© TC MEDIA/Colin MacLean
John Mellish, owner of Mellish Motors in New Annan, is shown with the latest billboard sign outside his business. One such recent sign, stating that "women can't drive" has resulted in death threats to both himself and those who've raised concerns about his sign.
Mellish Motors writes on sign "Women are like snowflakes — they can't drive," bringing out worst in social media
SUMMERSIDE – The calls have been coming fast and furious to John Mellish all week.
Mellish has lost track of how many interviews he's given, how many messages of support he's received, how many times he's been told off and that one woman who phoned to say she'd gladly shoot him.
It all started with a sign.
"Women are like snowflakes — they can't drive."
That sentence adorned the billboard outside Mellish's business, Mellish Motors, in New Annan for about a week recently.
For the past nine years, John and his wife, Ursula, have used one side of their sign to periodically post short sayings or puns. The content often lampoons local news or politics.
When pictures of this particular sign were posted to the Internet by an unamused observer earlier this week they touched a chord on social media and set off a heated debate that's spread to news organizations in several countries.
Some say the sign is sexist, misogynistic and painfully unfunny.
"Gee, I wonder how little boys get the idea in their head it's okay to be sexist and that the fault of 'not getting the joke' remains on the shoulders of women. It's a mystery," posted Gail Rhyno to Facebook.
Others did not see the sign as something worth getting upset about.
Colette Cole, posting on a Toronto Star article about the sign, said, "(Of) all the things someone could be offended over. Sheesh. Just stop being so thin-skinned, people."
Mellish isn't apologizing and says he's glad it started a discussion.
"Do I believe women are bad drivers? No, I don't believe that. I saw that exact quote on a blog site, thought it was stupid, thought it was cute and it went up on my sign," he said, adding this is usually his criteria/process for most of his postings.
Shortly after putting up a new message he got a heads up about the heated debate online.
He and Ursula discussed the situation, he said, and wondered if they should just leave well enough alone and move on.
They decided to do the opposite.
They posted another sign, "Sensitive women don't read tomorrow's sign. You know who you are."
They both wanted to prove a point and draw some attention to what they see as a societal problem in social media, said Mellish, namely that it can be a toxic place where people can anonymously ruin reputations, business and lives in general with a few button clicks.
He's been using a print-out version of an online comment thread to make his point, noting it's full of vulgar and violent comments directed at himself and the people who've expressed offence at the sign.
But even though he expected backlash, he wasn't prepared for just how bad it's gotten, he said. He especially feels sorry for the young woman, Chelsea Ling, whose postings about the sign helped draw media attention to it.
"It didn't get near as bad for me as I thought it was going to be. But I think for the person who brought this up, it got a whole lot worse for her than it did for me. I only got one death threat, she got lots. It's a real shame," said Mellish.
Offended by the sign or not, there's no excuse for that kind of behaviour, he added.
"I'm never going to talk to anybody or about anybody like that — there's absolutely no place in our society for that."