In Defense of Karen
For almost all of my life, “Karen” was automatically linked to words like strong, determined, indomitable, smart, chatty, caring, loving, scary-if-you-upset-her, curious and so many other positive traits. My stepmother.
There were also other associations. A really nice, really talented softball-playing classmate in high school. A shy neighbor from childhood who, I understand, went on to MIT for her PhD.
And then someone observed a woman having a really bad episode in her life and about to unleash on an unwitting victim.
Did they calm her down?
Did they try to help the victim of her bad behavior?
Did they diffuse the situation?
They sat back with their phone. They captured images of this woman at her worst. And shared them with the world, deciding that “Karen” was a suitable moniker with which to virtually and mercilessly tar and feather her.
Smug. Self-righteous. Cynical. Indifferent. Zero sympathy. Zero empathy. Zero compassion.
But I’m not talking about that initial observer.
I’m talking about us.
We…collectively…who didn’t ignore those social media posts but instead commented on them…forwarded them…maybe did our own posts…maybe dropped the term “Karen” in conversation to show how “with-it” we were. We sat back with our little screens and cozy monitors and treated this woman’s epic bad day like it was fodder for discussion and a prop for assertion of own virtue.
This is not an apology for bad or contemptible, if not criminal, behavior. It’s about the fact that we have dehumanized everyone of these subsequent poor women, by reducing the ups and downs of their complex, unpredictable, humanly-fallible lives to that one nadir of behavior and then craftily slapping a witty label of “Karen” on it…while actually doing nothing to ameliorate the situation or protect the victim.
And we dragged down over a million females with that name, degrading each of their character to those who don’t know them, just a bit…a meaningful bit.
Shame on us.
But, as ubiquitous and as contemptible as this is, there’s something even bigger going on, right?
This is about our society’s growingly widespread lack of empathy and compassion.
It’s about seeing Black people indiscriminately killed with impunity for decades and doing nothing about the underlying problems (regardless of political persuasion).
It’s about seeing impoverished white people in the rust belt or bible belt or mountain country or rural America and dismissing them as white trash, trailer trash or deplorables.
It’s about letting crack cocaine spread like a cancer through inner cities and responding with increased, clearly discriminatory punitive measures.
It’s about opioids poisoning small town America without triggering any societal outrage, just a bunch of lawsuits that pad the pockets of lawyers and municipalities.
It’s about willful ignorance of a pandemic and unmoving refusal to take basic precautions in the face of a virus killing hundreds of thousands of other Americans.
It’s about advocating unrelenting pandemic lockdown measures — which cause confusion, anxiety, lost jobs, lost human connectivity and lost hope — from the comforts of a white collar job ensconced at home, while investments rise, online packages pile up and the newest tech gadgets distract.
It’s about moving jobs and taxable income off shore and off ledgers without any meaningful consideration for — or amelioration of — how such pens strokes and key clicks can ravage our entire society.
But this isn’t a rant to beat us down because we also need to give sympathy and empathy and compassion to ourselves.
Our generation has been handed a mess of existence that we must grapple with, just as our ancestors inherited their own messes. There has been more change in the last thirty years than in the last one hundred years. Human relationship-making completely transformed. Our ability to communicate has taken a quantum leap. Our access to information revolutionized. The unifying principles and narratives of the past (true or otherwise), have been ripped asunder but never replaced by anything other than snark and cynicism.
So we must forgive ourselves. And then we must act earnestly and relentlessly to deserve the forgiveness of every “Karen” and Karen.
Towards those around us…towards our community nearby…towards fellow American farther afield, we (including that next person who’s having a bad day and feeling the urge to unleash their frustration on some unwitting victim) must…
Act with sympathy: feel sorrow for the anguish of others.
Act with empathy: strive to understand and actually take on the anguish of others.
Act with compassion: feel the anguish of others and DO YOUR BEST TO ALLEVIATE it.
The problem is with us. Not “Karen”. But so is the solution.