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Western society abandoned manners, as belonging to an outdated system that involved patriarchy and chivalry, without stopping to inspect what we were throwing out.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.