Perhaps etiquette will catch up with the internet some day, but I am doubtful.
If Amy Vanderbilt had to dedicate 700-plus pages of her “Complete Book of Etiquette” to the rather buttoned-down manners and mores of the 1950s, just how dauntingly encylopaedic would a book have to be that catalogued do’s and don’ts for the screamingly in-your-face denizens of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, and the panoply of other social-media apps that may not be a disease in themselves, but thrive by going viral.
Besides, there doesn’t seem to be any inclination for internet inhabitants to seek the civilizing influence of an Amy Vanderbilt or Emily Post. Rules are for sissies (or you can substitute the even less politically correct words that describe people you hold in low esteem because they are polite and know how to spell).
Bottom line: Virtually everyone on the internet believes it is their God-given right to be rude, reckless and ’rong (the three R’s of the digital age). In “Casablanca” the bad guys didn’t “need no steenking badges,” but in the virtual world of social media, the bad guys (that’s all of us) don’t need no steenking manners. We can say whatever we want whenever we want and that includes telling other people that they need to STFU (and if you don’t know what that acronym stands for, considerable yourself blessedly innocent).
The reason for all this pondering is that I had the displeasure of wading through a couple hundred comments posted on Facebook about two letters to the editor published in last Sunday’s Inter Lake. After coming up for air out of the swamp that passes for civilized discourse in the 21st century, I decided I needed to weigh in on what I had discovered — namely, that free speech is wasted on people who don’t have the education to responsibly exercise it.
The two letters in question were from local liberals who are dismayed by Trump’s election, and wrote to express their opinion that Americans ought to let Congress, Trump and their neighbors know that they don’t condone the president-elect’s policies, tone, or supporters.
I ran these two letters in the Inter Lake not because I agree with them, but because that’s what I do as a responsible newspaper editor — I provide a forum for people to talk about what’s on their mind on topics of general interest. In my mind, the presidential election is a topic of general interest.
But it turns out from reading all those Facebook comments, I learned that liberals aren’t supposed to talk about what they believe in any more. Apparently, you lose one election, and you lose your natural rights, too. Moreover, the Inter Lake is not supposed to publish letters from liberals any more or else rock-ribbed conservatives will whine like babies about being exposed to ideas they don’t like.
Now, just a minute! I thought conservatives were the great champions of free speech and fair play. Don’t I read all the time about how ticked off conservatives are that college campuses are huge echo chambers for loony liberal ideologues? Don’t conservatives complain constantly that there is no room for them in the mainstream media? But when two out of a dozen letters in the Inter Lake bashed Trump, suddenly it was the conservatives who were the timid snowflakes looking for a safe space where they didn’t have to confront “micro-aggressions” that made them all shivery and sad.
“The daily interlake just lost a customer,” said one of these crumpled conservatives. “I imagine it’s hard for you guys to stay in business when you intentionally provoke the hard working silent majority.”
The same guy commented elsewhere, “The Daily Interlake is like all liberal news outlet. They never report facts. They lie to their subscribers like all liberals do.”
That one made me laugh. I admit it. It’s not often that I or the Inter Lake get tarred with the liberal label. Apparently, the Inter Lake is not supposed to run letters that might offend conservative readers. But hey, we have liberal readers too, and they probably get offended by reading conservative letters — or, heck, by reading this column! — so maybe we shouldn’t run any conservative letters either. How about if we just shut up and don’t talk to each other at all? That would make for some pretty dull conversations, wouldn’t it? And what the heck do letters to the editor have to do with reporting anyway? Is it possible that American citizens literally don’t know the difference between fact and opinion at this point?
I’m afraid so. And a lot of Americans apparently don’t think they need to listen to anyone who has a different opinion. Admittedly, this is nothing new. Back in the old days, when you took offense at something said by an opponent, you had a duel and tried to kill him. Today, you just call him names and make stuff up.
“It’s what these idiot liberals do,” said one commenter. “They can’t accept the outcome … we conservatives weren’t out protesting and burning other people’s buildings and properties. Suck it up buttercup, you can suffer like we did for 8 years.”
Oh yeah, right. I remember how Republicans were all about getting behind Obama’s liberal agenda in 2008 and celebrating the “hope and change.”
Ummm, no. So far as I know, conservatives weren’t burning other people’s buildings to protest the election of Obama, but there wasn’t a lot of “sucking it up” going on either. Does anyone remember the Tea Party? I thought that was a protest movement. And as for accepting the outcome of the election of Obama, maybe I’m getting senile, but I would swear that I remember some folks calling him an illegitimate president and a usurper … Hmmmm.
But that was then. This is now. In 2008, the internet was still a fun convenience, not a weaponized virus intended to do harm to people we didn’t like and often people we never met.
I do wish there was some way of putting the genie back in the bottle, but don’t count on it. It turns out we just don’t like each other all that much.
A few people do seem to know how to behave politely online, but they are easily drowned out by the screaming that comes from all sides.
Still, I prefer to end this column with a voice of sanity, so here come words of wisdom from one of our readers who also was astounded by the ugly brawl last Sunday on Facebook:
“My mind is blown… Name-calling someone who voiced their opinion? ‘Idiot, moron, freak, tool’ … essentially ‘Move if you don’t think the way I do.’ Really? I know we all have our differing opinions … but at the end of the day, there really are facts, actual ones, not perceived or spun ones, ones that are not ‘controlled’ by the media OR government … People just please read & listen to various sources, stop garnering all your ‘facts’ from one source echo chambers or inherently biased sources … the information is out there, the truth is out there, you just have to look for it … and if you can’t read or hear differing opinions or ideas or thoughts without having a melt down, maybe you should move somewhere where there is only one acceptable viewpoint … Usually, that’s where only government sanctioned ideas are allowed…”