This Remembrance Day, most Canadians will wear our poppies, observe two minutes of silence, and remember those who have fought and died for our country.
When I think about World War II and the Holocaust, I’m always astounded and dismayed by the power that maniacal dictators have over their followers. What could make so many rational, level-headed and mature people cause such harm and suffering to others – especially those who have done no harm to them? Just like you, I now feel confident that we have risen above this horrendous behaviour. We are civilized and benevolent, and we will never again be influenced by a twisted despot, or even a charismatic cult leader.
When we think about the atrocities committed by the Nazis during WWII, it’s easy to pin the blame on Adolph Hitler, and speculate that the Holocaust probably wouldn’t have happened if people hadn’t fallen under the spell of Hitler’s horrific hyperbole. We could also speculate that it’s unlikely that in 1978, the members of the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, would have drunk the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid if they weren’t coerced by their leader, Jim Jones. Similarly, the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult certainly wouldn’t have committed mass suicide in 1997 without the urging of their own charismatic leaders. We can reassure ourselves by saying that such destructive behaviour (to others and to ourselves) will occur only if we allow ourselves to be influenced by devious leaders; in their absence, we will always act rationally, justly and compassionately.
That’s what I thought about our modern society too, until a few weeks ago when I was perusing Facebook. I read a comment that, on the surface, doesn’t stand out as particularly shocking, but what it represents is (to me, anyway) is a little unsettling. The sequence of events started when one of my Facebook friends posted an urban legend on his wall:
This is the Wal-Mart cash back scam – one that’s been making the rounds since 2004. I was surprised that he hadn’t encountered this one before. In this speculative story, an enraged and decidedly inattentive Wal-Mart shopper returns home and notices a $40 cash back charge on his bill. He didn’t recall requesting or receiving $40, so he adopts the conspiracy angle and assumes that there must be a button that the cashier can press to surreptitiously initiate a cash back request on the POS (Point Of Sale) terminal. His conclusion is, of course, utter nonsense; cashiers cannot initiate cash back requests under any circumstances. A moment’s thought makes it obvious that this ability would create a gaping security hole in the payment process. Also, if you look closely at the scanned receipt, you’ll see that the cash back amount is circled and initialed, presumably by the customer, to acknowledge the receipt of the $40. This doesn’t exactly bolster his credibility…
When I saw this urban legend, I posted a link to a Snopes article stating that the story was false and explaining in detail why the author’s claim just wasn’t possible. My Facebook friend then thanked me for this information, and I felt pleased that I had helped vanquish another urban legend.
A few hours later, a someone else posted “I feel like beating up some blue-vested scumwads”, which obviously refers to Wal-Mart employees and presumably their cashiers. To be fair, this post is probably more posturing than anything else, and I’m sure that this person has no intention of actually carrying out this threat. If s/he had, then I would have read about the incident in the newspaper. However, the sentiment still concerns me, because it represents retaliation without a transgression.
Let’s analyze this sequence of events:
- An inattentive Wal-Mart shopper notices a $40 cash back entry on his receipt that he doesn’t remember requesting. He immediately assumes that the cashier is involved in a scam, and then writes an inflammatory e-mail which he sends to his friends.
- Although his hypothesis is not plausible, his friends automatically assume his version is true, and forward the e-mail to their friends. The e-mail eventually becomes widespread enough to be considered an urban legend. Over the years, several variations of the story appear (all of which are documented by Snopes).
- Someone I know posts a link to this apocryphal tale on his wall. I see it an hour later, and immediately post a link to the corresponding Snopes web page, which identifies it as an urban legend having no merit whatsoever.
- Another person sees the urban legend, ignores my subsequent Snopes link, becomes incensed by this (fictional) injustice, and then writes that s/he wants to harm a Wal-Mart cashier.
The agitated Facebook poster didn’t lose any money, and neither did anyone else, since there wasn’t an actual scam. This person also wasn’t under the spell of a charismatic leader, spouting rhetoric and inflaming passions. Even the urban legend’s author didn’t recommend any form of vigilante justice – his story was merely an ill-informed warning to others. Now – nine years after the original story was circulated – someone who wasn’t cheated wants to harm a completely innocent stranger. A desire to physically injure an innocent person has arisen from nothing.
I find this not only frightening, but I see it as evidence that we really haven’t matured as a species. Our weakness, as I see it, is our ignorance and inattentiveness. This escalation could have been halted at any time if we had just asked questions and analyzed what we were reading, instead of tacitly accepting as truth, whatever appeared in our Inbox or whatever we read on social media.
If we hope to conquer this weakness, then we must question everything. I realize that those of us who grew up before the Internet tend to view anything in print as authoritative, but this is no longer the case. Facebook, Twitter and your e-mail Inbox are not legitimate news sources. There are no editors or fact checkers, and nothing is vetted. The signal-to-noise ratio is orders of magnitude higher than it was only a generation ago, and it’s up to us to filter out the detritus. Let me put this another way: if you’re using a public restroom, would you wipe down the toilet seat before you sat down on it, or would you simply assume that the stall’s last occupant sanitized it thoroughly after they were done, and left it sparkling clean and completely germ-free for the next person? Treat stories received via e-mail and social media the same way – assume that they are probably full of crap.
Finally, don’t simply react – think, analyze and evaluate everything you read. If we hope to evolve into a kinder and more enlightened society, then we need to be more proactive in this digital age. I’ll leave you with a few words from a 1981 Rush song called Witch Hunt “Quick to judge, quick to anger, slow to understand”.