Right to be offended?

In this seemingly endless time of lockdown, I have found myself hunkering down, fighting a daily battle to block out the constant stream of negativity across social, print and broadcast media in which I’m immersed. Am I alone? It certainly feels a little isolating.

Perhaps it’s that fear is as contagious as the pandemic itself, which further manifests as anger, encouraging people endlessly to berate the conduct of others, giving insufficient thought to the impact of their ire, let alone the motive that might lie behind the perceived wrongdoing.

I can’t help but believe we’re witnessing ever-increasing levels of outrage – usually viral – at the latest thoughtless decision, clumsy phraseology, or misjudged conduct of others. Is it my misremembering, or was there once an age when disagreements were aired candidly and forcibly but with humour and in a spirit of education? Was there a time when we rolled our eyes and, in extremis, prepped our pens to compose a pithy letter to the editor to get our views across? We felt much better in ourselves for getting it off our chest, yet somehow without seeking to score points or encourage a pile-on against the subject of our irritation. 

Of course, social media has played its part in stoking resentment and, when there’s been so much loss and suffering over the past year, let alone ever-changing rules and restrictions, no wonder there’s an air of real umbrage. But does someone else always have to be to blame? Do we need to call out every misdemeanour as a deep personal slight? Should it be commonplace to cancel people we disagree with, just because their views don’t align with our own? Are we all simply too ready to take offence?

We can all name examples and there exist not just a few. We’ve seen universities tie themselves up in knots over no-platforming speakers, tennis players’ grovelling apologies after complaining about their lockdown lot while others are suffering (but not for their sport), and brands such as Variety desperately disassociating itself from its film critic’s review.

As a communicator, I’d like to believe there’s a place for high-profile individuals and corporates to stand by their opinions or actions, to explain and engage, rather than rush for the obligatory act of contrition, self-flagellation and retreat to the bunker until the storm blows over.

I abhor the group-think mentality that all-too often pervades public discourse – perhaps because the subtlety of an argument is too hard to convey in 280 characters and click-bait works when seeing attention. But how will this change unless and until brands become ballsy and take on their detractors, albeit with reason, charm and a good dose of understanding.

As trolls go, it was relatively harmless, but I loved Davina McCall’s retort to her online critics decrying her choice of outfit at her age – she simply owned her decision to grow old ‘disgracefully’. Nigella’s a past master at gentle shading through humour that regularly cuts through. Southern Rail’s young work experience Twitter manager, meanwhile, did wonders to humanise and rebalance the company’s poor image.

It’s certainly true that some voices and opinions have been improperly marginalised for too long and social media (increasingly leading to mainstream media take-up) has brought them a welcome spotlight to help educate and inform. Nowadays it’s so easy to call out ‘inappropriate’ conduct or views – but I fear the definition of inappropriate is narrowing to the point of causing harm. 

The question is: do these endless battles represent progress or do they mean we are simply more bruised from the battle? 

Clearly, it’s too idealistic always to expect reasoned discourse with those whose preferred setting is transmit over receive. But if the alternative is to readily take offence and give the keyboard a beasting, I don’t see how we can collectively get through tough times with our sanity intact. 

That’s why I cast my vote for positive thinking and constructive communication. Otherwise, it will be the next generation’s fortune to learn from our negativity.

Melanie Riley 1 Feb 2021

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