The Catch-22 Of Manners (June 12, 2010)

Whenever I pick up a Jane Austen novel, a work by the Bronte sisters, or one of many other classics of British literature, I am both thrilled and saddened to recognize myself in a world of slackened manners. On the one hand, keeping up with appearances and civilities seemed to be such an exhausting effort, one I just don’t have time for in my own life. I am not that great at remembering names, so how often would I redden in the face at having lost Mr. So and So’s surname? I would be a social pariah at the neighborhood ball in a flash.

On the other hand, people today are bracingly rude. I am not simply referring to the guy who steps on your toe in a crowded commuter train and never apologizes. Neither am I alluding to people who cut in line, take more than their portion, or burp in public. While all of these behaviors may be obnoxious, I am interested in the power of words and their varying effects. I both love and loathe that we live in a historical epoch where people will say just about anything to you, with zero regard for your feelings or their own image. This phenomenon is amplified when it comes to the Internet. The ability to be controversial from the safe confines of your home office seems to be empowering for many.

And that is terrific in a variety ways. We live in an alienated, siloed quasi-community. Many of us don’t engage with our physical neighbors anymore, but are able to carry on debates and conversations with other web surfers in Sri Lanka. There is something both strange and wonderful about that. As we become more fractious and divided in our personal politics, and lose the ability to make small talk with those we encounter while taking out the trash, at least we can form connections, somehow, some way. When we feel in our daily lives, that our little voice doesn’t matter, it is affirming to know that we can be heard (or read) by someone, somewhere.

At the same time, I wonder if these e-connections we are building across the world cause us to forget that we are actually interacting with people, not machines – people who have feelings and reactions that you cannot see while staring at a monitor. My personal rule of thumb is this: I will never write something that I am fearful or ashamed to say in public. However, this is clearly not general practice. When I read a news item on the web, or am directed to the latest hot You Tube video, I am often beyond appalled at the galling commentary I find at the end of the item. As a writer, a liberal and a human being, I cannot but champion free speech. It is simply lamentable that this right is often misconstrued as the right to be an arse.

There is no use hankering for a return to formality. Once lost, social fetters are not willingly recalled, and that is as it should be. I remind myself that I would not have liked to be a female in Austen’s time, treated as a simpleton and “protected” as an item of witless property. The liberty to express oneself often accompanies quantifiable improvements in social status, and I wouldn’t undo centuries of progress for anything. That said, it is hard not to feel wistful for the days when the days when people thought a bit before they spoke. Being a jerk just because you can is not an empowering exercise of your rights. Consideration can be trying, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the attempt a little more often.

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