Crisis responses warrant society’s outrage not unemployment

By Meghan Keyes

Japan was hit with a 9.0 earthquake on March 11, leaving more than 6,911 people dead and nearly 10,316 unaccounted for, as of press time. There is no way to diminish the tragedy affecting the Japanese people, although those speaking out against it are trying.

Much of the media’s attention was focused on the “disparaging” tweets of Gilbert Gottfried, a comedian and the voice of Aflac’s duck mascot. Gottfried posted jokes on Twitter, such as, “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, ‘They’ll be another one floating by any minute now,’” and “I was talking to my Japanese real-estate agent. I said, ‘Is there a school in this area.’ She said, ‘Not now, but just wait.’” He was fired from Aflac on March 14 and issued an apology on March 15.

On the other side of things, Glenn Beck got into it on his radio show on March 14 and said, “I’m not saying God is, you know, causing earthquakes—well, I’m not not saying that either! What God does is God’s business, I have no idea. But I’ll tell you this—whether you call it Gaia or whether you call it Jesus, there’s a message being sent. And that is, ‘Hey, you know that stuff we’re doing? [It’s] not really working out real well. Maybe we should stop doing some of it.’” Beck has not received any reprimand, and his comments have received some of the same coverage as Gottfried’s.

Beck has not made any apology nor has he faced much criticism. The only public discussion of what he said occurred on “The View,” where the ladies sort of debated the comments. But where is the public outcry? Where is Beck’s unemployment? Beck was serious, and Gottfried was not. Gottfried should not have been fired for his jokes—if anyone should have been, it should have been Beck. If Gottfried’s offensive comedy routines were a worry to Aflac, the company never should have hired him. However, if people are going to react strongly to the jokes about Japan, their reactions should be even more volatile toward someone with a sincere opinion that Japan deserved this.

Americans have become more tolerant of the conservative Christian extremists’ crazy talk. As a society, Beck’s statement may disturb us in the short-term but it rarely has any staying power beyond that initial shock.

Religion is part of many people’s lives, and exposure to these extreme opinions seems nearly unavoidable with groups such as Westboro Baptist Church protesting troops’ funerals or Pat Robertson blaming Haiti’s earthquake on a deal signed with the devil. The conservatives and Christians get a bad reputation from people like Beck and Robertson—those are the people who should be offended.

Is it too soon to make jokes about an unavoidable natural disaster that claimed thousands of lives? Probably. Is it acceptable to claim you understand God’s will, and it’s to smite a large group of people because of where they reside? No.

Gottfried’s comments, however, appalled the Twitter community and his employers to the point of firing him. He is well-known for his off-color sense of humor and history of politically incorrect remarks—why are his jokes now a problem for Aflac’s reputation?

Twitter is an instant publication. Everything typed and posted is sent out immediately to every follower and into Twitter and Google’s database. The Internet is forever: When pictures are posted, someone else can save it to his or her computer and post it. Anyone can quote Facebook statuses or blog posts, even after they’re gone. When Gottfried clicked the “Tweet!” button, and later clicked the delete button, those sentences did not disappear. It is assumed he intended to lighten a terrible situation in the way he knew best, but when nuclear reactors are leaking radiation and aftershocks are happening, perhaps reconsidering the jokes would have been best. The other thing to note about Twitter is the live reaction and accessibility of the community. No doubt Aflac saw an outburst of anti-Gottfried sentiment on Twitter and felt it needed to distance itself from that immediately.

“When you’re on Twitter, you’re not talking to a stranger or even just your friends,” said Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology, in a March 15 Los Angeles Times article. “There is no private conversation.”

No celebrities or radio broadcasters should use their mediums to hurt others, and the public should respond appropriately when offensive comments are made.