Japan’s Pain is No Laughing Matter

It seems some people just don’t know when to shut up. And in the communication professions, that trait can be treacherous.

Gilbert Gottfried, one of the least funny comedians still getting work, lost his job as the voice of the Aflac duck (who knew that was Gottfried all this time?) after he tweeted some decidedly crass comments related to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. He wasn’t alone. Dan Turner, spokesman for Mississippi Gov. (and presidential hopeful) Haley Barbour was fired for the same reason.

Both Aflac and Barbour did exactly the right thing. Spend a few minutes watching the horrifying footage coming out of Japan and you quickly realize there’s nothing funny about the catastrophe.

What really bothers me is that anyone would question whether or not the two spokesmen should have been fired. Yet comments on blogs and at communication websites like Ragan.com indicate people — even communicators — push the line between funny and tasteless to the outer limits.

It really makes me wonder what has led us to this point of accepting callousness, especially in the wake of one of the worst human tragedies of our time. Americans were pretty well united in our feeling that there should be a moratorium on wisecracks and gallows humor following 9/11, but the same rules don’t apply for a culture halfway around the world that we really don’t know or understand.

Pondering the reasons why caused me to recall a study I read about recently that found 75 percent of today’s college students report being less empathetic than previous generations and that the trend toward decreased compassion began about 30 years ago.

That sounds about right. I don’t need a study to tell me that people today generally think more of themselves, their needs, their rights, what happens to them than they think about other people. An entire generation (or two?) has been told how special they are, how they are all winners. This mindset yields Gilbert Gottfried making Japan jokes and Charlie Sheen selling out a “show” based on his narcissistic rants following his firing by a TV studio.

My 14-year-old son told me of a classroom discussion at school about the Japan tragedy. He said several guys in the class said they didn’t care what was happening in Japan; it’s half a world away and doesn’t affect them.

The study on students’ lack of empathy suggested that one cause might be the fact that students read less fiction today. Another study finds that reading may be linked to empathy; the number of stories preschoolers read predict their ability to understand others’ emotions. Adults who read less fiction say they are less empathetic.

We corporate communicators might have something to contribute. Perhaps the stories we tell in our organizations help our fellow employees to be more empathetic toward the people with whom they work. It’s certainly worth a shot.