John Lewis boss Andy Street’s comments on France may have offended French sensibilities, provoked the ire of its Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and extracted an apology, but the episode raises serious questions.
No, not about the state of the French economy which is plainly in some difficulty, but there is a wider issue here.
Nobody would condone many of the examples of offensive language and opinions to be found on social media, for example.
But if distaste for such extremes on social media were to shift the general consensus so that people become less tolerant, will public figures become fearful of expressing opinions with any force or honesty?
We already see this among politicians, who rarely these days say anything meaningful or definitive in public and invariably have to resign if private remarks become public. Arguably that has led to disenchantment with all mainstream politicians and the rise of extreme parties less afraid to express themselves.
But if this concern starts to infect all society’s leading figures, isn’t there a risk that we may lose sight of reality, we may be ignoring the elephant in the room?
Fear becomes the driver of collective dishonesty where no one is prepared to speak out, let alone address unpalatable truths.
In such an environment who will deal with our economic, social and business problems?
How can we have a meaningful exchange of ideas or constructive debate without genuine, honest and fearless dialogue?
Who is going to tell the King his suit isn’t made of cloth?