TOO SOON? I would say so. How long ago does a tragedy have to occur to make it an acceptable butt of a (not at all funny) joke?
Around 44 years is sufficient, believes one international retailer, which last week came under fire for selling a “vintage”, blood-spattered sweatshirt bearing the logo of a university where 13 students were gunned down – and four killed – in a political clash.
The students, from Kent State University in Ohio, died in 1970, after a National Guard Unit fired on campaigners protesting against the Vietnam War. The incident became a flashpoint for ongoing division over the US involvement in the controversial conflict in south-east Asia.
But four decades later and the significance of the event has been long forgotten – by Urban Outfitters at least.
Meanwhile, another retailer – this one British – was this week criticised by mental health campaigners for selling a gift card with the slogan “Don’t get mad, take lithium”.
The social media co-ordinator of fashion and gift store Joy then responded to said criticism by telling offended Twitter users “not to buy it” for anyone with bipolar disorder. “Problem solved!” they wrote, adding glibly that anyone with the illness who saw the card would probably “like it one minute, then hate it the next”.
The Urban Outfitters’ sweatshirt, which was dyed in a mottled pink, featured what appeared to be bloodstains clustered around the left side and smeared across the front.
Critical tweets poured in to the company’s social media account, accusing the retailer of “a sick joke”. “This is actually real?” wrote one Twitter user. Kent State University issued a statement on the subject, saying it was “beyond poor taste” and “trivialises” a loss of life.
Some have speculated that it was a mistake – a garment sold to them by some external joker, the significance of which was likely lost on a young member of staff unaware of the tragedy. Others said it was a cynical marketing ploy from a company which has recently been criticised for selling “vile” items such as a cropped T-shirt printed with the word “depression”.
Either way, there is no doubt the latest incident was unbelievably offensive and inappropriate. As was Joy’s. It was a major misjudgment on the company’s part – whether intentional, or not.
Urban Outfitters has since apologised “for any offense [sic]” the garment may have caused, claiming the “blood stains” were discolouration from the original shade of the shirt. Joy also apologised for its own faux pas, claiming it tries to be “irreverent”, but sometimes gets it wrong. Hmmm.
The point is that in an increasingly removed global and online world we have forgotten what normal social behaviour is. And that has been no more evident anywhere than here in Scotland in recent weeks.
The last days of the independence referendum campaign – and after – were regarded by many as a disgrace.
Individuals on both sides were inevitably guilty of personal attacks: on opposition politicians; members of the public; campaigners; journalists. Some of these attacks occurred in real life, but the vast majority took place online – by cowardly individuals who would not have had the guts (or the ability to be sufficiently articulate) to say the things they did face-to-face.
The internet – and geographical distance – gives people a confidence to be as abusive as they like. But the people on the receiving end will take it as personally as if the attacker were standing in front of them.
Similarly, I’m sure few staff at Urban Outfitters’ head office – or any individual who originally created the shirt – would have the guts to stand before the parents or siblings of Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Allison B Krause, William Knox Schroeder or Sandra Lee Scheuer and wear said blood-spattered sweatshirt.
What seemed to be forgotten in both situations was that everyone is a person. An individual with a right to be respected.
The Kent State students have that right, as do all Scots, no matter what their beliefs or political opinions.
Finally, we now know what Scotland’s future is: we have voted No in an entirely open and democratic process. The debate will rumble on and it has every right to do so.
But, let us all, please, just do it as personably and considerately online as we would if the person we are speaking to were standing in front of us. Let’s make our new Scotland a civilised place to live.