Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ricky Gervais, Bullying, and Why It Matters

A week or two ago, Ricky Gervais appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" and during his appearance complained about a recent experience he had on a first class flight. Once settled in his seat, the flight attendant advised him that while he would be getting his complimentary champagne - they would not be handing out the complimentary nuts because someone on the plane had a severe nut allergy. As the story went on, I chuckled a bit at the jokes because quite frankly if I can't see the humor in life then I might as well just give up.

But then... then the jokes took a bit of a dark turn, and not just because I'm the parent of a child with food allergies. Towards the end of the clip, he talks about how before he flies he will take a shower and then "rub himself in nuts" so that when the passenger says "oooooh I'm dying", no one will know it's him.

This is the joke that made me cringe. The rest of it, if I'm honest, didn't really bother me because I get it from the other side of things and yes - I even laughed a little (especially at the following "really special service" joke). We live in a world where gluten-free diets have become trendy and where people are faking - yes FAKING - food allergies in restaurants just so that they don't have to have the food on their plates. Only about 4% of the adult population and 8% of children live with medically diagnosed food allergies, yet I read somewhere that something like 30-40% either "believe" they have them with no clinical diagnosis.

So I get it. And so I get the humor in Gervais' basic line of humor in this instance because even I as a food allergy parent think that the trendiness of gluten-free and saying you have an allergy is out of control. People who are just following a trend are giving those whose throats close up or break out head-to-toe in hives or start uncontrollably vomiting a terribly bad rap.

But that one joke - the joke about rubbing nuts all over himself before getting on the plane - that one bothered me. And the reason why had nothing to do with food allergies.

I'm a parent. I have kids. I was a kid once. That wasn't a nut joke to me. That was a bullying joke.

Let's say that it was indeed a nut-bullying joke - which I guess it specifically was - but let's start there. When I was at the FARE conference in May, a statistic I heard that I will never get out of my head is that one-third of kids who have food allergies REPORT being bullied for it in school. 

That's just those who report it.

Let's go bigger than that. According to DoSomething.org, 17% of students report being bullied 2-3 times per month or more. 3.2 million students report being bullied each year.

Again - that's just those who report it.

Someone who ACTUALLY has a life-threatening food allergy didn't choose to not eat whatever thing or things make their body revolt against them when they ingest it. No one with a real food allergy is intentionally trying to inconvenience the people they come in contact with - they just don't want to land in an ambulance or oh, I don't know - die.

But kids - all people really - can be mean.

I had a girl in the 6th grade who wanted to start a fight with me (it got escalated to the assistant principal) because I bought my earrings at the flea market - seconds after complimenting me on how cute she thought they were. In the 7th grade I got sprayed with Raid because my last name sounded vaguely like "Cockroach".

Think of the innumerate reasons that the "mean kids" come up with to pick on others. They don't wear the trendiest clothes or they might speak differently or they smell strange or they eat different food. They have glasses, they walk funny, they struggle athletically, their skin is a different color, they "like" people of the same sex, they wear two different socks, their parents live in a trailer, they have a lot of pimples... the list can go on and on and on. I could sit here for hours and still not complete a list of the reasons people tear each other down.

We all have our platforms from which we can speak out against injustices in society. I'm a parent, I'm a blog writer, I volunteer in our Sunday School. I can teach my kids to love and care and be empathetic towards others and find the best in them to build them up rather than tear them down. I can write here about injustices in the world and ask those few who read this to act in love and not be mean-spirited. I can teach those little preschoolers in our Sunday School about the love of God and how we are called to act as Jesus does.

Celebrities, however, have a more far-reaching platform than I do. Than the majority of us do, really. And when they talk, when they act - people listen. When Ricky Gervais makes a joke about rubbing himself in nuts, it makes a whole group of people who are frustrated with the inconveniences those with food allergies impose on others cheer up and say "YEAH!". What's to say a kid doesn't watch that, think it's funny, then go to school rubbed in peanut butter and sit next to the kid with a peanut allergy?

The good news is that there are a LOT of celebrities out there who are actively speaking out against bullying. Demi Lovato and Ellen Degeneres are probably two of the more well-know anti-bullying activists, but there are many more including our current President.

When we see someone - either a celebrity or someone in our peer group or our workplace or our schools or anywhere - who bullies another person, who picks on them for their differences... we need to speak up. We need to be proactive and show that there is more love in the world than there is hate. It is so much easier to see the negative than it is the positive - but if we can get more and more people to be a light in the world... then maybe the bullies won't get the spotlight anymore.

We have it hard enough in this world without looking for reasons to make others feel smaller, We will and can do better when we lift each other up - no matter what our differences are.

So, Ricky Gervais... well... I went ahead and left a note on his Facebook page (and got several likes/loves - no "angry" or "wow" or "sad" faces, which was encouraging). I was one of many parents and people with food allergies who spoke out against his comments. Anyone who follows his twitter feed knows that he responded to this feedback as one would think he would ("I make jokes about the Holocaust, cancer, and AIDS. Someone just told me not to make jokes about food allergies" or something to that effect. "Warning: This joke may contain nuts" and several jokes about how no one should make jokes anymore because everyone takes things too personally).

I didn't care. I'm not going to change Ricky Gervais and I don't want to. But if just one person was touched by hearing that one-third of kids with food allergies are bullied and tried to learn more about it - that's great. If a parent watched that clip with their teenage kid and it started a conversation about bullying and how we should help each other and not harm each other - awesome.

Use your platform to spread love. We all have one. What's yours?

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