Margin for ErrorMay 5, 2012
We’ve become experts at outrage.
We know how to identify when a company, organization, or conference has stepped over the line. We know to sum up the misstep in 140 characters (hashtag optional), fill the comments of the official blog with criticisms and demands, and rally people from around the world to the cause.
I think outrage is exactly what injustice deserves. I’m concerned, though, that our outrage is increasingly becoming our default response to anything we think is wrong, improper, or offensive. Outrage has its place, but when wave after wave of outrage washes over the web every day, we start to lose our sense of perspective and proportion.
The emotion and tactics of collective outrage once focused on public servants, large corporations, and institutions who were caught violating the public trust. Power and privilege rightfully bring with them accountability and high standards.
Now that we’re connected to one another across states and countries, and the Internet and social media have made expression and organizing almost effortless, our targets have expanded substantially. Any startup, blogger, first-time journalist, or small conference who makes a mistake might face the collective anger of thousands of people.
These mistakes rarely involve violence or the breaking of laws. They are mistakes of judgement; embarrassing decisions, poor choices of words, failed attempts at humor, offensive behavior, and things that generally violate the shared standards of the community.
I admire anyone who stands up for what they believe in, who speaks out when they see things that are harmful, especially when it has the potential to silence or discourage others. That’s how we progress and make things better for us and for those who come after us.
There has to be a sense of proportion, though, and an understanding that every one of us and every company will make mistakes, often many of them. There is a difference between one mistake and a long pattern of bad behavior. If this is their first one, let them know. The vast majority will acknowledge the mistake, learn from it, and do better. If they refuse to change and continue to do things you can’t support, then by all means, take your business elsewhere and encourage others to do the same.
Too often, though, we’re skipping past disappointment, frustration, and anger and immediately landing on outrage, regardless of the offense, whether or not the company or person has taken steps to address it, and sometimes, whether we had ever heard of them until today.
I’ve seen people make demands of companies they had no prior relationship with. They demand an apology and then judge whether it was sufficiently sincere. They demand answers: How did this happen? What steps are you taking to make sure it never does again? Who has been fired?
I’m not suggesting that we tolerate things that shouldn’t be tolerated. I am asking for more grace, compassion and patience. Many of the people making these mistakes are very young, often in their first or second jobs or running a company or conference for the first time. Help them learn and be better people, offer advice (privately at first, if at all possible), but give them room to mess up, even fail, and then come back with better judgment and a broader perspective. Every person we admire regrets mistakes they made in the past, often serious ones. Most will also say that those mistakes helped them become who they are.
If nothing else, imagine if you unintentionally stepped over the line next week. How would you want to be treated?
Some of this outrage is born from our frustration at the injustices we see all around us every day, and how hard it is to change things. The gridlock and ineffectiveness of our politics makes things even worse. The instinct is the right one, “I want to do something”, but I’m the first to admit that it’s easier to type an offended tweet from inside our office than help a homeless person outside our office.
The world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be and I’m tired of it, too. But a professional class dedicated to judging every mistake and misstep isn’t the answer.