Americans Rage Against BP, for Better and Often for Worse

BP oil spill protest
BP oil spill protest

Anger, says business ethics author Robert Hoyk, stems from an underlying emotion -- something like powerlessness, or anxiety or shame. "Hostility and excessive anger seem to squelch empathy and guilt," he writes in The Ethical Executive. In the continuing BP oil spill, the biggest American oil tragedy -- indeed, the country's biggest environmental disaster, says top Obama energy advisor Carol Browner -- empathy is squashed as Americans rage against BP.

The anger is so intense that pundits are now asking each other, and the White House press secretary, why we haven't seen enough rage from President Barack Obama. (The answer seems to be: He's just not that rage-y of a guy.) Americans who can't get the wildly emotional response they want from their president have taken the burden of emotion, more and more often, upon themselves. Like the people who call Randy.

Randy Prescott is a VP of Power Origination at BP in Houston, and he isn't a PR representative (indeed, he isn't responding to our inquiries). He was, according to Lord David of the Humid City blog, in New Orleans "hoping to channel monies directly to local resident workers, assisting with clean-up" (presumably, while still being paid for his job as VP of Power Origination). In this capacity, he spoke at a public meeting at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Metairie, La., during which someone raised a concern about local restaurant owners struggling due to reduced tourism and rising prices for shellfish.

According to Steve Beatty, Managing Editor of The Lens, the only publication that reported Prescott's unfortunate statements from this event, a "woman in the crowd asked whether the seafood was safe to eat." Prescott replied: "Louisiana isn't the only place that has shrimp."

A Virtual Mirror of Bathroom-Wall Graffiti

If he really meant that other states in the Gulf Coast, including Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, must also agonize over the shrimp that are endangered -- as David asserted in a blog post that was later removed from Humid City's site -- that context is lost to the thousands or tens of thousands of people who've posted the phone number, email address and even physical mail address for Prescott, along with that quote, and an exhortation to call or shoot him an email. I found Prescott's number first in a Facebook comment stream, from a new friend with whom I'd bonded over oil spill chatter. As soon as I saw her comment, I saw other friends tweeting it and leaving it as their status update. I Googled.

The quote, along with Prescott's contact information, was everywhere, a frightening virtual mirror of bathroom-wall graffiti. Frightening because that rage, directed as it is to someone whose role in this complex tragedy seems small. But it is simple and understandable to find a few choice swearwords for Prescott, to sum up your feelings of hatred in three paragraphs. Or, as one commenter on a forum said, "At first I didn't see the 'email' part of your [request to call or email him] and I thought it said, 'Give him a call or shoot him.' Which I wouldn't mind doing, actually."

In contrast, the missteps of others in the company are far worse. For instance, other company officials approved the use of a well casing that violated BP's own safety policies and design standards, and may have been the reason for the leak. That story, though it may lead to criminal charges, is complex, hard to get in a tweet, so hard to follow that one's anger dissipates by the time you've gotten to the end of the article.

In fact, Prescott's statements are hardly even the worst at his company. Chief Executive Tony Hayward seems bent on self-destruction, in pursuit of parody, with comments that include the spoiled-rich "I'd like my life back" (for which he apologized Wednesday).

You Have to Laugh

Why then not call Hayward? Is that too obvious. Is the target too big (and too well-defended)? If the question is, "how does one person appropriately show his monstrous disapproval of a long series of heinous acts that will certainly lead to unthinkable environmental and human destruction," what's the answer?

The answer, for many, is to laugh so you don't cry, and throw allegorical spitballs in BP's general direction, as publicly as possible. A friend and novelist, Cheryl Strayed, joined one of many Facebook groups bent on doing some combination of these things, this one called "Plugging the Gulf oil leak with the works of Ayn Rand." As of this writing, 37,740 others "liked this, too," although it's anyone's guess how many of these fans have sent their books to the company.

Strayed wrote that "it got me thinking. Why the hell should Ayn Rand get all those royalties? What I would much prefer is that you joined the page Plugging the leak with a brand new copy of Cheryl Strayed's novel TORCH," with the hopes that she'd earn through her advance.

I told Strayed I was working on this column, and she said, "the thing is, I'm of course being funny, attempting to laugh in the face of this tragedy while also making a joke about the struggles of writers. But this is edged with real protest. It's my own statement of despair. My own expression of fear that at least metaphorically -- and perhaps literally -- that hole will never be plugged. The efforts to do so have thus far been so not-so-comically *wrong* that I might as well throw a brand new copy of my novel in its direction."

Rage Is a Cover for Another Emotion

Indeed, BP's efforts to plug the leak with mud, golf balls, old tires and a series of concrete structures already sound farcical. America is just extending the farce, cutting off their hair and sending it to clean up oil (it's being refused), spending hours altering BP's logo in graphical protest, making five-minute satirical music videos, tweeting and Facebooking.

Rage seems well-placed here, given the shocking mistakes, shortcuts, oversights and out-and-out deception that's unfolding before us, yielding great destruction. I would caution all those angry people who would create their own publicity here to remember, however, what business ethics author Hoyk and other psychiatrists say about rage: It's a cover for another emotion, anxiety, powerlessness, shame. The anxiety and powerlessness are honestly felt, but the shame should be acknowledged, as well.

Precious few of us have our hands clean in this tragedy. We, after all, are Big Oil's customers. Even should we successfully boycott BP, even if all the MMS officials are fired, and we vote all current and former elected representatives out of office, we cannot forget that BP is wealthy and the government is expedient because we want oil. We buy it, we use it, we wrap ourselves in plastic, we pump the byproducts of oil into our soil and our streams on purpose through crop fertilizers, we go on vacation to the Gulf of Mexico fueled, literally and figuratively, by oil.

Yes, there is shrimp outside of Louisiana. What Prescott said, out of context or not, is true, and it's not BP's fault. The shrimping industry in Louisiana has been dying for decades, not because of the oil industry, but because of our use of the oil -- among other things, creating dead zones in the Gulf where marine life can't live -- and our government's subsidy of the cost of oil for the transportation of consumer goods, making farmed Indonesian shrimp imports cheaper than those caught a few miles off our shores.

BP has certainly done many things wrong, and the angry public isn't about to let the company catch a break. But instead of making nude protests and sending hate mail to vice presidents of oil things, perhaps Americans would be better served to dig a little deeper, beneath the anger and the swearwords and into the behaviors that got us here. Drill, baby, drill, deeper into our own souls.