You can’t put the genie back

I just don’t see why we need to be so aggressive to each other, writes Stephen Rosenthal

January 12, 2017 10:09

This being the first week of 2017, I get licence to perform my MMXVI post-mortem. 

So, an observation, followed by a resolution.

First, the observation. 2016 was the year feelings trumped facts. We became more aggressive towards each other.

You want evidence? Scroll through your social media feeds. I may only be speaking for myself of course, but where I once found family photos and thought-provoking articles, I now find aggressive, argumentative virtual fist fights between ordinarily lovely, intelligent people.

And it’s not hard to see why. We endured the spectacle of global statesmen and women reducing the biggest campaigns of their lives into playground scuffles. Nicknames, rumours and sarcastic slogans on buses and baseball caps dominated, shoving sensible debate off the table. “People,”we were told, “were sick and tired of experts.”

And, you could be forgiven for thinking: “If our leaders do it, why shouldn’t we? Maybe this is how you win a debate in 2016. They got the job done!”

But in that scenario, there are only losers.

I don’t mean to overplay this. I’m not suggesting my previously idyllic existence has descended into a bar-room brawl, but I imagine we can all think of at least one Facebook, WhatsApp or dinner table chat that’s crossed the line from discussion into something more uncomfortable.

Of course, it’s everyone’s prerogative to hold and express any view on any subject.

I just don’t see why we need to be so aggressive to each other.

Aggression never shifts opinions, only friendships. And over what? The domestic policy of a country thousands of miles away? What’s the point?

So, my resolution: “Never have a fight with an idiot in public, because all the public sees is two idiots fighting.”

Spending the first decade of my career as a press spokesperson for BICOM, the UK Government and Google, this was a survival guide as much as a motto. Failing to keep to it risked humiliation, ridicule or the sack in a best case scenario and a stock collapse, legal action and diplomatic fallout in the worst.

But I’d like to think you don’t need a microphone and camera in your face to heed this advice. Of course we should protest. We should rage against the machine. Just don’t get nasty. You appear fanatical and unhinged, and at that point, you lose every time anyway. People won’t believe someone they can’t respect.

And when any non-researched, emotionally-driven view can be instantly broadcast to a global audience of billions, in a frenzy of fingers and thumbs, all too often, well-meaning words can rapidly decline into broiges. Hurl in an ill-advised barb too close to the bone and — SNAP — any debate is lost and all that’s left is an unedifying verbal scrap - visible to and spreadable by anyone.

You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. What’s said is said and said forever, with your name slapped on it. And it doesn’t have too far to travel to cause you or the people and organisations you care about irreparable damage.

So why would you put your name to anything that shows you in less than the best possible light?

If my career has taught me anything, it’s the unbelievable power of words — for better or worse. The idea that only sticks and stones can break bones is nonsense; it’s the words that can hurt you. We’d do well to treat them with more care in 2017. Alas, we can’t control the nonsense of world events, but we can make sure they don’t render us idiots.


January 12, 2017 10:09

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