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An English sophisticate with an avowed passion for human rights.  A hooded stranger lurking around at night.  A respected filmmaker and civil rights activist.  A woman publicly calling out injustice, another vigilante of sorts.

What do all of these people have in common?  They are sketches of human beings, the barest shadows of who these people are.  These four people recently made headlines.  Care to guess who they are?  The definitions are pretty vague.  The English sophisticate is Asma al Assad, Bashar al Assad’s wife, the hooded stranger is Trayvon Martin, the filmmaker and activist is Spike Lee, and the moral vigilante is Ann Coulter. 

Surprised?  You should be.  When we rely on heuristics to identify people, we run the risk of pigeonholing them.  We underestimate what these people are capable of—or, in some tragic cases—we overestimate.  Judgments are necessary, but before we stake our lives, the lives of others, our values, and our beliefs on people, we should take a closer look.

Asma al Assad was the toast of the international press, an “English rose”, touted Vogue, mere months before the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on dissenters.  The self-styled human rights activist, who had a world class education and elegant style, was seen as a kind of Jackie Kennedy for the Middle East.  She was expected to bring light to Syria.  Even after thousands were killed, some still held out hope that she would bring Western values of human rights, or, at the very least, an understanding of how the rest of the world viewed such atrocities, to Syria, and stop the violence.  Instead, it has come out that she was fully aware of what was happening, and actually attempted to trick and subvert the media.  She gained attention for being a kind of “Marie Antoinette” type of tyrant, a modern day Nero, fiddling while Homs (and other cities) burned.  Emails between her and friends reveal that she was dismayed—not at the plight of her people being murdered, but at the prospect of not being able to wear her $6,000+ crystal-encrusted Louboutin heels (one of many frivolous, extremely expensive purchases) that she had ordered in the middle of the massacres.  As one article cites, “in an ironic twist”, her family is actually originally from Homs, the city under the worst siege.  She even joked in emails recently sent to her husband that she is the “real dictator”.

Trayvon Martin appeared to be a threat to one George Zimmerman, neighborhood watch chief in a Florida town.  In reality, the 17 year old boy was unarmed, and was only 100 yards from his home when he was shot, carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea.  In the evidence that has come out since the shooting, there are clear indications of a racial element to Zimmerman’s actions.  At the very least, the overzealous vigilante killed a child.  Before we rush to judgment about exactly what happened and aim to exact revenge on Zimmerman (as the new Black Panther party has aimed to do by putting a $10,000 bounty on Zimmerman’s head), we should realize that we weren’t there and fighting fire with fire will not put the fire out.  It is completely understandable that Zimmerman should be arrested, and outrage is justified.  Statements such as the always insightful Geraldo Rivera’s now infamous declaration that “the hoodie is just as much to blame for the death of Trayvon Martin as George Zimmerman” apply a superficial judgment and an inaccurate insensitivity to a solemn issue.  This event bears reflection, not idiotic statements and calls for further violence.

Spike Lee, known for his thought provoking work on the issue of race in America, has presented controversial issues in the past.  On Wednesday, March 28, 2012, however, Lee did not present nuanced art to his audience.  He took it upon himself to look up the address of the aforementioned George Zimmerman, and decided to tweet out this information to millions.  The address was not correct, and forced an elderly couple to flee their home, frightened for their lives.  The ripple effect of this tweet throughout thousands of other networks multiplied the impact exponentially in the short time it was available.  Lee eventually removed the tweet due to the outrage garnered by the mainstream media rebuke of his action.  Whether the address was correct or not, what a horrendous thing to do.  Do people not realize how such calls to violence undercut their cause, no matter how oppressed they feel?  Trayvon Martin’s parents have said that they want justice for their son, not the type of vigilante “justice” that was visited upon him in the first place.  They have made clear that an eye for an eye is not their aim.  If the victim’s own parents can have the strength to take the moral high ground, surely Spike Lee, who is certainly not suffering in the same way, could do the same.  Lee took his tweet down, but refused to apologize.  Now that I know this, I cannot respect Spike Lee.

Ann Coulter put out a cogent, reasonable tweet calling out Spike Lee on his behavior.  A top tweet in the aftermath of the Spike Lee debacle propelled Coulter to actually come out as a winner, a champion for human decency.  It was heartening to see that so many people had retweeted her message.  This was the extent of her ethics, however.  A look at nearly every single one of her other tweets will quickly reveal a bitter, divisive, disgusting human being whose currency is almost entirely composed of shock value and lies.  Racism is only the tip of the iceberg.  It is disheartening to see that Coulter is celebrated, and that her one ethical message probably served as a gateway to the uninitiated who may be swayed by her (at times subtly) prejudiced and fact lacking vitriol.

The moral of the story is that things aren’t always what they seem.  People are multifaceted.  Relying on quick cues to determine a person’s character has become even easier as news is reduced to soundbites and the only impression you might get of someone is offered in 140 characters or less.  In an increasingly globalized world—and, perhaps more importantly, an increasingly digitized one—really analyzing personality is fundamentally important.  The consequences are great, and looks can be deceiving, especially if these looks are based purely on first glances.

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