Did you hear about the death at a New York City Walmart early Friday morning? Black Friday shoppers were so eager to get inside and start spending money that they broke through the store’s front doors and trampled an employee.
All over social media, this story and similar bits and pieces of anecdotes are being reported as the latest evidence of the depravity of our society. But I’ve been sitting here Friday afternoon wondering whether we’re all just looking for evidence to confirm what we already believe.
There’s an odd bias that causes what’s expected to be reported and talked about, especially if the anecdote confirms what we already believe. For instance, there are stories every year on Black Friday about how violent it is to be shopping today, especially at Walmart (since Walmart is the all-purpose boogeyman today). There’s always at least one story about a shopper being trampled to death. (It was an employee in the story today who was killed, but maybe a dead shopper will still turn up and save the narrative.)
But I’ve been to stores on Black Friday and never seen anything vaguely violent. My friends who are “serious shoppers” don’t seem to see this horrible violence. They might see angry people argue over who gets to buy the last giant television for a few hundred dollars off, maybe. They might have even heard frustrated people threaten each other over who gets to buy the last $9 crockpot.
But I’m pretty sure that more people were killed in their cars on the way to shop today than die in the stores. If you combined every Black Friday-related “shopping death” for decades and decades, it still wouldn’t be as many as were killed in car accidents before breakfast this morning.
In other words, the situation isn’t really what the stories make it appear, but we believe that the rare stories must say something about our society — especially when they confirm what we already believe.
I believe that our society is degenerating into something I don’t like. Most of my friends believe that, too. We see people’s values changing in ways that we don’t like. We see people valuing material things more than we would like them to. And we see a meanness that is very de-humanizing.
So maybe it’s easy for us to believe that violent anecdotes say something about the death of our society — something that may or may not be true.
This is the danger of anecdotes as news — and of assuming that random news reports tell us something meaningful about the world around us.
I have no interest in shopping today. I’m also disgusted that so many people are so obsessed with material things that they go to such lengths to buy. I’m even disturbed that people get so much pleasure from spending their money on things that ultimately don’t matter.
But even though I believe those things, I think the narrative that it’s violent and dangerous today is essentially dishonest. It’s an interpretation that’s simply repeated because it’s convenient evidence for those of us who already feel that our society is falling apart.
The vast majority of people who shopped today didn’t experience any violence or experience any danger in stores. Statistically speaking, they were in far more danger from traffic driving to and from shopping than they were while they were in stores. But that’s not the story we’re hearing.
I’m disturbed by what I see as an overly materialistic culture. But the narrative that Black Friday is a carnival of violence signifying the ruin of civilization is overblown. I’m tempted to fall for it, but I just don’t think it’s honest.