October 12, 2012

It is a wise thing to be polite . . .

. . .consequently, it is a stupid thing to be rude  . . .
~Arthur Schopenhauer

One of the rules I made when I started this blog was to avoid, if at all possible, ad hominem attacks. This is not just because they are illogical, but also because they are rude.  Occasionally, someone in the public eye would drive me so nuts that I could not refrain from a little dig, but even then I tried hard to stick to the rule of criticising the thing a person had said or done, rather than anything to do with their character or their appearance. I imagine if you dug back through the archives you would find times when I did not strictly honor this rule, but it remains my serious aspiration, and the older I get the more I think it is important.

There is this odd phenomenon of herd mind, when every single pundit appears to pick on the same person at the same time.

The bashing of public figures goes way back and beyond, and in many ways has an honorable history. When Richard Nixon told reporters, ‘You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more,’ he did not get much sympathy, nor did he deserve it. There was a president who possibly needed a bit more kicking around.

But now there is something which does feel new. It is the rise of the Internet pundit and the Twitterers with the trigger fingers. Professional journalists aren’t perfect and do make grievous mistakes, but most of them have some sense of responsibility, to their paper, to their readership, even, if one can say this without everyone falling on the floor laughing, to the ethics of their profession. Not all are hackers and smearers. If you don’t believe me, read Jon Snow on the intricacies and nuances and terrors of Syria, for a shining example of journalism at its crest and peak.

There is something about the new media which can turn quiet people into screamers and slashers. Some of the things written on the comment sections of the most august publications make me blanch and blush.

There are Facebook tantrums and Twitter firestorms and blog eruptions. It is so easy to type fast, as the red mist of rage descends, and press send; the distancing effect of the Internet ether can make a civilised human seem to forget they are talking of another human, with friends and family and feelings. This happens not just to the brigade with the pots of green ink; the unshackling power of social media may lead to respectable commentators hurling about insults that they would never commit to print.

There is something about cyberspace which lets slip the dogs of war.

Hate a politician’s policies; argue their positions until your ears fall off; oppose their ideas with every ideological bone in your body; but don’t resort to playground taunts. Apart from anything else, it’s a bit like Godwin’s Law: first one to mention the Nazis has lost the argument. If you must go straight to fat or ugly or stupid jokes, the suspicion is that your intellectual cupboard is bare, even though the opposite might be true.
It is also unkind. You will wound all those who love that person. You are not winning an argument; you are unleashing untrammelled meanness.

But the real problem with this kind of attack is that it has no utility.  No policy will be changed; no mind converted. All this kind of low barb achieves is an addition to the sum of human unhappiness.

I know all this sounds a bit joyless. So much more fun to slash and burn rather than be reasoned and measured. Some people might even think it bloodless and mealy-mouthed. Self-censorship, they cry, their righteous flags of freedom of expression fluttering in the wind. But I stick with grandma, who advised me from a very young age to endeavor not to make personal remarks.  Private Eye, that most gleeful pricker of balloons, manages to have festivals of satirical fun without going for the straight mean. It will tease and mock; it is fierce in exposing acts of hypocrisy; it will squeeze the pompous and the foolish until the pips squeak. But it is much too clever to go for a low procreation slur. It wins arguments and casts light into shady corners precisely because it dances right up to the edge of the sharpest satire and the most antic lampoon, but rarely descends to pointless cruelty.

The unfenced prairies of cyberspace seem to invite odd levels of intemperance. Inhibitions are cast aside, consequences forgotten, lesser angels come out of the closet.  The problem is, once you are shouting madly like a saloon drunk, you convince no one of the brilliance of your insights, the rightness of your prescriptions, or the goodness of your heart. You are just, shouting.

For the little urban hipsters.


the urban hipsters said...

Thank you. We're all challenged by your point of view.

Anon said...

Every now and then I actually find something worth reading. Thanks.