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WSJ: How to defuse hatred on the Internet

Below is the full text of this column, republished with permission of the Wall Street Journal.

The Internet an amazing force for connecting us through ideas, and yet the anonymous nature of the Internet also can spur an environment of hostility. Explains psychologist Sherry Turkle, a professor and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. ‘We’re less inhibited online because we don’t have to see the reaction of the person we’re addressing. Because it’s harder to see and focus on what we have in common, we tend to dehumanize each other.’

And use the Internet to dehumanize is what a man calling himself ‘European_douchebag’ recently did to Balpreet Kaur, a sophomore at Ohio State University and a Sikh. He saw Balpreet standing in line, secretly took a photo of her, and posted it in the Funny section of the website Reddit, inviting the world to ridicule her for her facial hair.

A story of online hatred, with a happy ending

This would have been just another depressing example of the Internet being used to spread racism and hatred.

Except that then occurred an unexpected act of grace.

The woman pictured in the photo wrote in to the forum. Here’s what she said:

Yes, I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body

By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it?

When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are.

Her words, brimming with compassion for the man who would degrade her, brought tears to my eyes.

But the story doesn’t end there. European_douchebag, to his credit, realized he was wrong, and returned to apologize:

I felt the need to apologize to the Sikhs, Balpreet, and anyone else I offended when I posted that picture. Put simply it was stupid. Making fun of people is funny to some but incredibly degrading to the people you’re making fun of. It was an incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant thing to post.

I’ve read more about the Sikh faith and it was actually really interesting. It makes a whole lot of sense to work on having a legacy and not worrying about what you look like. I made that post for stupid internet points and I was ignorant.

Balpreet, I’m sorry for being a closed minded individual. You are a much better person than I am. Sikhs, I’m sorry for insulting your culture and way of life. Balpreet’s faith in what she believes is astounding.

Balpreet refuses to be a victim, and she refuses to victimize others

I’m touched by Balpreet’s innate sense of dignity. When Balpreet learned of the posting, she could have retreated crying into her dorm room. But she didn’t. She would not be overcome so easily by someone else’s ignorance and hatred.
She could have responded with righteous rage and a stream of profanity-filled invective. But she didn’t do that either.

Balpreet believes in the dignity of her own self and the dignity of others. She refuses to be made a victim, and she refuses to victimize anyone else. With the courage of her religious convictions, she overpowered hatred with love.

Balpreet’s beauty transcends society’s norms

I’m amazed by Balpreet’s self-assurance in the face of society’s norms. We live in a world which relentlessly enforces society’s definition of beauty. The further we depart from those norms, the more we open up ourselves to being ignored or even ridiculed. All this leaves many of us struggling to change or accept those parts of our bodies that depart from those norms.

Balpreet ignores society’s rules because she transcends them. She rejoices in the sacredness of her own body. She is beautiful, inside and out, and nothing anyone else says can ever change that.

The world is a better place because Balpreet is in it

And I’m moved by Balpreet’s compassion. Particularly since she lives in a world in which she’s often misunderstood, Balpreet easily could keep to herself and focus on her own world. But she chooses to focus on our world. With everyday actions – an online comment here, a smile there, Balpreet is a one-woman army for peace and understanding.

Our world contains so much cynicism, materialism, corruption and superficiality that we all could just throw up our hands wondering if one person ever could make a difference.

But then, along comes Balpreet, so completely and joyously herself, shocking the world with her awesomeness. Today I’m a little bit changed thanks to Balpreet’s example, and perhaps you are too.

*This column was originally written by the author in English. Hear her reading it aloud by clicking here.