Count to ninety seconds, and calm down

Andrew Donaldson writes on how not to get Penny Sparrowed in the age of social media


NINETY seconds. Not long, is it? 

A mere minute and a half — it’s the point at which the third verse of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby begins, when we learn the lonely title character has died and was buried along with her name and nobody came and Father McKenzie wiped the dirt from his hands at her grave.

But try counting out 90 seconds. That’s a different story…

I raise this because of a new anti-violence campaign in the UK: police and various charities there are urging citizens to chill for 90 seconds before reacting in potentially volatile situations.

The Take 90 initiative is based on scientists’ claims that an emotion like anger will have passed by then. According to the neuroboffins, anger is experienced when a certain switch in the brain is triggered. This anger is essentially an agitated group of cells in the grey matter, but they settle down after only 90 seconds.

I must stress, of course, that there’s a difference between this physical anger and a grudge. Some people not only nurse grudges but suckle them with bile for decades after their wean-by dates and their very beings are forever consumed by seething rage and rancour. And that’s not nice.

But back to Take 90. Tor Garnett, the police officer behind the campaign, this week told the Times of London that aggression, whether on nights out or on the internet, was negatively impacting on our lives, and we needed to “modernise” how we dealt with anger.

“Previously,” Garnett said, “if someone sent you a letter you simply couldn’t get back in 90 seconds, but now it’s normal to reply to texts or emails within that window. 

“Many people know to count to ten, but that doesn’t work and you still feel rage. This campaign is to update us all on the science: our brain is chemically hijacked and we need to wait to get back to our rational brain before reacting.”

All quite commendable, but here at the Mahogany Ridge we were wondering whether the 90 seconds would have helped the likes of Penny Sparrow and Vicki Momberg. 

Both, you may recall, were “agitated” when they went, as it were, badly off-script: Sparrow was apparently enraged by the mess on a beach after New Year’s Eve revelry and Momberg was the victim of an alleged smash-and-grab incident. 

Would their lives have been ruined had they waited to calm down?

Anger is one thing — but stupidity another. No amount of waiting will result in the evaporation of that particularly dulling fog.

And so to our latest outrage: the video posted by the Johannesburg grocer Adam Catzavelos, in which he expressed his delight at being on a beach in Greece with no k*****s in sight. 

The sheer thoughtlessness of the posting was as astounding as its brazen racism. It was gobsmacking. This, in the viral age of Sparrow and Momberg? What on earth was Catzavelos thinking? Was he even thinking? Probably not.

The consequences came on hard and fast. Within hours, Catzavelos was fired from the family business, the private school where his children are enrolled banned him from its premises, and his wife was identified on Twitter as a director at Nike along with calls to boycott the sports gear manufacturer’s retail outlets. 

And there was a grovelling apology from Catzavelos— which was immediately dismissed on social media. The ordeal of shame and public humiliation must continue. Twitter hath decreed it thus. No waiting 90 seconds there, you could argue.

And no surprises, too, that the Economic Freedom Fighters filed a criminal complaint against Catzavelos on Wednesday. 

As the EFF’s Mandisa Mashego told reporters: “We’ve given [the police] everything, we’ve given them evidence. We’ve given them the guy’s address and we’ve even given them his ID number. There’s nothing for them to do, they must go and arrest.”

More interestingly, Mashego then said the EFF would be pushing for the criminalisation of racism. Which was rich, considering whence, etc.

A day later, for example, EFF leader Julius Malema told a Johannesburg press conference there was a plot to assassinate party members because of its stance on land expropriation without compensation.

“They will kill us for that,” Malema said. “There’s a group of white right-wingers who are being trained by Jews in Pretoria to be snipers…”

It’s puzzling that such crass antisemitism is tolerated while we condemn the likes of Sparrow and Catzavelos with zealous self-righteousness. 

Better, I suppose, to be a black racist than a white one. But rather than do or say something silly, I played the Beatles again, and I’m feeling a little better now. 

A version of this article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.