A bus full of ten-year-olds is evacuated in Massachusetts. Is there a terrorist on board? A fire? A wolf?
Try: a peanut. It seems to be a single legume, unarmed, on the floor, but you can’t be too careful, can you? What if there’s a child on the bus who’s allergic? What if he hurls himself toward the nut and eats it quicker than an elephant coming off a juice fast? There’s only one way to make absolutely sure that tragedy never happens (besides the driver picking up the nut and throwing it away): mass evacuation.
Overreact much? Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost the age-old ability to distinguish between getting our feet wet in a puddle and the Poseidon Adventure.
The Overreaction: Booze Blunders Prompt National Overhaul for Restaurant Chain
Remember last year when an Applebee’s in Michigan accidentally served an alcoholic drink to a toddler?
Of course you do—and that’s the problem. How did a single waitstaff mishap become national news? I wish that every time I got a side of fries when I asked for a baked potato, NBC News sent a camera crew. Obviously, booze and kids do not mix. But this incident made national headlines because it involved something all too easy to overreact to: a child in danger.
The mom said she noticed something was wrong only when the little guy started saying “Hi” and “Bye” to the walls. But then reporters discovered that this was not the first such incident at an Applebee’s: It had happened two other times since 2005.
“Get a grip. We’re talking three mistakes out of millions of mid-price meals,” announced Applebee’s—not. Instead, corporate crisis control spasmed with apology, promising to retrain the entire staff and switch to single-serve juice boxes immediately, as if the company had been secretly spiking kiddie drinks for decades.
As for the parents, did they demand a free dinner? Please. They played their own all-American part by initially suing for $25,000 of “emotional distress and medical expenses.” But you know who’s really getting emotionally distressed? Us! All this knee-jerk overreaction is turning us into idiots, going nuts on cue over the pettiest of problems and demanding apologies, precautions, and laws that are unnecessary at best and Kafka-with-mad-cow-disease-esque at worst.
Consider the case of the young man caught relieving himself in a reservoir in Portland, Oregon. Disgusting? Yes. As the guy himself admitted, he should have known better.
But the same goes for the city. In reaction to a pint of fluid, it drained the entire reservoir—eight million gallons. What do the bureaucrats think the fish are doing in there? But officials couldn’t just say “It’s no big deal,” because they knew the public has been trained to hear those words as “We don’t care about your safety.”
The Overreaction: Town Bids Permanent Farewell to Barbershop Poles
Our responses are getting bigger and bigger to smaller and smaller threats. Did you ever flee from a spinning barbershop pole, fearing for life and limb? No? Well, the town of Thornton, Colorado, just banned them. One town official explained to the Denver Post, “We don’t want signs to be distracting, especially to motorists.”
If old-fashioned poles are so distracting, shouldn’t every barbershop have a car-shaped hole in its window?
Not to be outdone, a high school in Virginia gave a boy a half-year suspension for launching a spit wad. “Assault is assault is assault,” declared a captain in the local sheriff’s office. Maybe so. But spit wads are spit wads are spit wads, and there’s even an easy way to tell the difference, Captain. Someone gets hit upside the head with a pool cue? Assault. Someone’s trying to keep a straight face in Sex Ed? Spit wad.
It’s all about playing it safe. Which is why you can find a warning label on a fish hook that reads “Harmful if swallowed.” It’s also why the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announces 350 product recalls per year. Some are good moves. I’m glad that exploding toasters have been taken off the market. Frankly, I’m happy most exploding items are off the shelves. But then there’s the recliner recalled because it had a screw protruding from the bottom. While there have been “no reports of injuries to humans,” according to the CPSC, there was “one report of a dog’s fur becoming entangled in the screw.”
“Woof!” That’s doggie for “Even I doubt this product needs a recall.”
But thanks to our lawsuit-crazy world, companies actually embrace recalls as cover: “You can’t sue us for the stupid screw, because we already warned you about the stupid screw when we recalled the stupid chair.”
The Overreaction: Overeager Newscasts Jump to Conclusions
Don’t blame just the lawyers. Save some scorn for the media because we … I mean, they! … willingly play along. “The danger in your den—details at 11!” warns the TV announcer as you glance around warily. And then, eight commercials later, the danger turns out to be … a recliner with a screw sticking out of the bottom!
Given that we are living in what Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, insists is the safest time in human history, the news gins up things to hold on to its viewers. “Up next: Food supply safe, criminals behind bars, and all escaped pythons accounted for!” doesn’t get a news director promoted. Which is why, when my friend worked at a TV station in Philadelphia a few years back, and there was a shooting in early June, her news director ordered a banner to splash across the broadcast, “Summer of Violence!”
“Uh … it’s still June,” my friend pointed out. “We have no idea what July and August will be like.” Too bad. One murder, and Summer of Violence it was, followed by Fall of Fatalities, Winter of Weird Weather, and Spring of Serial Killing Barber Poles.
Even when the news is pretending to assuage fears, it finds ways to fan them, by saying something like “While most blindness is not caused by fork impalement …,” and suddenly you’re eating steak with a spoon. How’s this for passive-aggressive “calming”? Last year, after a 23-year-old New Yorker was reunited with the parents she’d been stolen from as a newborn, CNN assured folks that baby snatching is “extremely rare” and then immediately ran the story “How to Guard Against Baby Snatchers.” CNN went on to report that there was one baby taken from a health-care facility in 2010—out of 4,300,000 births. But the station couldn’t help itself. It warned all new moms to beware of nurses because they could be baby snatchers in disguise.
So now you’ve just given birth, you’re lying in the hospital, and you’re supposed to suspect that every woman who comes in to take your temperature really wants to take your baby? Well, yes, if you buy into this Shark Week world we’re swimming in. If it’s a tragedy, it could happen to you. If it’s a mistake, it could happen again. If it’s a shark, it could be lurking in your local pool.
In New York recently, there were billboards that showed a woman wincing in pain. “Maybe it’s a canker sore,” read the headline. “But maybe it’s cancer.”
Yeah, but maybe it’s a canker sore.