Vive le Silence Respectueux

Vive la fraternite. Vive le Facebook.

The red, white and blue profile-photo filter was just the right touch for expressing sympathy for and solidarity with the French people in the wake of the Friday the Thirteenth attacks. Simple, subtle, clear, and most of all self-effacing. So seldom does it go that way.

The ghastly horrors of 9/11 and Oklahoma City, among many other bloody catastrophes, were followed immediately by repulsive aftershocks of self-congratulatory ad messages from marketers that in some cases cynically exploited mass death to burnish their images, or were simply tone deaf to the trivialization of tragedy.

There is often an impulse to say something appropriately sensitive in the midst of grieving. But it’s strangely hard to find the right expression of sadness or condolence. Ask any young parent who has ever lost a child: “You’ll have more.” “God has a plan.” “She’s in a better place.” “At least you have the other kids.”



In mourning, as in medicine, the guiding principle of condolence is “First do no harm.” Or, put another way: just shut the fuck up. 

On Twitter amid the chaos of Paris, there was, of course, a torrent of expressions from helpless onlookers: outrage, disbelief, horror, deep empathy; some was poignant, some banal. And some so insipid as to gloss over the cruel and complex realities of the crime to victims, survivors, countrymen, political actors, refugees and all parties in the ecosystem of terrorist barbarism.

John Stamos @JohnStamos

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It's the only thing that there's just too little of. #PrayForPeace#Paris

Really, John? For your 1.6 million followers, you reduce terrorist slaughter to a Burt Bacharach lyric? Why not visit the home of a next of kin and drop that pearl of wisdom? Or better yet, just shut the fuck up.

Now, I may be a little oversensitive at the moment, because I have just lost a loved one and have been the beneficiary of my own condolence torrent -- most of it perfunctory, all of it kind and some of it just a bull in a mortuary. It’s just that the impulse to say something comforting is not always matched with sensitivity or common sense.

On the theory that it’s all well intentioned, one doesn’t typically call out a well-wisher for a gaffe. Because everybody’s motives are pure.

The same cannot be said of corporations, however. There is no presumption of anything, except for the fraught conflict between the human sentiments of human employees and the profit motive. When consumer brands spend money to weigh in one tragedy, it is at best naïve and most likely stupid to not see the branding imperative at work.

When, to cite one especially ugly example, Makita power tools humble bragged in its post-Oklahoma City advertising that its products were used in the rescue effort, no rhetoric of “thoughts and prayers” could paper over the naked self-promotion.

And who can forget the automakers and their flag-waving sales promotions after 9/11, turning a bloody wound to the soul of a nation into a 3,000-dead Sale-a-Bration.

This is what I expected to see over the weekend.

Though it may well materialize, it has not thus far. For my part, I don’t want to hear about General Motors' sadness, I don’t want to see any Clydesdales, I don’t want to hear the Hallmark sentiments of any entity incorporated in the state of Delaware.

If you feel the urge coming on, I urge you instead to just hop onto Facebook. Cover your profile pic with the French flag. And otherwise, please, just shut the fuck up.




9 comments about "Vive le Silence Respectueux".
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  1. Jeff Sawyer from GH, November 16, 2015 at 1:39 p.m.

    This article is in my thoughts and prayers, Bob. It will not be forgotten. 

  2. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, November 16, 2015 at 2:16 p.m.

    Mr. Garfield,

    As you note, it's hard to find the right words to express unspeakable grief or hurt. Some people, unable, look to the words of others to convey these expressions. There is no right or wrong in this expression. If it strikes you as insincere, perhaps it's just best to move on. What other people say, or have to say, in this matter, should not affect our own feelings or beliefs. If some are commercially misguided, should that color or deflect from the feelings and possible direction that may come of it?

    What I'm trying to say is that, in this case, perhaps the best course for you as well would be to shut the fuck up.

  3. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 16, 2015 at 5:12 p.m.

    Did anyone else think ABC was asleep at the sensitivity wheel Friday evenig when, in the midst of the just-breaking news, David Muir's World News Tonight went to a Viagra commercial?

  4. Jerry Gibbons from Gibbons Advice, November 16, 2015 at 6:09 p.m.

    Hey Bob - You are often so astute in your obesrvations and comments.  That is why I look forward to your blog.  In this case, however, I have to agree with Jonathan Hunter.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 16, 2015 at 6:49 p.m.

    As usual, you are absolutely correct. Where were thosing stinking mumbo jumbo prayers for this not to happen ? How well they worked. Who is going to support - the actual work supplying work and learning to do the fighting of this evil ? Behind the desks of the apps to download more evil, war games with no security measures....ever ? Who is going to pay, willing to increase their taxes, for those who will be on the front lines ? Who is going to give up their comfy jobs, get into primo physical and mental health to join the military, FBI, CIA, police...the people we count on for protection before and after an attack ? Less than 1% volunteer to enter the military. We were indoctrinated and still are that people of means do not do such things and those who are trying to attain that statua, but enter the more financially secure careers. As far as I am concerned, either do something or as Bob Garfield says keep your feel goody selfishie prayers and words to yourself in the mirror. Anyone who has an inch of humanity we know feel sorrow for victims of this evil where ever they are. 

  6. Mary Helen Sprecher from Sports Destination Management, November 17, 2015 at 9:42 a.m.

    I'm with Jonathan Hutter. The depth of human grief can't be assuaged by one person offering platitudes, prayers. etc. But it is essential to remember they are offering sympathy, no matter whether that comes in the form of a Hallmark card, a song lyric or anything else you may find offensive. Accept it as a symbol of support and stop being so angry about the gift wrapping it comes in.

  7. Tracy Levitz from Adverteria, November 17, 2015 at 2:58 p.m.

    Through the filter of social media, condolences on a wall or timeline can quite often seem like merit badges. Whether it's for the passing of a private individual or a public tragedy, I've often gotten the uncomfortable feeling of online grief as a sort of showing off. Or the "right" thing to do. "Look how sorry *I* can be!" If the bereaved are required to graciously overlook the artless and worse, possibly insincere, then we can graciously overlook their frustration.

    But I believe Mr. Garfield's larger point was specifically directed at brands -- that these tragedies aren't the time or the place and in terms of observing them, less is more. And if you're in doubt about "less," then "STFU."

  8. M McCaughey from ASU, November 17, 2015 at 5:44 p.m.

    I did notice one retailer commiting the very offense you say you've not seen much of.  The day following the tragedy in Paris, an online shopping website presented itself as standing with Paris to sell Chanel, Hermes, and other French designer handbags. The retailer said all net proceeds would go to victims' families, but it was still hard to take the nudge to shop with a link to a tragic event that had just happened.  This major shopping website committed a Stamos in my view.

  9. Bruce Liebowitz from UP ALL NIGHT SONGWRITER, November 17, 2015 at 5:49 p.m.

    The hovering of companies during a tragedy certainly is to be looked upon as immoral at best. The sending of a Hallmark card should not. I love when people support another person in need. It's so much better than being ignored. I doubt that it is done by most people for the sake of boasting and promotion except big business but some of them are truely sorrowful. Does not appear logical that this should have ever been brought up. What is there to boast about? There isn't much of a boast one can claim under the sorrow column.  I say say it best. There are no wrongs or rights, unless for some stupid reason someone decides to say something stupid. Sorry Bob about your loss and you know what? I mean that from the bottom of my heart. 

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