Arguments on-line are handicapped by two things—the limitations of the written word and the fact that most correspondents don’t actually know each other.
Limitations of th written word. That may sound odd coming from a writer. It is my belief that the written word can perform amazing things if used properly. But it has a specific trajectory and application and therefore needs be used appropriately. When so used, we find working definitions of “well-written” and “beautiful prose.” When we come upon texts which seem lacking in one or more elements usually taken as given in such descriptions and yet find ourselves compelled by the sentences, we tend to modify our appreciation by saying “Well, so-n-so is a good storyteller.” This is a way of saying that while we enjoyed reading the piece in question, we realize that the wordsmithing was not on par with our expectations of “beautiful prose.” Sometimes this is not really fair. We may be reacting to stylistic choices rather than actual wordcraft per whatever metric we’re using. (For instance, with few exceptions I don’t actually think Larry Niven writes beautiful prose, but I enjoy the stories, and he language is efficient if sometimes inelegant. This is a question of taste for the most part.)
The limitations of the written word to which I refer have entirely to do with regards to what we call Conversation. Conversation is different. Conversation relies as much if not more on the actual presence of the conversants, because body language, tonal inflection, eye contact, the ineffable quality of verbal interaction. Such things can be evoked in writing between two characters, but both those characters are products of the artifice of storytelling, not actual human beings trying to say something to each other. What is there is an absolute ownership of both sides of the “conversation” within the context of the story by the writer. Once you have two people contributing to a dialogue that control is lost and it doesn’t matter how much nuance one brings to one’s own contribution, at some point meaning becomes fluid and misunderstandings manifest, occasionally ramifying in runaway claims and counterclaims that can take people into places from which there is no logical escape.
All you can then do is apologize, proclaim mea culpa, and let it go.
But people aren’t geared that way. Whereas normal conversation can allow for something to be dropped and ignored as the topic changes and the words move on, written conversation remains in place, a goad and challenge, and must be explicitly nullified—apology, explanation, repudiation, whatever is required must be done in fact before the offending bit can be ignored by everyone involved. If the offender puts something out there that demands one of these and then fails to do so, the offending line remains, a challenge, a fetid, rotting remnant, a reminder that is difficult to ignore, and proof that what was said was in fact said and nothing has been done to address the offense.
The limitation of the written word is exemplified by its permanence, in this sense, and in its persistent insistence on its own validity.
There are similar if different limitations to the spoken word, but we are not here interested in that except insofar as people treat the written as if it were the spoken. In online dialogue, for instance.
Phrases can be tossed off in conversation and if we’re all in the same room we can engage or ignore as the flow takes us, but online, in chatrooms and fora, we do not have that freedom. No phrase tossed off remains tossed off.
Insult remains. Error persists. Frustration can then mount, theoretically to infinity.
We must, in order to remain civil and productive among ourselves, be even more willing to back up, own mistakes, apologize for offense (intended or otherwise), and pay attention to our words before they become unretractable.
The infelicities of intent do not convey in the same way here.
In a recent exchange over a topic I do not wish to resurrect I said some things in an immoderate and ill-considered fashion—as if I were in the same room with everyone and we all played by the rules of actual realtime conversation—and have felt crappy about something I said since. Because instead of just backing up and realizing what I said, while intending it to apply only to the topic at hand, had broader consequences, I doubled down and defended my choice of opprobrium.
In this, I was to some extent driven by the nature of the conversation and in particular the frustrations of the topic. No real excuse.
You see, these “conversations” are in between critters. If we were writing letters to each other, more care would be taken, I believe, in what we say and how we say it. But because we’re engaging in what we think of as a conversation, we do not apply the same care as we would in a letter. We try and some of us are more successful than others. But it’s a deceptive game and it is easy to forget that we aren’t just talkin’ here.
So I, for one, absented myself for a time to give due consideration to what I did and how I did it.
Because, you see, like most people, I have prejudices. I do not believe people ever “cure” themselves of prejudice—they either find ways to contain it or it fades away in time. Occasionally, we discover that what we thought we had gotten over is still there, waiting only for the proper moment and circumstance to reveal itself and show us that we still think in unfortunate ways. Intellectual sophistication often does away with what are essentially naivetes of ill-considered thinking, but not always—sometimes it’s only a mask, even to ourselves. The right phrase comes along, the sufficient provocation, and voila! There it is, in all its unlovely glory, a prejudice and its attendant statements.
I was reminded here that I still have one. It might be the last one I have that is of a purely visceral nature—I have many prejudices which I consider “honestly” earned of an intellectual nature (for instance, I have a marrow-deep prejudice against country music and Harlequin romances and certain strains of political theory, but these have all been arrived at after long consideration, not unmodified infantile reactions to childish programming, though I admit that for some people there may be no difference)—and it emerged and I must own it. When I exercise it I mean it to apply to very specific people at very specific times, not a blanket ignominy splashed over everyone that coincidentally falls into the parameters of my prejudice—but that meaning and intent to do not convey outside face to face conversation and probably not even then. It is sloppy thinking and revelatory of a fey bit of unlikability in my psyche that needs redressing.
I’m working on it.
But I thought it might be useful to examine the circumstances in which it came to a froth, because we keep running aground on what I consider the poor use by certain people of a mechanism which requires more care than some of us give it.
My apologies to any I may have offended (and especially to those I know I offended) and I promise to try to do better.