I see the collapse of modern culture in this biscuit promotion at a fast food restaurant.
That might seem alarmist hyperbole, but I see it as a tiny symptom of something much larger. All around us, competence is dying. Incompetence is becoming both expected and accepted — and I can’t think of a more obvious early indicator of a culture’s coming death.
This sign has been in front of a Birmingham-area Burger King for weeks, but the problem is not just a local phenomenon. I see the same sorts of things everywhere, both in the physical space around me and in the incoherent mush of popular media.
The sign says “2 FOR 4 BISCUITS.” Are they offering two biscuits for $4? Or is it four biscuits for $2? If you happen to know what’s typical for Burger King biscuits, maybe you’d have a guess, but even then, it would be just a guess.
If this were unusual, I would just laugh at it and move on, but this sort of casual incompetence is everywhere today. It scares me and it angers me.
If the problem were limited to biscuits or fast food restaurants, it would annoy me but it wouldn’t seem like something larger. But this cancer of incompetence is growing — and it threatens more and more of society.
Most news writers can’t write competently. Their editors are little better. They don’t seem to understand grammar or logic or (heaven forbid) AP style. As a result, the information we get from the media is worse and worse. You can blame it on ideological bias if you want — and there’s certainly some of that — but sheer incompetence is even worse. (Take a look at the teaser headline below from CNN’s website this Saturday.)
It’s bad enough to tweak a news story (consciously or not) to make your political side look better, but it’s infinitely worse if you truly don’t even understand the news you’re writing. Newspapers are getting terrible all over, but our local paper is one of the worst. After beancounters at the corporate office decided to fire the copy editors and get rid of competent journalists with experience, they’re left with people who are mostly incompetent. Some are idiots. Some are ignorant. A once-proud newspaper has been reduced to brain-deadening incompetence, but I suppose the corporate beancounters are happy.
I constantly read examples of workers at restaurants and day-care centers and retail stores doing simple things which put people in real danger through sheer incompetence. I encounter such incompetence from employees in stores all the time — and I’m pretty sure you do, too.
One of my most vivid memories of this was a few years ago when a customer handed a cashier at a fast-food restaurant some change along with some currency. The customer’s total came to something such as $5.32 and the customer initially gave the clerk a $10 bill. Then the customer realized he had 32 cents in change, so he added that.
The cashier had already entered $10 in the register as the amount given to her, so she was completely confused. She was so accustomed to the machine doing her math that she had no understanding of what the customer was doing — even after he explained. The confused cashier finally called out to a manager, “Hey, I need to borrow your ‘math head’ over here.” It was very difficult for her to understand that $10.32 minus $5.32 meant the change should be $5.
When I tell stories such as this, people mostly nod vigorously and then start lecturing about whatever they see as the core ills of society. Some want to talk about how terrible teachers are. Others want to blast the entire government-operated school system. Others see it as an indictment of society’s lack of willingness to give enough money to schools. And on and on and on. Everybody knows who to blame.
Except me. I see plenty of places for blame, but I’m less interested in the big-picture blame.
I don’t believe I can fix everything — for fast food workers who can’t do simple math or for college students who can’t write or journalists who don’t know their trade.
I’m frightened and angry about it because the problems are getting more widespread and are putting us in danger.
Did the guy who wrote the software in my self-driving car know what he was doing? Competence isn’t as important as making sure that all the “right groups” are represented among the coders, right, Google? Does the person running the advanced medical equipment at a hospital know what he’s doing when I show up at the emergency room with a serious problem? Is he going to miss something because he’s grown up in a society where competence is slowly becoming optional?
Incompetent people are everywhere around us. They’re putting all of us in danger. They’re making us less able to become more productive and improve our lives. They’re a risk to an entire culture.
The worst part is that so few people care.
If I told the local Burger King manager (or one of the employees) about this unclear sign, I would get a shrug. Why should I care? Why should he care?
The best thing I know to do is to uphold higher standards and encourage others to do the same. Competence matters to me and I want to teach my future children that competence should matter to everyone. If you have your child in a typical school — even one in an affluent area — you’re putting that child at risk of being dragged along into the mindless incompetence which characterizes our age.
Everybody makes mistakes. I certainly make a lot of them. I don’t expect anybody to be perfect, so that’s not the point. I do expect decent and educated people to care about competence and to care about self-improvement.
I don’t know how to change the coming collapse of western culture, but I don’t plan to be part of it. I don’t intend to be part of the cause and I don’t intend to be stuck with the effect. If you want to pretend that nothing is happening — and there’s no cause for alarm and no cause to change your life — you’re going to be shocked when the inevitable gets here.
So the next time you see simple incompetence — about biscuit pricing or apostrophes or how to make change — remember that there’s a lot more at stake. It’s an entire culture slowly falling apart.