Benjamin Franklin, that idiot, once wrote, “Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.” Obviously, the twenty-first century has proven him wrong. This is the age of Bill O’Reilly and Frank Rich, Pitchfork reviews and hipster-hate (or possibly self-hate?), and, worst of all, YouTube comments. (Don’t just take my word for it: do a search for something innocuous, like “cats,” click on the first link, and I’ll bet you that the comments include such gems as “Jesus can fucking suck it…SATAN 4 LIFE” or “It appears to me that the little black kitten in 202 and 211 imay have been drugged… If this is true and that is how you’re going to make videos of innocent animals, you shouldn’t be making them. Drug yourself and put it on film and leave the animals alone!!”) Nothing is too sacred or too trifling to bash, and bash angrily, whether the stylistically and morally incoherent Thomas Friedman to grammarians of all stripes.
Of course, every commentator or pundit worth his or her salt is equal parts journalist, polemicist, and gadfly, some with a dash of liar thrown in for good measure. But now, non-journalists of all stripes can instantly broadcast their anger, often times long before their conscience can catch up. Shame? How twentieth century.
And at a time when any jackass can publish their dumb thoughts whenever they want, there are bound to be some large-scale breaches in the social contract. Thus Alice Hoffman, an author known more for her magical realism than her vitriol, suddenly unleashes a (relatively G-rated) Twitter outburst after a snippy review of her novel The Story Sisters ran in The Boston Globe. Or the first commenter on a story about historian and essayist Tony Judt’s battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, writes, “There is a God, it seems.” Or John Stossel attacks the writer of a retrospective on Billy Mays as being “an elitist young author.” (Full disclosure: obviously, that author is me, and what’s actually ridiculous about that blog entry is that that Stossel calls Billy Mays a “free market hero” and a “public servant” completely without irony. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
Small wonder, then, that there is a general decline in civility — a trickle down of anger and thinly veiled hatred, which leads to Tea Parties, outbursts of “You lie!” in the middle of presidential speeches, and plenty of stress eating.
This is not a new observation; musician and “digital pioneer” Jaron Lanier has just written a book that, in part, discusses the “culture of nastiness” on the web. But you don’t need to be Yoda to realize that the amount of sheer vitriol coursing through our collective veins also scares people. Ted Koppel thinks as long as we are angry, “our national pendulum will swing wildly between anarchy and authoritarianism.” So did Hannah Arendt: she wrote that totalitarian states worked because they managed to harness the “self-centered bitterness” of an “atomized and individualized society,” whose members were more likely to tear each other apart than do anything constructive.
But is there a moral here? Beyond emphasizing the need for the “undo send” feature to become standard in Gmail, I’m not sure that anything can be done to change the way people interact with an email link or a comment box — even if they do realize that there’s a human being on the other end.
I’m getting dangerously close to making a pompous generalization about human nature, so I’ll stop short and let someone else do it for me. The very first strip of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts is a pretty angry one. After “good ol’ Charlie Brown” walks past a boy and a girl, the boy turns to no one in particular and says, “How I hate him!” It set the tone for fifty years of lost baseball games, destroyed kites, and unrequited love from the Little Red-Haired Girl. What incivility; what pessimism! And what a glimpse of truth. That first strip is shocking for the same reason that YouTube comments, Pitchfork reviews, and NBC’s treatment of Conan O’Brien are shocking: they reveal the casual callousness and undercurrent of anger that permeates everyday life. No one ought to be surprised about all of this, but, like Charlie Brown, who always tries to kick the football even though he knows that Lucy will just pull it away at the last second, we never quite allow ourselves to believe the worst in other people — or ourselves. Maybe that’s part of the reason why we’re so angry all the time.