The other week I was confronted in a supermarket by another customer who appeared out of nowhere, boiling with anger and screaming at me to apologise to them.
It turned out my trolley had accidentally touched theirs, some time earlier. It happens a lot in supermarkets, but to this customer it was a mortal insult, so they came chasing after me in a vengeful frenzy in which my choice was either to accept their allegations and do what they were abusively screaming at me to do, or suffer the consequence.
I could have stood my ground on a matter of principle; you don’t bend to bullies, or to wild accusers who don’t even have the integrity to be reasonable (something that also seems to happen a lot on social media).
But this was a crowded supermarket. The moment gave me some insight into how some well-publicised brawls in supermarkets might have broken out. I did mention it at the checkout but was met with a shrug. Apparently ‘trolley rage’ is part of life these days.
You have to admit, it’s a winning strategy. Just go around beating up on strangers, putting words in their mouths and forcing them to confess to whatever you want. I suppose the people doing it feel good afterwards; they’ve used their aggression to take away somebody else’s power, haven’t they?
I see a lot of it on social media; and in terms of the ethics there’s not a lot of difference between the people who ‘flame’ or otherwise abuse others online, or who physically try to intimidate them in person. Such behaviour highlights one of the worst aspects of the human condition; and what worries me is that this aspect seems to dominate these days. Anger over the slightest issue is, it seems, the first recourse. It’s sad. We are, it seems, supposedly brought up to have a duty of care to each other; but when push comes to shove (as it were) what really happens is that it’s everyone for themselves, and anybody who questions that – well, that’s an affront that has to be avenged.
I suppose this behaviour reveals itself most in supermarkets with their narrow aisles and giant trolleys, but the same people also walk around in everyday life and the potential’s always going to be there for them to explode with anger at any moment. The idea of strangers jostling against each other in city streets and communal places, all on hair-trigger short fuses and with their rage barely contained, is a frightening one; but it seems to be where things are at these days.
My historical work makes it fairly clear to me that the generations of the First and Second World Wars, who prevailed as social framers up into the 1980s, had a very different approach. And it’s clear to see why; a statistically significant proportion of the young men of two generations from 1914 fought in the wars – an environment that was so artificial in any human sense, so soul-destroying, that the main responses afterwards was to create safe, secure home life and society – one where people really did look out for each other, most of the time.
Sure, we’re all human and the range of human behaviours was present then too, but the emphasis was different – and actively so.
Nobody behaved like Donny from Inglorious Basterds, with his baseball bat. Or Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers.
Today? I worry about where things are going. And what ever happened to simple things like kindness?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018