Articles published in the Richland County Bar Association's Richbar News

Keeping Calm

April 9, 2015Richbar News Articles

I think all right thinking people in this country are sick and tired of being told that ordinary, decent people are fed up in this country with being sick and tired.   I’m certainly not! And I’m sick and tired of being told that I am.”  Graham Chapman, Monty Python,  Right Thinking People” 1973.   

You know what I’m getting sick and tired of being told to do?  I’m fed up with being told to “KEEP CALM and CARRY ON.”  Surely you’ve seen that slogan everywhere lately — mugs, t-shirts, posters, beach towels, iPhone cases, pillows, defibrillators and farming implements.  You probably also know that the catchphrase comes from a propaganda poster commissioned by the British Ministry of Information after the outbreak of World War II.  The poster was meant to shore up the public’s morale in the face of the coming German attack.  What you might not know, however, is that this poster was never actually used at all during the war, because it was to be issued only upon the actual invasion of Britain by the Germans which, as we know, never happened.  The poster was not re-discovered until around the year 2000.   

As with many things of noble origin, it was co-opted almost immediately.   Here are some of the variants the British government would surely never have intended:

“KEEP CALM and DO GYMNASTICS” (not safe during Luftwaffe air raid)

“KEEP CALM and DRIVE BMW” (now that’s ironic)

“KEEP CALM and TAKE CARE because YOLO.” (No. Just no.)

Why is this message so appealing to governments (or advertisers for that matter)?   What’s so powerful about it that the British government wasn’t even going to use it, unless the Germans hit their beaches?  It’s because that it implies — without actually saying — that there is a problem looming.  Something is wrong.  Something is missing.  Something bad is coming.  And such implications work wonders when governments and advertisers want people to do (or not do) things.

Governments can use the implication to create not only fortitude — but inaction.  Think of our own government’s Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS).  Popularly called the “Terror Alert Level,” the HSAS was the color-coded five tiered warning system used from 2001-2011. Green meant the risk of terrorist attack was “low”; Blue was “guarded”; Yellow as “elevated”; Orange was “high” and Red was “severe.”  This system was probably well-intended, at least initially.  However, in its 10 year history, the HSAS never dipped below Yellow (risk of terrorist attack SIGNIFICANT) and was pushed up to Orange (risk of attack HIGH) on multiple occasions.   [The HSAS was finally (and mercifully) replaced by the current National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) which simply advises whether or not a threat current exists].

My point is not that we didn’t need a system.  My point is that a system that communicates continuous danger is paralyzing.  If everyday before you got into your car, I told you that your risk of getting into an an accident was “SIGNIFICANT,” would you ever put the key in the ignition?   But such paralysis can be useful, no? People are more willing to accept things like privacy deprivations when on the apparent verge of “significant risk of terror attack.”  Governments can get things passed in threatening conditions that a mobilized population would not accept.

As Winston Churchill said, “Never waste a good crisis.”

More benignly, advertisers know the power of this type of message and use it all the time to get us to buy things, with their own version:  KEEP CALM and JUST BUY THIS.  Remember in the 70s when we were told sugar was evil?  The market stepped in to save us with sugar free foods.  When we learned that fat (not sugar) was the “real” problem in the 80s, we were sold on fat-free products.  More recently, we were told that it’s artificial sweeteners that are really dangerous.  Thus, I saw a Mountain Dew display the other day that proudly proclaimed “made with 100% real sugar.”  I think my head is going to explode now.

But, since I’m supposed to KEEP CALM, I’ve resolved not to let my head explode.  Because, maybe the dissatisfaction that the advertisers create is not real.  And maybe the continuous threats of danger from elected officials are not quite what they appear.  Maybe we are finally ready to get out of crisis mode and return to “normal,” whatever that means.

So when I do KEEP CALM it will be for no particular reason, and on the off-chance that there might not really be anything to freak out about at all. So keep calm, everyone.  And take care.  Because YOLO.

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