Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Death of Dignity

So the good people of Valley Stream, New York, now have a dubious claim to fame: they are the world's deadliest shoppers. News reports around the world reported that Jdimytai Damour, an employee at the local Wal-Mart, died after a crowd smashed the door and trampled him as they rushed to find holiday bargains. This, at 4:55 am, 5 minutes before the store was set to open. As authorities struggled to close the store, shoppers were indignant. Even when told a man had died, some insisted they be permitted to continue shopping. Noone is being charged in the incident, but union officials and police are blaming Wal-Mart for having insufficient security.

Seriously? The fault is with the store for not stopping the crowd from becoming a deadly mob in the first place? Maybe, it's just me, but I'm inclined to blame the people who, you know, TRAMPLED A MAN TO DEATH.

To be sure, many were likely tired and frustrated by a long wait. Perhaps some were obsessed with finding the toy that -- in its absence -- would ruin Christmas for their children. And I'm sure that none of them meant for anyone to get hurt. There are plenty of excuses. Still, what line of reasoning compels not a few, but two thousand people to line up outside a Wal-Mart in the middle of the night, so that they can go shopping at five am? I wouldn't do it. You know why?

It's beneath me.

This sort of thinking is too rare these days. In our egalitarian world, the idea that certain things are beneath one's dignity seems like snobbery. Thus that which is crass and embarrassing can be undertaken without second thought. And if we feel no embarrassment over lining up at 3 in the morning to be the first to get a stuffed toy or MP3 player, what's wrong with pushing someone out of the way to get it. And if we're not ashamed to push people, why not step on one or two as well. And if someone dies, well, at least I have my new TV.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fast Talk: Inappropriate

I read in the news today that Carleton University's student's union has embarrassed itself by canceling its annual cystic fibrosis fundraiser on the grounds that the disease affects mainly white men, and why should they get any help? But what interests me most is the university's response. The President expressed "regret" over the decision and said the student union used language that was "inappropriate."

Leaving aside the issue of how one can regret something that someone else did, I'm really starting to chafe at the overuse of the word "inappropriate." To be sure, there are times when appropriateness of language is important, but it has become commonplace to reject any statement one objects to as "inappropriate." It's a nasty little trick, though. Nasty because it tends to head off any debate over the original utterance. One can't defend the original statement because it was never attacked as wrong, just inappropriate. And since what's appropriate is usually a matter of taste, the conversation typically ends there. Meanwhile the university president (or whoever) seems to take a thoughtful moral stand without having to actually take a stand on anything at all.

What the Carleton President should have said was that the student union's motion was wrong in its facts and shameful in its mean-spiritedness. But then I suppose I'm expecting too much for a leader of an institution of higher education.

Such courage would, I guess, be inappropriate.