By Mark Gentili
I’m writing this column to Heather Wise. You’ve now experienced just about the worst side of the internet in this social media age we live in, but I want you to know something: What you did was a good deed and no one can take that away from you.
You did what we’re supposed to do when we’re part of a community: You saw a need and offered to help. That’s what being a good neighbour is all about.
The global frenzy that ensued over the replacement baby Jesus head you sculpted that sat briefly atop the decapitated sculpture of the Christian savior on the grounds of Ste-Anne-des-Pines church downtown is an unfortunate side effect of our digital world.
Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan argued that the electronic age functions as an extension of our nervous systems. As prescient as that argument was, our interconnectedness is double-edged. It can bring us together, but it can also drive a wedge between us. It can make us more empathetic for the plight people we don’t know, but it can also make us less able to put ourselves in another’s shoes.
On Oct. 10, when we published a story about your offer to sculpt a new head for Jesus, to repair a statue that had been vandalized a year ago, we obviously had no idea how that story would backfire. Replacing the statue would have cost $10,000, Fr. Gerard Lajeunesse told us, an amount that would be difficult for his faith community to afford, but you offered your time and talents for free.
The orange clay head you made was meant as a place-filler, a temporary solution while you crafted a permanent replacement.
For whatever reason, in the mysterious way stories go viral, the baby Jesus head blew up online. Unfortunately, the story that captured the internet’s attention was not your good deed, but the odd juxtaposition of the orange clay on the white body. From the many kind comments on your Facebook page regarding your work, I don’t think the head is representative of your skills as an artist.
The story became about making fun of that temporary head and, in effect, making fun of you. It was picked up by dozens of media outlets, large and small, from around the globe. Cruel comments abounded. People are having a laugh photoshopping the Jesus head onto other bodies.
I can’t imagine what that must feel like, all of that scrutiny and negativity for something you created. If it were me, I would have felt like the butt of the joke and that is never a nice, nor fair, place to be.
We received requests from the Daily Mail in New York City, CBSNews and news outlets from Russia and Norway, all of them wanted permission to reprint the photo we took of you with the head. I want you to know we ignored all of the requests.
Why wouldn’t we grant permission? Pretty simple really. We didn’t think it was right to allow our photo to be used to denigrate a member of our community for the sake of an up-tick in web traffic.
Maybe it sounds trite, but we believe when someone from our community is down, you help them up (much as you did in offering to sculpt a new head). You certainly don’t facilitate others kicking them when they’re down.
If there’s anything good that comes from you being put through the social media wringer, it’s that someone felt badly enough that the original head was returned to the church, allowing the statue to be repaired. Though I’m sure, that’s a small consolation for you.
Ms Wise, it’s unfortunate our coverage of your good deed backfired and caused you so much grief. Please remember, despite the viral mess this week has been for you, no one can take away that you did a good thing. You saw a need and tried to help, like any kind-hearted person would do.
The coverage you received can’t take that away from you. Don’t let them get you down.
Mark Gentili is the managing editor of Sudbury.com and Northern Life.