by Jay Johansen | Feb 22, 2022
Recently I read some stories on the Internet under the title "I don't work here lady", that were all amusing stories about a customer mistaking another customer for an employee and getting nasty about it. After a while they got pretty redundant and I lost interest. They all followed the basic pattern, "Person came up to me and said, I need help with X. I said 'sorry, I don't work here'. They said, 'you're lying, I know you work here I saw you helping another customer / stocking shelves / whatever. I said, No ma'am, I was just being nice to an old lady / putting something back that I had accidentally knocked over / whatever. Then the person screamed, 'you're just being lazy! Do your job and help me! Almost every one of these stories included something about the person screaming the words 'lazy' or 'do your job'. Often they ended with, I tried to walk away but then they grabbed me / hit me / otherwise engaged in mild to actual violence."
But as I read them I often found myself wondering, Is this how it really happened or is the writer exagerrating? Because in many of the stories, if you just took out the word "screamed" and descriptions of how the person was turning red with anger, and maybe added the word "please" to their request for assistance, the story would be routine and boring. "Someone came to me in the store and, thinking I was an employee, said, "Can you tell me where to find X? I said, 'sorry, I don't know, I don't work here'. She said, 'But I just saw you helping another customer'. I said, 'Yes, she was looking for Y, I happened to know where that is, so I told her. But I don't work here.' So she said, 'Oh, sorry to bother you", and walked away." Dull story. But just add that she "screamed" "but I saw you helping another customer", add that she accused you of lying about not being an employee, and a few other embellishments, and the story becomes much more entertaining. Or leave out the fact that when she asked you for help, your immediate response was to scream at her, 'I don't work here you stupid b****!! Leave me alone", and maybe her responding harshly makes a lot more sense. Etc.
Every now and then I see a TV show or read a book that claims to present both sides of some controversial question. But very often, by "both sides" they mean, they get intelligent, attractive, likable people from one side to present the best case they can for that side. Then they get the dumbest, most extreme, ugly, and rude people from the other side to present a lame argument.
Just for example: I saw a spot on the news once about school prayer. They had well-dressed, authoritative-looking people present the case against school prayer. Then to represent the other side they got one fat and unattractive woman who said, "I thought everybody prayed". Was it a deliberate decision to pick good looking people for the anti-prayer side and a fat person for the pro-prayer side? I find it hard to believe it was not. And of course her argument was dumb and lame. I'm not an activist on this issue but I could easily think of a slew of better arguments for school prayer than that.
There was a period when I was an officer in a Political Action Committee and I was fairly active in politics. And one lesson I learned was: When you talk to the media, there's a temptation to bring up every argument that supports your side that you can think of. Don't. I mean, you might have four strong arguments and two weak arguments, and you think, the four strong arguments are worth 10 points each in this debate, and the two weak arguments are work maybe 2 points for one and 1 point for the other. So if I just bring up the four strong arguments, that's 40 points, but if I bring up all six arguments that's 43 points, which is even better! I don't mean that someone is literally counting points. I just mean that as a measure of the strength of the arguments. But no, that's not how it works. Because if the reporter doesn't agree with you, they're going to edit your remarks to just the weakest argument. So all the audience ever hears is the 1 point argument, and they think, That's it? That's all they've got? Wow, that's pretty weak.
So I'm very cautious when I hear someone tell me about a personal disagreement or a controversial issue. Usually they don't even try to present both sides. And even when they do, are they really presenting the best possible case for both sides?
Often, of course, I don't really care. When I hear on the news that some actor couple are getting divorced and they say all sorts of nasty things about each other, I don't care much which of them is in the right.
But when I do care and I'm willing to make an effort, I try to get information directly from both sides. I don't want to hear what the Republicans say, and then what the Republicans say that the Democrats say. (Or vice versa.) I want to hear what the Republicans say from their own mouths, and then I want to hear what the Democrats say from their own mouths. And preferably get several Republicans and several Democrats, because maybe the first one I happened to find from one group or the other was an idiot.
© 2022 by Jay Johansen
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