Thursday, August 14, 2014

What people are thinking when they speak to perennially outraged internet writers

There is a genre of internet ranting, common to Twitter and "women's blogs," wherein a writer describes a social encounter she has recently had with a stranger or a vague acquaintance, to whom she has recounted some aspect of her personal life and who responded with some well-intentioned comment or advice that proved unhelpful, or even absurd, to the writer. This hapless interlocutor's advice is then reproduced for the gratification of the writer's audience as evidence of the shocking insensitivity of people out there (as against all the right-thinking people in here) who will just walk up and say anything to you these days, you know, and without even knowing you. The reader of this Tweet or post is then invited to exasperate himself in solidarity with the writer in the comments section. Can you even believe this person said that? What were they thinking? How dare they speak? 

Here is one such rant, posted  on Facebook by my friend, featuring various questions and suggestions regarding the writer's long-distance academic marriage. The post itself is moderately funny, despite the strong undercurrent of bitterness, aimed I thought only partly at the people supposedly asking her these questions, and in part at the unpleasantness of her circumstances. But, judging by the comments, no, it's all, Can you even believe this person said that? What were they thinking? How dare they speak? 

For example, this comment:
"I would like, just once, to have an encounter with someone who says all manner of horrible, invasive jokes and comments you've heard 10,000 times before, and to ask them honestly why they say things like that. Do you really think that you, a stranger or brief acquaintance, are more familiar with this person's circumstances than they are? Do you really think you've offered them a solution to their problem they haven't already considered? Do you REALLY think that asking them personal questions ("But the sex is great then, right, because you only see each other so often?") will benefit you in some way??? "
Good news, outraged commenter peep: Miss Self-Important is here to tell you exactly why people "say things like that." No, it's not because they think they're more familiar with your complex and trying circumstances than you are, or they would probably not bother to ask you questions about them in the first place. It's not because they desire to floor you with the originality of their response, but fail to inquire whether their quip has not been offered to you on 10,000 prior instances. It's not because they doubt your superior competence in solving your own problems, which you have as yet failed to solve or else you wouldn't be complaining about them. No, short-fused commenter peep, it's because they're trying to be friendly and nice.

I know, I know, friendly good intentions are the absolute worst. We should probably just decapitate the people who dare to speak to you and demonstrate interest in you without knowing you from birth while we have them in sight, because such individuals are likely to be serial offenders, and if you don't stop them now, they'll only go on to victimize others. I mean, can't they see that you're a committed hermit, that you've taken vows of silence and are forbidden from all communication with the people by whom you're regularly surrounded? Isn't that obvious from the way you're standing around awkwardly at this party with a drink in your hand, or sitting on the train staring into space? Why do they insist on harassing you with their conversation when they haven't even been briefed about your life history yet? It's like they think talking is pleasant, or making friends is worthwhile, or some reactionary nonsense like that. I mean, really. There oughtta be a law.

There's little that annoys me less than being chatted with by strangers, or vague acquaintances. I hardly ever start up conversations with such people, but I love it when they start them with me. Maybe it's because I rarely talk to people I don't know that I'm glad they talk to me - how would I ever talk to anyone otherwise, or have any friends? I even love being asked for directions on the street, and I used to be sad when I didn't know the place being sought, but now I have a phone that solves all navigational quandaries. I also don't mind when men (or, as is often the case in San Diego, bums) on the street compliment my appearance on I suppose the off-chance that this will pique my interest in them or for no reason at all, although I guess that's something we're supposed to be against these days. I love all forms of non-threatening stranger interaction because I'm pretty certain that without it - that is, if everyone were as cold and stand-offish as I am - there would not be any civilization at all. And we should be willing to make small sacrifices for civilization, like the sacrifice of our right to flip out when people we've just met don't know everything about us and say useless or redundant things in absence of this knowledge. So when such people ask me what I do for a living and don't immediately understand how I can be a grad student at a school 2,000 miles from the city I live in, or that a political science PhD is not a path to a job in politics, it doesn't annoy me, though these confusions are common and recurring. Why should anyone not in your line or work be expected to know its ins and outs? How is it reasonable to expect, or demand, that people read up on the intricacies of the academic job market before talking to me, or only presume to talk to me if they already know all about it? Why ought their simply naive but not ill-spirited suggestions or questions be offensive?

In "Puritans and Prigs," one of her best essays in defense of Calvinism, Marilynne Robinson points out that by ascribing all priggishness to the long-extinct Puritans, we think ourselves cured of all their failings by the passage of time and hardly notice how much this move rests on willful self-delusion or our own even more ominous forms of priggishness. One modern form that priggishness takes is precisely such uncharitable persnickitiness about the speech of strangers:
A great many of us, in the face of recent experience, have arrived with a jolt at the archaic-sounding conclusion that morality was the glue holding society together, just when we were in the middle of proving that it was a repressive system to be blamed for all our ills. It is not easy at this point for us to decide just what morality is or how to apply it to our circumstances. But we have priggishness at hand, up to date and eager to go to work, and it does a fine imitation of morality, self-persuaded as a method actor. It looks like it and it feels like it, both to those who wield it and to those who taste its lash... 
Priggishness is useful in the absence of true morality, which requires years of development, perhaps thousands of years, and cannot simply be summoned as needed. Its inwardness and quietism make its presence difficult to sense, let alone quantify, and they make its expression often idiosyncratic and hard to control. But priggishness makes its presence felt. And it is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig's formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradic- tion in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one's better nature, if only in order to embarrass dissent. A prig in good form can make one ashamed to hold a conviction so lightly, and, at the same time, ashamed to hold it at all... 
Recently I saw a woman correct a man in public - an older man whom she did not know well - for a remark of his she chose to interpret as ethnocentric. What he said could easily have been defended, but he accepted the rebuke and was saddened and embarrassed. This was not a scene from some guerrilla war against unenlightened thinking. The woman had simply made a demonstration of the fact that her education was more recent, more fashionable and more extensive than his, with the implication, which he seemed to accept, that right thinking was a property or attainment of hers in a way it never could be of his. To be able to defend magnanimity while asserting class advantage! And with an audience already entirely persuaded of the evils of ethnocentricity, therefore more than ready to admire! This is why the true prig so often hás a spring in his step. Morality could never offer such heady satisfactions.  
The woman's objection was a quibble, of course. In six months the language she provided in place of his will no doubt be objectionable - no doubt in certain quarters it is already. And that is the genius of it. In six months she will know the new language, while he is still reminding himself to use the words she told him he must prefer. To insist that thinking worthy of respect can be transmitted in a special verbal code only is to claim it for the class that can concern itself with inventing and acquiring these codes and is so situated in life as to be able, or compelled, to learn them. The more tortuous our locutions the more blood in our streets. I do not think these phenomena are unrelated, or that they are related in the sense that the thought-reforms we attempt are not extensive enough or have not taken hold. I think they are related as two manifestations of one phenomenon of social polarization.


abrahamandsarah said...

I finally read the Robinson essay. It's very good.

Miss Self-Important said...

It is. The other essays in that book are also excellent.