The Internet is a brutal place. Shielded by digital anonymity, bullies are emboldened to unleash cruelty that shames, hurts and silences their victims. That seemed to be what was happening when a young man posted a photo of Ohio State University sophomore Balpreet Kaur in the 'funny' section of social news website Reddit.com.
The caption read, "I'm not sure what to conclude from this." Kaur is a Sikh woman. Her appearance is unusual because she has facial hair that she chooses not to remove. She did not know this photo was taken. She did not know it was posted on the Internet. She did not know that strangers were ridiculing her appearance.
When she found out, this was her response:
"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."
No anger. No vitriol. No name calling. With that thoughtful, brave, and breathtakingly graceful response, Kaur altered the all too familiar storyline of Internet cruelty and personal shaming. And she transformed her would-be enemy into her ally.
The young man who posted the photo responded by admitting that his original post was "ignorant." He took action against that ignorance by reading up on the Sikh faith and reaching out to Kaur personally. After reflection he says, "It makes a whole lot of sense to work on having a legacy and not worrying about what you look like."
This story reminds us of so many things we desperately need to remember as we move into the final month of of election season. No matter how many times you hear the words battleground state, we are not at war with one another. Our neighbors are not our enemies. Even when the actions of political candidates communicate that it is okay to dehumanize and mock each other. It isn't.
Although everybody will be looking to land the best one-liner in the debates, what really matters in a democracy is taking the time to listen to each other and to learn something.
Thank you Balpreet Kaur for the reminders.