The Importance of Being Anonymous.*

I’ve never been able to do just one thing – neither by choice nor constitution…it’s just not how I’ve rolled through this life. Long ago, while working two or three jobs – can’t remember now – I was also studying full time…and, as per another of my usuals, i was running late.  I was driving up the 78 from Oceanside en route to San Marcos, exhausted, agitated.  Then another person, perhaps more agitated than me, cut me off abruptly, dangerously.  I immediately followed yet another well-worn pattern – I got angry.

If someone cut me off walking through a crowded lane at the supermarket, I might get miffed, but behind the wheel of my car, I was absolutely livid.  I quickly changed lanes and picked up speed, any number of curse words falling freely from my lips in the privacy of my car, and at volume, for there was no one to hear me say those things-I-would-never-say-to-a-person’s-face.  Just as I was about to overtake the [insert explitive of your choice here], I heard a voice, as if from the heavens.

“Better calm down there, now.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another car keeping speed with me to my right – a black and white one, to be exact – and in it sat a plump officer with the loudspeaker radio (is that what it’s called?) in his hand, looking me dead in the eye.  My body immediately shrank into itself, as though I was literally becoming the naughty 12-year old I suddenly felt like.  I let my foot off the gas as my fury melted into shame, nodded and raised a thank you hand to the copper to my right, and muttered a final insult at the guy-who-started-it up ahead to my left.

I have road rage.  No doubt about it.  I even have empathetic road rage.  I even have empathetic road rage for people driving cars I’m not in.

But I don’t have sidewalk rage.  Or shopping mall rage.  Or even long-line rage – at least not most of the time.  Sure – it’s unlikely that an incosiderate walker is going to threaten someone’s life with their thoughtlessness.  But it’s not only that I’m specifically outraged by the danger involved with driving.  It’s also that a certain level of outrage is societally unacceptable in public places, and I subconciously follow that standard.  It’s why we take people prone to fits of rage to public places to give them bad news.  Screaming in a restaurant just isn’t as cozy as screaming in one’s own dining room.

It’s also one of the reasons I am both sickened and intrigued by the phenomenon of the comment thread.  People say the most outlandishly awful things on them.  Hang on.  Let me go find you one:

From “Syrian forces fire scud missiles at rebels:  US official” (Reuters) 12 Dec:

Mark:  Crop dust Syria with pigs blood. That ought to stop the fighting for a while.**

(Took me about 30 seconds to find that nugget of joy.)

I would also argue that comment threads have completely changed the way we write and read about the world around us.  If the ability to comment anonymously is the action, the equal and opposite reaction is that writers are completely naked to criticism for every error – grammatical, factual, or philosophical – they might make (or be perceived to have made).  Consequently, writers either put their guard up, sacrificing the quality of their labor, or become so profoundly aggressive, it’s cringe-worthy.  It is as though getting the news online has become the drunken Thanksgiving political conversation that should never, ever happen.  Except that the most beligerent aunts and uncles get to hide behind names like “TxMedRanger” and “Melee402,” while the writer’s dignity is there for the taking.

There’s been a crapload of research on this.  Just google, “the impact of anonymity on behavior,” and you’ll find an enyclopedia’s worth of data and analysis.

But I would also add that a certain level of anonymity is profoundly important.  When I lived in London, I would take the same commute every single day to work for months on end, never once seeing a face I remembered.  No kidding. Here, I walk.  And the streets of Le Puy are filled with the very same faces every single day.  It’s all I can do not to say hello.  I just remind myself that I do not want to be known as the “crazy” Americaine…some labels are too hard to overcome.

Having said that, I am right now under potentially more scrutiny than I’ve ever been in my life.  I’m teaching English, so my business cards are tucked safely (I hope!) in several people’s wallets, my fliers are strewn across supermarkets, boulangeries and local schools, and my name, photo and location are on French websites advertising my services.  What’s more, I’m in a process I have never experienced outside of paid employment…I’m networking.  That is, I’m having meetings with professionals in my field, dropping my CV, having chats about how the system works, and hopefully raising an interested eyebrow or two with my experience.  Vacancies don’t come up often, but if one does, I’m hoping to be remembered.

So I see these people I recognize all over the streets who don’t know me, but I also see all these people I recognize who do know me.  Here’s hoping I don’t walk a mile and a half to the bus stop with my skirt tucked in my tights like that one time…

When I moved to London, Chris told me the anonymity of it was one of the things he loved the best.  He grew up here, in little ol’ Le Puy, and it was refreshing for him to feel free from the many, many familiar faces.  I’m totally starting to get that.

Here I go – gonna have to say it again, I’m afraid:  This is yet another occasion where it’s all about balance.  I know I bang on about it all the time…balance between work and pleasure, indulgence and restriction, in our relationships…but that’s quite likely because balance seems increasingly to me what it’s all about.  Or maybe I’ve always felt this way.  Who knows.

A perfect example:  One of the biggest differences between French and US or UK media is how defamation and privacy impact the amount, or rather the type, of information the French get.  That is, there is freedom of speech here, but there are also strict federal laws against defaming someone – whether it’s true or not.  And freedom of speech is legally no more important than the right to privacy.  While sitting in my day-long course on “French Civil Life” or somesuch, I was incensed by this.  People have a right to know the truth! says the crazy American.  But the more I think about it, the more I think about how damaged child celebrities become under the harsh gaze of the paparazzi’s flash, about teenagers humiliated for years because of a stupid video taken on a peer’s phone and posted to Youtube in seconds, about employers expecting their staff to work even from home, and having access to them at all times by text or phone or email.  And then I think these frogs might be onto something here.  Though I still think the lines for politicians should be drawn a little differently to our own.

(Incidentally, the New Yorker published a great piece about this in relation to the DSK scandal.)

Navigating this path has never been my concern – I’ve never lived in a small town, I’ve never had to promote my own business, and I’ve never had to network before I got the damn job.  I’ve always taken pride in going against the grain, but if I want my privacy here – and I do – going with the grain (is that even a thing?) is the only way to go.

The crux of it is that, yes – we need a certain amount of privacy to feel comfortable, at ease.  We need to know that Big Brother in his many forms is not spying on us all the time, that we are not being judged by our neighbors at every waking moment.  But we are also communal creatures.  We need other humans like wolves need other wolves.  We like to play, work, sleep and eat together, at least quite a lot of the time.  That means we will inevitably perform some semblance of a policing role for each other.  I don’t shout at a lady on the sidewalk who rudely brushes past me because I would be ashamed – not of what she thought, but of what everyone else thought when they saw me lose my temper.  That’s important.

And it’s worth considering that the anonymity the Internet affords us might be the biggest threat to human interaction as we know it.***

*Just for the record, I do love the comments I get on this blog – even when I don’t agree with them…I got a bit luckier with my followers than Yahoo! News did, I guess. So do please keep ’em coming 😉

**Some interesting facts about the Syrian Civil War:  It’s now lasted nearly two years and taken somewhere between 40 and 55 thousand lives.  And one more thing:  it’s a freaking civil war.  Guess how many US Americans died in that little skirmish we had in the 1860s?  365,000.  In four years.  So it’s a freaking humanitarian crisis, plus ours was way more violent when it happened.  Just sayin’, Mark…if that’s your real name…

***None of this post has anything whatsoever to do with the hacker group Anonymous, and I am hugely supportive of the ways in which online anonymity has empowered oppressed and/or exploited people.  That’s a whole ‘nother conversation – related, but not what I’m on about here.

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5 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Anonymous.*

  1. Victor Halsig says:

    Ann – In the old days people did not LOOK for ways to get at the other guy. FDR had a mistress and the press and society looked the other way because that was his private thing and it did not seem to affect his ability to conduct his office. JFK got a bit of a break althought later, after his death, they made movies about it. Clinton got thrown under the bus on the spot. What seems to have happened is that people have allowed themselves to sink into their anger and desire for vengeance to the degree that they now sometimes even shoot one another on the street for nothing more than a simple argument. And it seems to be ok to shoot kids, too…??? Everywhere I turn I meet people who have family members with whom they no longer have contact because those family members do not WANT to talk to them (If it were just me, I could understand, but many of these people are the cream of the crop. They’ve never done ANYTHING to hurt anyone and yet they are ignored and hated.) I am not suggesting that people should behave in an immoral manner and others should just ignore it, but what I am saying is that we (in the ENTIRE WORLD) need to get our anger under control and stop hurting others just because WE have a problem. There’s that old Chinese saying (paraphrased) that “When one goes out to exact vengeance he should dig two graves.” Time for EVERYONE to forgive, forget, and try to help one another before we fill ALL BOTH of those holes.

  2. I typically consider myself a peaceful person. Quiet and thoughtful, introspective… but I find myself with a bit of rage on occasion, too. When someone cuts me off in the aisles of the grocery store, they’re likely to find extra things in their cart, or several things missing… whichever I can manage. if you cut me off in a parking lot, it’s wise that you don’t let me see where you park, because you’ll likely have ASSHAT written on your car when you come back to it, or some new bumper stickers, or maybe your car will be wearing a sandwich. At a concert several years ago, I was standing near the front, and this huge guy pushed right in front of me, and I could no longer see a thing. He was bouncing all over the place, stepping on me with his big boots, and bumping me with his fat butt… and it’s highly unlikely I would tell you this if we knew each other personally, but that guy went home with a huge booger on the back of his shirt. He kind of had something coming, and that was the only form of retaliation I had available at the moment.

    I tend to get road rage. I’ve tailed someone with my high beams on, and scared people to the next exit ramp. But, a couple of weeks ago, I had a bit of a wake-up call. I wish mine had been as nice as the Copper to your right, but it wasn’t…. I was driving home from my volunteer gig, which I do on Thursdays after work. When I head home from this place, I take a different route home than I do the rest of the week, but the route involves driving through a very poor redneck part of town. Somehow, I missed my turn, so I took an exit, plugged in my GPS, and followed the suggested route. I noticed a sign ahead of me that my lane would end. I was about half a mile from the right turn that would put me on the road I’d meant to turn on earlier. But, my lane was ending, so I signaled to get over to the left, and no one would let me. By that, I mean, the trucks literally went bumper to bumper and honked at me, refusing to let me in. Behind me, as far as I could see, were these damn trucks that weren’t letting me in. So, I put the pedal to the floor and slid in right in front of all of them at the last moment. I did not disrupt traffic. I did not cut anyone off. I was perfectly within all legal boundaries, except possibly with the excess speed I took to get over. The truck at the front of the line didn’t like this one bit. He rode my bumper, flashed his lights, honked over and over. “Deep breaths,” I told myself. I knew I’d done nothing wrong. I drove 5 mph over the speed limit, stopped at the stop sign and drove on. The truck on my tail followed me. Everyone behind him turned at the stop sign. A quarter mile from my turn, the truck passed me on a double yellow line. I took my foot off the gas, anticipating him getting in front of me and slamming on the brakes. I was ready for that. What I wasn’t ready for was him sideswiping me and trying to push my little Civic off the road with his big rusty white pickup truck. I was paying attention, managed to stay on the road, got his plate number, and didn’t stop because it just wasn’t safe. He didn’t stop either, but I really didn’t expect him to. Currently, the police are investigating, my car is repaired, and I’ve since traded in my car for a newer model. But, still… let the rednecks think they won…. at least when it comes to driving. And, uh… don’t miss your turn in the first place?

  3. “Better calm down there now”……… Love it !!!!
    As for the balance bit I couldn’t agree more. Being able to discriminate and keep our balance in our everyday decisions (as people and as community) is more important than ever. And yet our education—an enabler of discrimination—continues to disappoint.
    That was another inspiring post Ann… Keep them comin!

  4. perhaps long ago when survival was a more primal affair rage served a purpose…if so it seems to me to have outlived its usefulness.

    My anonymous pic is a political/opinion statement meant to connect with anyone who “gets” groucho. (if you want to see the real thing look me up on linked in or http://www.agonia.net
    and prepare to be underwhelmed.)

    flaming on the internet, cutting people off in traffic, shooting kids in a CT school…different levels of rage each with its own set of consequences. The one thing they all have in common is they show us the darker side of human nature – hopefully we can all look at the spectacle and realize how far we have come, how far we have to go and continue to find ways to keep the progress alive and thriving.

    Thanks for another post that inspires, informs and stimulates the intellect – very fine indeed.

    • Ann says:

      i’ve only just learned about the conneticut massacre. i’m quite literally speechless. i don’t know what drove him to such unthinkable limits, and i’m afraid it’s too painful to even speculate. this is a tragedy of astronomical proportions…i’m sure i speak for many of us when i say that i’m quite exhausted by the many recent lessons we’ve had on the human capacity for thoughtless cruelty.

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