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.