A Polite Veneer

I was musing about something this morning. I woke, couldn’t get back to sleep, and was amusing myself scrolling through facebook. I didn’t have the brain cells awake to do something productive, and I haven’t been on facebook more than to check notifications in a few days. I cleaned out the gaming notices long ago, and what remains looks a bit like an old-school community newspaper.

You know what I mean, unless you’re very young. There is the social column, and the personals, and oh dear lord the letters to the editor. My community, over a thousand ‘friends’ strong, doesn’t have the celebrities or social arbiters the traditional might think of. Instead, we are in mourning for the deaths of a science fiction writer, and a James Bond villain. The personals range from pleas for wandering children to come home, to joking references to being friendzoned. The letters to the editor… well, my friends run the gamut of social, political, and class strata. It’s interesting to read and see what people have to say.

But I have noticed something in all this interaction. There is a lot of anger, and few inhibitions about unleashing that anger on a perceived target. It doesn’t even matter if the initial comment was aimed at the person who took offence, they will happily step up and start shouting. Arguments seem to be a favorite pasttime online. I’ve seen this with comments on blogs and websites, which is why there are very few where I will even read the comments. In groups, moderators can and will set boundaries. My community seems to largely follow the late Jim Baen’s credo, “Don’t be a butthead.” But on an individual’s wall, or on the thread of someone who encourages argument, it can quickly devolve past the level of reasonable and rational into a screaming barroom brawl.

Only with words. I’m fairly sure that the majority of those who make a habit of taking offence and stomping all over the internet in high dudgeon wouldn’t be caught getting into an actual barroom brawl. In real life, as we all do, that polite social veneer comes into play, hiding the teeth and claws. The internet has changed something, and I have seen signs that it is creeping outward into ‘polite society’ as people become used to the daily arguments online. However, I don’t think I would blame that on the internet. I think it has always been there, in the heart of man.

Western society abandoned manners, as belonging to an outdated system that involved patriarchy and chivalry, without stopping to inspect what we were throwing out. Our cultural revolution of the sixties for ‘freedom’ has left a void that is gaping over what lay under the masks. Add into this the likelihood of ever actually meeting in the flesh that person you just mortally offended, and well… the teeth and claws come out. Humanity in all its reality is revealed, and it’s not always pretty.

I find it impossible to lose hope in our community, however. Those who lose their cool over and over, move further to the fringe, and are eventually ostracized and ignored. Unlike real life in the not-to-distant past, however, they still have options to find work and new friends elsewhere. Once, when travel was difficult, a shunned human had few choices, which is why it was used as a punishment, and an effective one. Coming back to the present, we find that we spend time with those who are funny, forgiving, and smart. Self-selection means that the community becomes a tight-knit one, and I’d miss it if it went away. I just worry about the level of anger, sometimes.


9 thoughts on “A Polite Veneer

    • And then you feel free to vent all your frustration on them? I don’t lose it online very often, because that’s not how I was taught to treat people, and it’s not how I’d want to be treated. (sigh… humanity, you are so aggravating!)

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  1. This loss of civilized veneer is something I’ve been noticing for a long time. I don’t know that it’s gotten worse since the internet, but before the internet, my circle didn’t include people who were like that. I was more than a little shocked when I did get internet for the first time, to find out just how hateful and nasty some people can be. But of course it’s there inside of all of us, just most of us have learned to have that civilized veneer covering up what’s inside of us. The good old-fashioned word is sin — we are all sinners.


  2. This is from memory, and I may have it wrong, but Robert Heinlein, in “Friday” has it that the surest sign of a decaying society, invariably ,is a decline in common (nowadays, uncommon) courtesy and good manners. Seems to me that there’s one entry in :The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” that makes the same point.


  3. I don’t know which is more common, but I think part of what you’re identifying is inherent to the nature of writing and more people having a chance to see the… workings… of words and manipulating oppinions– I’ve gotten to know some of my relatives a lot better online, because what they say holds still. The words aren’t said quick and then the moment passes, they aren’t quickly overwhelmed by more words following, they aren’t stuffed in the middle of sneers.

    I get a good look at what they say, and when, and sometimes it’s really not pretty.

    It’s changed how I interact with people in real life, because now I don’t always go along with the things folks’ behavior indicates they expect of me.
    This really doesn’t go over well with, say, long term teachers of young children who are accustomed to treating everyone like a small child under their instruction. Including middle aged adults. The usual tactic of accusing those who don’t meekly accept the correction of picking a fight doesn’t work very much anymore, either.

    There’s also the people who have always been able to make random claims about what this or that study said who are now having to face people actually going to look…and disagree if it doesn’t actually say that, with proof that it’s not an agree to disagree thing.

    It’s as if someone had been a stage magician of great skill and suddenly they’re on tape, so the tricks that work in person break down when someone can rewind and view the tape, looking at first one hand and then the other. Some are going to get really mad, some are going to change their methods.


  4. My entire life, good manners have been mocked as being outdated or uptight or lame. (in favor of everyone behaving like the mocker wanted, but nevermind)

    From what I’ve read of Alinsky, most of his tactic depended on the folks he was opposing being decent. If you victimize people who are polite, folks are going to be less polite. Presuming on manners has always been “a thing,” it’s sort of inherent to the system, but it’s like charity– one of the biggest bads is to abuse it.


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