An era of hysteria?

Briefly, and to quote myself:

if you train people to expect sensation instead of subtlety, you should shouldn’t be surprised if they keep expecting more of the same, and eventually, become capable of understanding nothing less.

On Thursday this week, Best Buy found themselves under social media fire for tweeting a joke that referenced Serial, the podcast that everyone (“literally!”) is listening to.

downloadFor those of you who are not part of that “everyone”, Serial is a journalistic treatment of a murder, involving interviews with suspects, with friends of the victim, and also site visits to relevant locations, etc.

The murder in question happened in 1999. It wasn’t Princess Diana who was murdered, but someone that had most likely slipped out of the memories of all but her family and friends in the 15 years since the murder – until Serial came along.

Best Buy referenced one element of the narrative, which was the possible use of a payphone in one of their Maryland stores. They said “We have everything you need. Except if you need a payphone. #Serial”. The outrage on Twitter let to the deletion of that tweet, and this apology:

This is absurd. I have no problem with people being offended, even sometimes outraged. But I do have a problem with what people are choosing to be offended and outraged by, and – mostly – by the extent to which they think anyone else should care about their feelings in cases like this.

If you were offended by the Best Buy tweet, I’d suggest you’re either a family member of friend of the deceased, or you have a pretty bizarre value-system. Corporates are allowed to make jokes, and a joke involving an element of a murder mystery from 15 years ago, and one which makes no reference to the people involved in that mystery – in other words disrespects none of them – should not be able to give rise to the offence it apparently did.

How do we stop this positive feedback loop of hyperbole and hysteria? I’m still of the view (as expressed in another older post) that at some point, a corporate brand, or a popular personal brand, will need to stand their ground and say “no, I don’t need to apologise for this. You’re over-reacting.”

Because each time we do succumb to the wishes of the most easily offended, the bar for what counts as an apology-worthy action gets set a little lower. I’m not a fan of gratuitous offence, but if we never allow ourselves to tolerate being offended at all, a dogmatic, inflexible, and rather entitled attitude towards our own beliefs and values wins the day.

In short, we’re wrong much of the time – or at least some of the time – and we’ll never know when that is, unless we let people tell us.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.