I keep singing under my breath Stephen Sondheim’s immortal lyrics “And where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here.”
There are worse songs to have stuck in your head, but better reasons for having those particular words going around in a loop.
It started two weeks ago, just before Sukkot, when the Israeli media became fixated on clowns of the worst kind – masked threatening figures who haunted the streets, apparently inspired by the newly released remake of the movie It, based on a Stephen King horror story.
There was nothing funny about these clowns dressed to frighten someone to death if not to kill outright. Many were armed with (real or fake) knives and other weapons. Youths took to arming themselves in defense, raising the risk that a situation could get dangerously out of control.
Across the country there was a spate of attacks and counterattacks.
The craze started abroad but was swiftly adopted here by the sort of people who get their kicks bullying others to make themselves feel big. The mania was fueled, of course, by the social media.
Police issued warnings that while those hiding behind the scary masks might think of it as a prank, those targeted – and the ages ranged from the very old to the very young – did not see it the same way.
The masked figures jumping out on unsuspecting strangers was particularly jarring in Israel, where the public is alert to terrorist threats as a matter of second nature but, fortunately, does not usually have to deal with street crime. Young kids are often out on their own enjoying the sort of freedom that is rare in North America and much of Europe.
And then, just like that, it was over.
Maybe it was because the media moved on and without coverage there was no fame (or infamy) and no inspiration. Perhaps it just burned itself out as fads do. (When was the last time you saw or heard a version of Gangnam Style, the once omnipresent song-and-dance routine?) But the social media – even more than nature – hate a vacuum. For the past week it has been hard to avoid the message of victims of sexual abuse. Again, the fad – for fad it is – started in the US. Following the numerous allegations that surfaced against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano invited women via Twitter to share if they’d ever been harassed, using the hashtag #MeToo.
According to a Bloomberg report, within three days of her posting it on Sunday, it been retweeted some 23,600 times and garnered some 65,000 responses from women (and men) on Twitter. There were at least 457,000 mentions on Instagram.
Facebook feeds were flooded with posts and responses and it became de rigueur for public and private figures from all walks of life to weigh in and share their previously private experiences or their shock (or disbelief) at the extent of the problem.
(Unfortunately, while often decades-old stories of varying severity were being rehashed, a particularly significant story of deadly violence was all but missed: Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, best known for exposing the so-called Panama Papers, was murdered by a car bomb as she traveled near her home on Monday. Bravery is not just tweeting about an unnamed attacker. A little bit of democracy died when Caruana Galizia was blown to bits for revealing the scope of local and international corruption.) The Jerusalem Post
’s Amy Spiro, among others, noted that some people got so carried away with the sexual abuse stories that they completely missed the original target of creating awareness of the problem. Paula and Lion Rosenberg, husband-and-wife hosts of Channel 2’s Healthy Morning show, invited viewers to “write to us if you have ever been sexually harassed” and possibly win two tickets to a concert. Apparently there’s only so much abuse viewers can take, and the couple and Keshet television company were forced by public outrage to apologize. Even in today’s crazy world, turning sexual abuse into a reality contest came across as too tasteless to swallow.
I was not surprised by the wave of stories of harassment among my friends ranging from sexual innuendo in the workplace to being groped on public transport to being the victim of attempted rape. Nearly all my female friends have similar tales, and it was the lucky rare few who could say “not me too.”
Where we differed was in our response.
Personally, things that I suffered in silence at the age of 18, I was no longer willing to quietly shrug off when I was 21 and older.
Usually a withering look and choice verbal put-down were enough. In one case, I karate chopped a guy and slapped his face so hard he could no longer slobber on me.
A friend in India, of whom I’m particularly proud, noted “the last time it happened, I got him arrested.” At least she broke the chain of attacks even if, like most of us, it took a while to break the silence.
Nonetheless, the awareness campaign has its disturbing side. For a start, it lumps together everything from unwanted stares to physical attacks. It also turns abuse into a “women’s issue,” which it isn’t. Violence is violence. Manic clowns chasing and Macing a 10-year-old girl are as abusive and traumatic as sexual molesters. Boys and young men who have been sexually preyed upon suffer no less, and perhaps more, than girls and women.
Today Hollywood would not be able to get away with movies in which wives were spanked and their intelligence belittled. It’s time to make sure the entertainment industry finds that gratuitous scenes of sex, violence and nudity also don’t pay. Boycotting violent and offensive films is a far more effective way of getting the message across than counting the “likes” for expressions of outrage on the social media. There’s more to being virtuous than retweeting “me too” to like-minded friends.
(And the international Slut Walks where skimpily dressed women sporting anti-rape slogans parade through the streets of major cities are also a lost cause in my opinion. What a woman wears is not an excuse for rape, but holding a mass rally while dressed as whores does nothing to reinforce the message of the need for mutual respect.)
The times are changing.
(Imagine today a group like The Beatles getting away with singing “Catch you with another man, That’s the end ah little girl.”) If we want to make sure the next generation grows up in a safer environment, we need to (figuratively speaking) grab them while they’re young.
It’s fine to teach girls about modesty (although not to make that the focus of life and religion), but at the same time boys need to be taught about respect and mutual consent. Teach children self-defense. Give them confidence. And, a tip I was given years ago, tell young children the difference between a “good secret,” which makes them feel good (like preparing a birthday surprise for someone), and a “bad secret” that makes them feel bad and that they should share even if they were told not to talk about it.
And now, send in the medical clowns – those underpaid, silent miracle workers, whose vocation took such a beating this month. We could all do with a bit of cheering up and a therapeutic laugh. Me firstname.lastname@example.org
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