“Praise humbles me,” Oscar Wilde said. “It is when I am abused that I know I have touched the stars.”
If so, I have definitely touched the stars this week.
I’ve been called more rude monosyllables than you could shake a stick at — well, not a really hefty stick.
“If you don't have anything nice to say, please, telephone Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post.”
I don’t know who put up the sign, but it clearly exists somewhere. It’s a variant of the other sign, carven in stone, that reads, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, you probably have a bright future in the 25-7 media cycle.”
I thought I was going to write about something dull and non-controversial today. My list of topics included, “Spanx,” and “isn’t foaming hand-soap great?”
But people kept calling. And tweeting. And e-mailing. And commenting.
Curt words of Anglo-Saxon origin are alive and well and sitting on my answering machine. Someone called me a [unprintable word that definitely isn’t “aunt”]. Then he repeated it, slowly, to make certain that I heard.
My favorite so far is a Web site that posted a picture of every readily available photo of me under the headline: Ew, gross: The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri is really unattractive.
So, er, thank you for that. Fortunately, I was reared in the era where you were forced to develop massive, almost unbearable amounts of self-esteem to compensate for your total lack of marketable skills, so I feel fine about it. I always spoke highly of you, anonymous Internet person!
I wasn’t raised mean. My folks suggested that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, I not say anything at all. As a consequence, I spent most of my childhood in uninterrupted silence. It was like being in a Carthusian monastery, but with better access to hair-care products.
“Aw yeah,” I told my friends. “I’m going to get on cable news and I’m going to be so moderate and temperate that it’ll rock their worlds! They’ll turn to each other and say, ‘Who was that, Ralph? She was so POLITE! Get her a talk show!’”
“Don’t do that,” they said. “You will never be asked back.”
It turns out that politeness is something of a professional handicap. I’ve been doing my best to overcome it.
It’s so much better to be mean.
Find your choir. Preach to it. The meaner and louder the sermon, the better. If you carry your smartphone with you at all times, you never have to interact with anyone with whom you disagree. Instead, you can type derogatory thoughts about them into your personal echo chamber.
“You might like them once you get to know them,” everyone’s mother always said. This is terrifying.
“I can’t get to know him!” we say. “What if I liked him? Then I wouldn’t be able to send this rude tweet about him.”
Politeness probably isn’t dead. If it were, we’d be dancing on its grave.
But old habits die hard. When people started dancing on Andrew Breitbart’s grave, I urged them to stop. When Kathy Griffin asked Michele Bachmann if she were born a bigot, or had, like, grown into it, I urged her not to. When a student tweeted rude things to Governor Sam Brownback, I tried to get her to stop. I did manage this week to imply that a few million people were jerks. But that was a fluke, and I’m still apologizing.
Trying to be polite generally leads people to assume you are a septuagenarian with irritable bowels.
Maybe things have always been thus. The farther back I went, searching for a golden age of civility, the less sure I was that one existed.
Oscar Wilde wrote in 1890 that, “I am afraid that writing to newspapers has a deteriorating influence on style. People get violent and abusive and lose all sense of proportion, when they enter that curious journalistic arena in which the race is always to the noisiest.” Not much has changed.
One of the odd laws of the Internet is that the more obscure and bizarre the site, the nicer the comments tend to be. Store some comments from a Respectable News Site, and they’ll eat through the container. Visit the comments area of an Livejournal community of people who enjoy writing erotic fiction about cat-men, and the comments are correctly spelled, very polite, and uniformly positive.
Maybe we should be more like those folks. Except for the, er, man-cat business.
“But no one would listen if everyone were polite!” everyone crows. “Yelling is the only way to make yourself heard!” Possibly. But have we ever tried the alternative?