of kneejerk, and largely unoriginal, or at least poorly thought-through, opinions), and now, non-events like this Tom Brady business share space with vastly more important stories of the day: goings-on in the Trump White House, North Korea testing missiles, blistering heat across Europe, Greenland not so white anymore.

The source of the outrage? In the short video, Brady's daughter appears to balk at the last second, right when they're about to jump, and then it appears that, keeping hold of her hand, Brady pulls her into the water with him. 

Bad choice, Brady. According to Inside Edition, one aghast Instagram user chimed in, "OMG! How irresponsible was that...poor baby, she wasn't even ready to jump."

Okay, but do we know that for sure? And really, does it matter?

To shore up any credibility it might still have (or believe it should be trying to hold onto), Inside Edition consulted someone from Aquatic Safety Research Group...(??)...an expert who deposited a quarter's worth of opinion into the feisty little air pump keeping this inflatable story upright, explaining that Vivian "could have slid down the rock wall and been severely injured."

There was some notable celebrity outrage too, as the story became entrenched in the national dialogue. In addition to the predictably innumerable Internet trolls, forever pa-troll-ing in search of something to log their disapproval over, The Rock chimed in, and Brett Favre. Dwayne Johnson said the video gave him anxiety. Favre gave Tom Brady a thumbs down for parenting.

Yeahhh...fuck off?

Why celebrities...really, why anyone, but especially those who are already in the public eye and subject to merciless scrutiny of their professional work...open themselves up to on-line shaming this way, in addition to sometimes taking part in it, I cannot understand. If I were a celebrity, instead of just another Internet blowhard giving his opinions (and telling The Rock to fuck off from behind the safety of my computer monitor!), I would never share anything personal. I'd rarely bother to share anything, because there's no winning with social media.  If Brady had been at an amusement park, and posted video of his daughter eating cotton candy with a big smile on her face, there would have been outrage over the sweets he was allowing her to consume. If he were at a stable, documenting her first horseback ride, rest assured, his Instagram page would be crawling with trolls rushing to point out everything he or his daughter was doing wrong, everything they should have been doing but weren't. If he had thought to share footage of her first bicycle ride without training wheels up and down the fucking driveway, God help him if she wasn't wearing a helmet.

I'm not suggesting bike helmets are not important, especially for kids, or that any child (or anyone) should eat too much sugar, or that there's not a right and wrong way to ride a horse, but postings of every day moments of glory, which in the most basic sense is what social media was designed for - the quick share of little moments that aren't so little (first times...fun vacations...red letter dates of all sort....but NOT what you had for fucking lunch today!) - can too easily get slaughtered systematically by people with a lot of time on their hands. Maybe people have always been that way. Opinions have always been like assholes, after all. But for most, until recently, those opinions never found their way out of the kitchen, or the bar, or the diner, where they were first expressed to a small group of acquaintances or family, or maybe just the stranger sitting across the way who was only half listening, and not really giving a shit. Now, fueled by dozens, and then hundreds, and then potentially thousands of people chiming in, pretending to give a shit even if they really don't, and then getting picked up by legitimate news agencies and reconstituted into a little filler story that has its roots in "fact", opinions can gain traction, become viral overnight, and go worldwide.

This phenomenon sets the bar excruciatingly low for what deserves a whiff of our attention. But moreover, rarely does social media even leave room for reality. I've already seen the Tom Brady video referred to as a "cliff diving incident". The first Google result that pops up if you type in Tom Brady, followed by the letter c, is "Tom Brady cliff jumping with his daughter", which, I'm sorry, is grossly misleading. There was no cliff. There was no deep drop-off. It was 15 or 16 feet from where they stood down to the water. Yes, there were rocks, and the potential for something hazardous to be lurking below the surface. And yes, the water is rushing, and the girl is only six. And yes, it does appear she balked at the last minute.

But come on, my childhood was full of rocks and rushing water and trees and shit that could hurt me, replete with near misses that remained near misses because there was never any real clear and present danger to begin with, just the potential for something to happen, which, try as some might, can never be avoided. It's a messy, messy business being a kid, a messy, messy business raising kids, an exercise in imperfection, picking your way around a steady cavalcade of "near misses".

And why are we not giving Brady a little credit? He's in his 40s, and arguably one of the greatest (if not the greatest) NFL quarterbacks ever to play the game. Meaning, he's a proven team leader, an asset, an entity, he's got his shit together, et cetera, blah-blah-blah. Are we to presume he gave no thought whatsoever to assessing the risks of a jump with his six-year-old daughter?

And the little girl was fine! After hitting the water, she came back up immediately, and can be seen swimming. She's not flailing spastically, not splashing and screaming, choking on water and crying, "Why did you do that Daddy!?"

She's just swimming. Perfectly fine.

To my knowledge, Brady has not yet issued an apology or explanation, and I hope he never does. I'm not a fan of the New England Patriots or of Brady as such (outside of recognizing his supreme talent in the game), but I will defend his right to live his life with his family, and to share little moments of that life as he did, charitably, without having every fucking move he makes scrutinized.

The argument has been made that if Brady had let go of Vivian's hand and jumped by himself, she might then have slipped and slid down the rock face, and truly injured herself. Fair point. And I think there's a deeper lesson to be learned here: if kids are always allowed to balk, if they're never "forced" (and I use that term loosely) to do something, they will stand atop that metaphorical ledge, staring down at the churning water, unable to collect and marshal their misgivings, wondering and worrying about everything they can't see that might potentially hurt them, and never jump once in their lives.