Experts say that one of the reasons road rage is so prevalent is that drivers feel anonymous behind the wheel, and therefore they feel secure enough to say and do things they otherwise wouldn’t if they felt more accountable.
There is a kind of internet rage as well, though sometimes it’s not rage, but just a certain kind of harassment. It is fueled not so much by anonymity but by the ability to lambaste someone and then run away and shut down Safari before he’s had a chance to defend himself. This happens a lot on Facebook, to the point that I have curtailed posting potentially controversial items. There is a certain cadre of people on Facebook that must let it be known every time they see something on my page that they disagree with. The fact that I leave them alone and don’t get all preachy on their page seems to have little effect on their behavior. The courtesy is not returned.
I thought this problem would be solved by saving my political comments for more politically-oriented situations. Not so. In fact, lately I’ve become utterly amazed at what can start an argument on Facebook. Last week, for instance, I was in a cafe reading Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State, when I decided to put on my favorite hat and take a picture. I thought it would make a great profile shot. Within minutes of its being posted, I had people—good people who are friends of mine, no doubt—coming after me about whether or not it was okay to have a hat on inside. “I hope there were no ladies present,” one said. It was all so—-annoying. I don’t dislike the people that were stoking the fires of this conversation, I just found it all to be rather pointless, and a complete killjoy.
Then, today, instead of posting a very unoriginal status update about the fact that February sucks, winter sucks, I miss the sunshine, etc., I decided to get creative and search for an interesting quote. I found a great one by Allan Bloom:
As soon as tradition has come to be recognized as tradition, it is dead.
I thought this might occasion some interesting discussion—and there is much to be said about this quote—but nothing quite so dogmatic as the first response: “Not true.” Gee, thanks for the enlightenment. Happily, the conversation seems to have taken a more productive and more jokey direction.
Is there anything left to discuss in our world that won’t start an argument? Thanks to the Global Warming controversy, not even the weather is safe territory. Nicer conversations were had in the fourteenth century about the filioque question. People even develop intense hatreds over dumb stuff like sports, whether or not clergymen ought to wear lace albs, and which presidential candidate has a more well-defined jaw line and is therefore more deserving of the popular vote. To be sure, sentiment is anterior to logic, and so we’ll always be passionate beings, but why does everything deteriorate into screaming matches? I don’t think it’s our unwitting attempt to copy talking heads; in fact, talking heads are most likely a response to the demands of the market. Perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that our incuriosity has teased the worst parts of our tempers out of us.
I am not innocent in this, I’m sorry to say. Sometimes I start it; other times I allow myself to get sucked into it. One of the things that keeps these kinds of conversations going is the sheer delusion that other people actually give a damn what we think. Many of us think it’s up to us to save the world, to “save souls” for the sake of fill-in-the-blank. This seems to make us lose sight of where the boundaries might be prudently placed on any given conversation.
I am not arguing against the exchange of ideas. In fact, one of the problems here is that a sizable portion of our culture has no tolerance for any worthwhile ideas—ideas in the philosophical sense—to begin with. Conclusions are too frightening for us. But witness the exchange of ideas between thoughtful people—the debate between Foucalt and Chomsky comes to mind—and see how much more civil it is than a shouting match that occurs between two headline readers that only know how to repeat slogans. Our modern functional illiteracy has enforced a kind of dogmatism. It engenders the attitude, for instance, that if you’re against the NEA, you’re against the arts, and that if you’re opposed to gun control, you’re A-okay with violence. Et cetera, ad nauseam.
The last piece of mystery meat in this witches brew seems to be a lack of a sense of humor, which is, I dare say, sometimes related to a lack of wit in general. No one can laugh about anything, not even a stupid hat in a coffee shop. It is also a sense of humor that allows us to see the truth about ourselves. I know for a fact that I am a jackass, and that everyone else is, too, so we need to go easy on each other sometimes. Plato said it more eloquently:
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.