A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine couldn’t access her e-mail. She was working on an important deal and it was falling apart. She was devastated. She wasn’t upset, or annoyed or even pissed off — she was devastated. It gave her license to be short-tempered with me and rude to the guy at Starbucks. She was devastated. She was entitled. She was a victim. Some un-named, unknown, unthinking, unfeeling, gigantic corporate Internet provider had gone out of its faceless, mindless monolithic way to hurt her, and she needed time and sympathy to get over it. She told me so.
I remember when devastated was a strong word. We used to use it for earthquakes, forest fires — carpet bombing — things that went way beyond simple destruction. It was a great word. Not anymore! Now, all it means is a Fair Trade dark roast Mauna Loa slope coffee, a cookie the size of Rhode Island and twenty minutes late for work because “They’ll just have to wait!” My friend wanted to stop for cookies and coffee but she didn’t have a legitimate reason to do that, so she took a minor situation and turned it into a major problem. Basically, she was just cashing in the blank check we give people who are having trouble. For example, there are several million people down on the Gulf Coast who just can’t get a break. A couple of years ago, Hurricane Katrina came calling and it was like Mother Nature found the Mississippi delta and flushed. Then one of British Petroleum’s gi-hugic oil rigs exploded and pumped black Vaseline all over everything that Katrina left behind — sand, surf, and swamp. These people have been devastated. They’re genuine victims; their anger, their frustration and their behaviour is understandable and excused. It’s widely accepted that if your house is underwater or covered in an inch and a half of crude oil — or both — you get to stop and have a cookie on your way to work. Even if it means you’re twenty minutes late, nobody is going to question it because sometimes in our society, you get to break the rules. Unfortunately, we’ve started manufacturing meaningless words to accommodate anybody who wants to even bend those rules just a little bit. If your plane is late and you’re stuck at the airport, that is not an “ordeal”. It just isn’t. You’re in a thermostatically controlled building with restaurants, bathrooms, tons of security, TVs and WiFi everywhere and a reasonable assurance that your plane will take off eventually. So no matter how many times you say it, it’s not an “ordeal”. On the other hand, if your plane crashes in the Andes and you have to eat some of the other passengers, that’s an “ordeal”. There’s a difference. Similarly, if you’re trying to untangle a bureaucratic foul-up – that’s not a “nightmare”. The Dark Lords at Motor Vehicles are not trying to steal your soul. They made a mistake, that’s all. It doesn’t allow you to shout obscenities at them. Of course, if you’ve just been sentenced to ten years in a Colombian prison on drug charges, that is a “nightmare.” and you can swear all you want. Good luck.
Again there’s a difference, but it’s more than a question of degree, you see, every time we casually use a victim word to describe ourselves we slide a little further into actually thinking of ourselves as victims — hopeless, helpless, haunted, victims — until eventually we spend our whole lives lurching from crisis to crisis, with our actions and our attitudes controlled by, and at the mercy of, terrible unseen forces. And the number one, kickass, kung-fu, Lara Croft, Mac-10, victim word? Issues! This little dynamo is so soft it’s going to be the one that finally does us in.
Part 3 – How issues solved all our problems.