An acquaintance recently referred to me in a discussion about limb-lengthening on a Tumblr page. Having heard about my medical experiences from mutual friends, he insinuated that I may have been forced into it, reported the procedure is used to make people with dwarfism “look normal” and dismissed it as therefore morally wrong.
Around the same time that week, The New York Times featured a discussion regarding whether the Internet’s contributions to political discourse are always productive under the headline, “Fighting War Crimes, Without Leaving the Couch?” The Internet itself is so multi-faceted it undoubtedly does as much good as harm. Like all media, it has both cerebral and shallow corners. And, as the Times piece reveals, there is a fine line between slacktivism and activism. But the recent trend toward microblogging—Tweets, Facebook status updates, Tumblr—for political discussions is rife with problems. For every productive comments thread I’ve read, there are conversations that never evolve beyond slogans, sneering, choir-preaching, or kneejerk reactions with most information based on hearsay. Every single piece of information cited in the Tumblr discussion on limb-lengthening contained at least one factual error. (More here on the fact that it was posted in the context of sick fascination rather than bio-ethics.) That microblogging brings those who don’t have the time or energy to compose an entire blog post or article into the discussion is hardly a compelling argument, since it quickly extends to Those Who Don’t Have the Time to Research Or Think Much About the Issues.
I’m quite used to having my story cited in debates because of the exposure I’ve allowed it. I love debate like other people love video games and limb-lengthening is a contentious issue. (Just ask my friend who witnessed a stranger with dwarfism approach his mother and demand, “How could you ruin your child’s life like this?!”) When ignoring the broad-sweeping nature of his assertion, I consider this friend of a friend’s kneejerk opposition to cosmetic surgery preferable to, say, the handful of journalists who have interviewed me and chosen to portray limb-lengthening as a painless miracle cure for anyone unhappy with their size. But reading his hasty dismissal of my seven-year-long experience based only on what our mutual friends had told him brought back memories of all the people I’ve observed summarizing deeply personal, overwhelmingly complicated decisions in 140 characters or less, both online and off:
“It’s been TWO months since she died. He’s gotta move on.”
“It was so selfish of her to get pregnant now with everything her husband’s going through.”
“It’s absolutely horrible to abort a fetus that tests positive for a disability. Who would do such a thing?!”
“Only one girlfriend? Well, then she’s not really gay. She was just experimenting.”
“It’s ultimately selfish to want a child with dwarfism. You wouldn’t want to do that to a child.”
“No wonder she got mugged. Any girl who goes hiking alone should know better.”
“It’s so stupid that women are supposed to be upset about not being able to have their own kids. They could just adopt.”
Assuming others’ motivations, knowing what’s best for everyone, passing on poorly researched information; too often gossip masquerades as political discourse, both in the media and at home. We all feel compelled to have an opinion. About everything. The more noble root of this is the desire to actively take an interest in everything. But that nobleness dies the moment we can’t be bothered to consider anything beyond our gut reaction before spouting off; the moment a desire to improve the world devolves into the simple urge to mark everything we see with our own personal “GOOD” or “BAD” stamp.
Obviously, as a blogger I am constantly offering my opinions. But I remain acutely conscious of my chosen medium, taking inspiration from Marshall McLuhan whose quote heads this post. There is a difference between tabloids and broadsheets, between documentaries and reality TV, between a blog entry and a Tweet, and it’s not just big words: It’s the intellectual commitment required of the audience in order to consume. True learning demands this commitment and risks upsetting our world view. Voyeurism indulges our complacency and guarantees our prejudices will be cemented.
Every blog post I put out is both a labor of love and a terrifying experience. Every week I hear the imaginary voices of every individual who could in any way be implied in my arguments howling at me, “Who do you think you are?!” The voices aren’t loud enough to scare me into silence. But, combined with the inspiring examples set by my partner, my mom and dad, Ariel Meadow Stallings, Barack Obama and many others, they motivate my every edit of that girl in high school who was so well known for her righteous indignation that she was voted “Most Argumentative” in the yearbook.
That girl has made so many mistakes along the way. I found out that posting your religious views online can earn you applause from strangers but cost you a friendship. I’ve learned using the “I know someone who…” argument can offend or embarrass said person if you haven’t asked their permission, even when it’s intended as praise. I’ve learned passion alone inspires your supporters but usually sounds like ranting to the unconvinced, especially on Facebook. I’ve learned mass emails are not only passé outside the workplace but were never very popular to begin with. (At least not among the recipients.) I’ve learned to never read the comments section on YouTube unless I want to lose all my faith in humanity.
I intend to address all the reasons why I underwent limb-lengthening eventually, but at the moment I’m not sure yet if I can in anything less than the 13 pages I needed in Surgically Shaping Children. I’m sorry to play Tantalus to those unable to shell out the cash for the book or find it at their library. This undoubtedly limits the number of people I inform. But, for now at least, I prefer to be held responsible for a few well-informed individuals rather than many misinformed ones. And no matter how I end up condensing it, I know I won’t ever be able to fit seven years of limb-lengthening into one Tweet.