Monday, July 11, 2011

Democracy, Free Speech and Our Culture of Complaint

A recent letter to the editor of my local paper complained that one big box grocery store in town should be ashamed that their shopping carts were filthy and sometimes filled with trash. The author writes: “a very simple thing that should be without problem has turned into something that has frustrated me enough to turn around and take my business elsewhere.”

My counter to this is that taking her business elsewhere, if the calamitously unclean carts are so difficult for her to deal with, should have solved the problem. “Clearly,” the author of this letter laments, “the employees do not have a high priority for their customer’s [sic] good experience at the store.”

Unfortunately, the author of the letter could not be happy shopping at a store with clean carts, and so now the public has been invited to the party on this earthshaking frustration. How would you weigh in? If Oprah Winfrey’s talk show were still running, would she have brought this topic into the public eye?

Blaming the grocery store for the dirty carts is rather like blaming the local regional park districts for all the straws, discarded disposable (full) diapers other awful offal that litters our beaches and other recreational areas.

Here we have a question of responsibility and accountability. Who is responsible? In either case, the responsible party is the one making the mess. Who is accountable? Well, the author of the letter insists that it must be the management.

I have been among thousands of people (do-gooders) who will pick up other people’s trash at the beach. This is a simple example of taking part in a solution. I have shopped at the store accused of “lack of priority” and I have seen the shopping carts collected for steam cleaning and repair off-site. I am convinced that it is as much of a hassle for the store, as it apparently is for some of the customers, that the carts are trashed by the customers.

Carts are provided as a convenience to shoppers in American grocery stores. Public beaches are maintained for the convenience and cultural pleasure of society. There is a sense of entitlement to any person that points the finger at someone else at the imagined slight of an inconvenience.

If we extrapolate the attitude of the letter writer into a thought experiment about the political realm, what does this say about our society and our democracy? Clearly, there are certain strata of our society that feel entitled to complain that they experience inconvenience—we are spoiled. There are stores, after all, that do not have shopping carts or baskets, and there are places in the world where there are no stores, only weekly open markets—you bring your own baskets or string bags. This is the whine of the first world wannnabe (wannabe rich enough not to have to do the shopping). This kind of whining is primary evidence of a sick society.

The next thing I would wonder about is why the editor of the newspaper would find this letter worthy of printing among the other letters in the editorial page? I happen to know that many letters are written, too many to print on a weekly or daily basis (depending on the circulation of any newspaper). I know that there are many people writing letters about important local hot-button issues. Why did this letter get chosen over one about one of these others? Perhaps this is evidence of the one of the death throes of the news media—easier to print something that is not hard-hitting because it is less likely to be a threat to one of the advertisers or local political bodies. While it may be an inconvenience to me that such a paltry letter to the editor would be printed, but I won’t stop reading the newspaper because of it.

All of the mundane aspects of living are draped with webs of inconvenience, but the shopping must be done anyway. Better to have the option of shopping than not. Some people are starving right now, because of lack of food or currency. Others might be better off in that they can hunt and gather—some people don’t know how to do that. Having to shop for food at a grocery store seems among the very least of any of life’s inconveniences, and into each first world life, surely there is a grimy cart waiting to gum up one's day.

We are, apparently, a society of victims who feel a sense of entitlement to complain about all the little things, while barely having a thought to the larger issues. This is very sad, even pitiful, and is very bad news for democracy.

If we cannot fix our minds on the larger issues, if we do not make our voices known with problem-solving intent, if we are unwilling to be responsible enough pick up the trash, no matter how it got there, and move on to something cleaner and more unified and more civil within the society we call our own, then there truly is no hope. Ownership has attendant responsibility, n’est ce pas?

The woman’s letter closed with this line: “Have you no pride at all in your store?”

Personally, I would venture that the writer has too much misplaced pride, not to mention little sense of personal responsibility.

Here are a few thoughts for the day (notes to self):

Don’t waste your right of free speech on the little stuff. Don’t waste whining on public eyes and ears that we want and need to be educated and informed. Don’t blame the wrong party for what isn’t working properly. Don’t print letters of no moment in the paper.

Do be mindful, get real, be accountable, take responsibility, make your voice be known, and take part in the solution to life’s problems. AMEN!

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