Sunday 20 March 2011

That’s insensitive! (Or how not to say something insensitive about Japan)

Thousands have died after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. My condolences to those who have lost loved ones.

Now there’s the threat of a nuclear disaster that could kill many more.

Are Singaporeans afraid yet? I know I am.

Not of the radioactive cloud that is not coming our way, but of inadvertently saying something insensitive about Japan that would get me flamed in cyberspace. (Is that insensitive?)

In the week since the earthquake struck, a certain pattern has emerged: Someone makes an insensitive comment about Japan, usually on the Internet. Outrage ensues. The commenter eventually apologises.

From what I could gather, there are basically three categories of things you shouldn't say about the disaster.

The first category is anything that suggests that Japan had it coming.

For example, Yahoo! reported that an army officer in Singapore wrote on his Facebook page that “There is a reason why God chose Japan...”

According to the report, he eventually apologised after getting some "negative feedback". He seems to have also deleted his Facebook account.

Included in this category is any mention of Pearl Harbour.

A US scriptwriter for the animated TV comedy Family Guy tweeted: “If you wanna feel better about this earthquake in Japan, google 'Pearl Harbor death toll'.”

He had to apologise. Since he's a comedy writer, is it possible he meant the misguided tweet as a joke, even though it isn't funny at all?

Which brings me to the second category: jokes about Japan.

Malaysia’s Berita Harian had to apologise after publishing a cartoon of Ultraman running away from a tsunami.

US comedian Gilbert Gottfried was fired from a job for a number of tweets joking about Japan, including this one: “Japan is really advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them.”

And: “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say: 'There'll be another one floating by any minute now'.”

And: “Japan called me. They said: 'Maybe those jokes are a hit in the U.S., but over here, they're all sinking'.”

He had to apologise.

The jokes were too soon. Gallows humour, anyone?

There is a saying that comedy is tragedy plus time - and a couple of days clearly isn’t enough time.

And in comedy, timing is everything. Mel Brooks came up with Springtime For Hitler more than 20 years after World War II.

Are people more insensitive now? Or are people just too sensitive?

I think people are the same. The difference is that previously, when you said something insensitive, you didn’t put it on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to be shared with the rest of the world.

The Sensitivity Police are everywhere – particularly online.

While the insensitive comments are unfortunate and should be called out, the angry attacks on the commenters have unfortunately at times become much more vicious and disturbing than the offending comments themselves.

Countering incivility with more incivility only adds fuel to the fire of intolerence and hate. It's beginning to resemble an online witchhunt. The Web just amplifies everything, especially the vitriol.

So if you really want to play it safe, you should just avoid the Internet altogether.

Otherwise your offending e-mail might end up on Mr Brown’s blog. That was what happened to MediaCorp.

Which brings me to the third category: utter cluelessness.

MediaCorp had no idea that its e-mail canvassing for advertisements on Channel NewsAsia during its “comprehensive coverage” of the disaster in Japan would be seen as insensitive and spark so much outrage after it went viral that the company had to apologise.

Another example of utter cluelessness is billionaire invester Warren Buffett saying that the disaster in Japan “really creates a buying opportunity”. That’s insensitive!

So is this headline at the Israeli site “Israel fears sushi shortage after quake”.

As Mel Brooks might say: Oy!

Who knows? Maybe I’m utterly clueless myself and this column is also insensitive.


(Too soon?)

- Published in The New Paper, 20 March 2011

Mr Ong,

I find this very difficult to write while containing my anger. I need to clarify things first perhaps.

Firstly, are you a right wing Christian fundamentalist Japanophobe or just an insensitive idiot? I feel no sense of irony in asking you this.

Why did women and children born long after the Second World War deserve to be killed by a tsunami and have their homes destroyed by it?

If we are to relate things to that war then why does a country that suffered the only two atomic bombings in history now deserve 66 years later to be under further threat from radiation poisoning?

I am sure you are the kind of fool who talks about 'political correctness gone mad' and other such vague things that you perceive as threats to your right to say and write whatever you like no matter how it makes people feel.

Would you state your opinions and tell your jokes to the face of a Japanese man or maybe to me?

Would you then hide behind the law or expect protection from the police if things were to turn violent?

Would you see any hypocrisy in that after complaining about authorities rightly trying to shut up idiots spreading hate and bile such as yourself?

Would you think perhaps it would be better to be sensitive?

I'm sure you would bleat like a little lamb. You truly are a pathetic creature unworthy of the word man.

Christopher Arnott


when i first read the reader's letter (above), i was really surprised by how angry it was.

i wasn't even sure what he was offended about or why he thought you held the opinions he accused you of holding.

i went back and reread the column, and i think what may have made him so mad was the implication that people were being oversensitive about earthquake/tsunami jokes.

there was the "are people more insensitive now. or are they more sensitive?" thing. and that line about the "sensitivity police" being everywhere.

And saying that you thought the pearl harbour tweet was a joke places you in the "come on, it's just a joke, why take it so seriously" camp.

i think the reader took a leap of logic here to then conclude that you were defending the people who made these comments, and that you agreed with them.

and that repeating the comments was a sneaky way of saying the same stuff but not getting blamed for it.

i guess writing that you were more afraid of getting flamed for saying the wrong thing about japan than about nuclear radiation didn't help :)

so, do i think the hate mail was deserved? well, i think this particular reader was overreacting.

it sounds like he was already angry about stupid earthquake comments and worked up about people invoking "free speech" in response to criticism, and your column gave him a focal point for the "hate".

but him aside, i'm sure there are lots of people out there who feel it's just wrong to use this disaster as comedic fodder.

is it possible to write a humour piece about the tsunami and *not* offend them?

i dunno. but i guess you tried your darndest.


MY REPLY: While I agree the disaster itself is certainly not comedy fodder, I think the accompanying "That's insensitive!" sideshow is, with guilty parties on both sides. I apologise.