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Issue #133 - September 2006

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Yours, Disgusted

By Cheryl Morgan

Here we have one of those reviews that probably doesnít belong in Emerald City but which I am going to include nonetheless. Reviewing Lynne Trussís book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, was reasonably on topic because it dealt with punctuation, a vital topic for anyone with an interest in literature. In contrast, Trussís latest work, Talk to the Hand, is about the rudeness of contemporary life (specifically in the UK). This, at first sight, has very little to do with science fiction. It does, however, turn out to have quite a bit to do with the Internet, and ultimately something to do with Worldcon as well. Bear with me.

There were aspects of Eats, Shoots and Leaves that made the book sound as if it was aimed directly at the sort of Englishman who reads the Daily Telegraph, believes everything it tells him, and writes angry letters to said paper that he signs, "Yours, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells". (I have no idea why such people always live in Tunbridge Wells, but British tradition has it that they do, in much the same way as all hippies live in California.) The book was saved by the fact that Truss actually knows rather a lot about grammar and is by no means as doctrinaire about it as her supposed "zero tolerance" approach would suggest.

In contrast, Talk to the Hand is very much a book written with the disgusted Telegraph reader in mind. It is also a book on a topic (sociology) that Truss knows much less well. In fairness, she does understand that the concept of rudeness is culturally determined and that what offends her may not offend other people, but at the same time her own prejudices are fairly obvious and sometimes quite bizarre. I guess it is a valid option to hate all graffiti regardless of its artistic quality, but personally I often find it much preferable to vast swathes of naked concrete. It is also quite likely that some American waiters are quite rude in demanding answers to confusing questions about how the customer wants her breakfast prepared, but I donít see how giving you the options is rude. Indeed, I would have thought it much more likely that Americans would be offended by the, "Youíll bloody well have your breakfast the way we make it" attitude you tend to get in the UK. And as for people who find a waiter saying, "There you go," when delivering your food to be the height of rudeness, well, it is no wonder that the inhabitants of Tunbridge Wells are so easily roused to furious letter-writing if that is all it takes to get them mad.

Still, Truss has a sociological argument to make, and it behooves me to examine it. The core of the book comprises what she calls, "six reasons to stay at home and bolt the door." These reasons comprise six groups of rude behavior that she claims are all too prevalent in the modern world and contribute to, "the utter bloody rudeness of everyday life."

Reason 1, titled "Was That So Hard To Say?" is all about polite speech. Ostensibly it is about words like "pleaseí, "thank you" and "sorry". The chapter has some good stuff in it about the origins of manners, but I found it a little confused. For example, Truss is fiercely critical of what she calls the "aggressive hospitality" of American retailers. So what does she want? She complains that British shops are bad because the staff are rude, yet American shops are bad because the staff have been trained to be polite. The real problem here, it seems to me, is that so much of the "politeness" that we experience in everyday life is so transparently insincere ó from the call center staff who tell you how much they value your call while resolutely refusing to accept any responsibility for the issue you are reporting, to the "have a nice day" culture of McDonalds ó that being polite has lost its impact. No one believes it any more.

Reason 2 is called "Why am I the One Doing This?", and is all about things like automated call centers and the Internet. Here too there seemed to me to be a lot more to this than Truss was prepared to admit. To start with, one of the reasons that firms automate their call centers is because no one in their right mind wants to work in one, and that is at least in part because it is so stressful dealing with stupid and abusive customers, an issue Truss doesnít acknowledge. There are other good reasons firms are putting more responsibility onto the customer. Price is one. Making a flight or hotel booking yourself is cheaper (and probably more accurate) than getting someone else to do it for you. Safety from litigation is another. If people are prepared so sue McDonalds because their coffee is hot I can quite see that there would be a temptation to supply it cold and expect the customers to heat it for themselves. The chapter is also suffused with Trussís loathing of all things computer-related, which doesnít help at all.

"My Bubble, My Rules" is mainly about how people behave in public as if there was no one else around. They chatter loudly on mobile phones, or to their friends, about all sorts of private matters, and get offended if other people overhear. This is certainly behavior you see in the blogosphere, for example the fuss over the Tiptree Award this year with people claiming that work posted publicly on blogs was private and should not be quoted without the authorís permission. There is, however, a wider aspect to this, one of individuals and small groups defining their own moral standards. Iíll come back to this later.

Onwards to reason 4. "The Universal Eff-Off Reflex" is another phenomenon that you can see very clearly in the blogosphere. Having been confronted with something that they have done that annoys others, be it abandoning chewing gum on a bus seat or posting something stupid and abusive in a blog, many people now respond very aggressively. Sometimes you donít have to do anything beyond exist to provoke this sort of reaction. My favorite personal example was one day when I was on my way to Heathrow laden down with two heavy suitcases. Iíd been staying in Wimbledon with Teddy and Tom, and was struggling to the railway station dragging the cases behind me. The sidewalk was almost empty, but in the distance coming towards me was a man in traditional City dress, bowler hat and all. He had plenty of time to see me and what I was doing, and yet when he passed me he let out a stream of abuse about how I was in his way. I was gobsmacked. I guess he expected me to walk in the road so he could have the sidewalk to himself.

"Booing the Judges" is essentially about lack of respect for authority. Or, as Truss puts it, "Authority is largely perceived as a kind of personal insult which must be challenged." And by "authority" she doesnít just mean people like the police, she means anyone who might be due any sort of respect for any reason. Expert opinion is a good example. Indeed, one of the (many) reasons I decided to discontinue Emerald City is that it was becoming clear to me that fewer and fewer people valued the idea of an expert review. Leaving aside the question as to whether I have any expertise, if expertise is not valued in any way, there is no point in wasting time trying to provide it.

Finally, and perhaps the crux of the matter, is reason 6: "Someone else will clean it up." This is about the demise of public-spiritedness. Or, as Truss has it, "Who dares be public-spirited these days? The very term Ďpublic-spiritedí is so outmoded that it actually took me a couple of days to remember it." Truss, of course, appears to be thinking at least in part of the sort of busy-body who goes round the neighborhood picking up other peopleís litter and complaining loudly about having to do it, or stopping schoolchildren and straightening their ties because their mothers couldnít be bothered to do so before letting them out of the house. Personally Iím quite happy to see that sort of thing disappear, but public-spirited can mean many other things as well. In particular it means the giving of oneís time to the community on a voluntary basis in order to create something of benefit for the common good. Or, to be very specific, it means running things like Worldcon. Truss is very big on the idea that we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and here I think is a very good example of where she is right. Fewer and fewer people seem to be prepared to give their time to such voluntary exercises these days, and those who are not prepared to do so, but take advantage of what is done, are often in no way grateful. Indeed, the assumption frequently is that no one would go through the trouble of putting on a convention for fun, so the people doing it must be raking in profits hand-over-fist.

At this point we come to a rather more serious piece of sociology: Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam. This is a classic work on the demise of communal activity in American society. I think Kevin has a copy somewhere, but Iím in the UK so Iím going to have to rely on Trussís brief mention of the book. I hope sheís got it right, because this, I think, is important.

Putnam distinguishes usefully between two basic types of "social capital" ó bridging and bonding ó to rather sobering effect. Bridging is inclusive; bonding is exclusive. The ultimate bridging group would be the Civil Rights Movement; the ultimate bonding group would be the Ku Klux Klan. Bridging is a lubricant; bonding is an adhesive. Bridging obliges you to adapt and compromise (it generates "broader identities and reciprocity"); bonding confirms you are perfectly all right defining yourself by your existing desires and connections (it "bolsters our narrower selves"). And guess which type is doing quite well at the moment?

Now we should be in a position to move beyond there mere outrage that Truss offers and start to ask ourselves why there is so much apparent rudeness in the world. We should probably start from the idea that politeness is a social artifact; it is a system that humans develop to allow them to live more effectively in communities. But that means that it is, at least to some extent, culturally determined. The classic schoolboy example is that in ancient Rome it was apparently polite behavior at a feast to vomit up your meal afterwards so as to demonstrate that your host had given you far more rich food that you could possibly cope with. We donít do that these days. Our standards of polite behavior are different. But are they different because our culture has changed, or because we can no longer identify the culture to which we belong.

It is important to note at this point that the concept of "society" didnít go away just because Margaret Thatcher said that there is no such thing. In any case, the society-free world that Thatcher envisaged was one based heavily on concepts of personal responsibility that are very much missing from the world that Truss describes. Modern Britain may in part be Thatcherís fault, but it certainly wasnít her intention.

Human beings have traditionally formed social groupings based on geography and ethnicity. They have initially been what Putnam would call bonded groups, mainly because they have been small enough and isolated enough to stifle dissent. But civilization brings with it a requirement for bridge-building. Trade, for example, requires dealing politely with groups other than you own (and Iím talking about real trade here, not just exploitation of ignorant savages). Equally running an empire ó as opposed to merely conquering one ó requires the political will to get people from different cultures to work together.

Social groupings based on commonality of belief have gone hand-in-hand with this to a greater or lesser extent down through history. Small social groupings find it easy to enforce conformity of belief (ask any LGBT person whether theyíd rather live in a city or a small town). Larger groupings, because of the need for bridged social relationships, are less likely to enforce conformity of beliefs. When they do manage to do so it generally ends in disaster ó the Crusades, WWII and so on. Social groupings also develop within societies based on class: the wealth that people have and the sort of social roles that they have.

If you look at Britain today you will see that all of these things that act to form social groups are going away. Sure the geography still exists, but the idea of Britain as a nation has taken a severe pounding from devolution, the EU, and the change in the countryís role in the world from globe-spanning empire to compliant lapdog of America. Ethnic groupings are being challenged by immigration both from the former Empire and from Europe. Unlike the USA, the UK is not a religious country, and what political beliefs it had were based on a fast-vanishing class system.

The Internet is an even more stark example. Online there are no nations, no races and no class divisions save for that between corporate and personal web presences. Sure people can lay claim to some of these things, but they donít have to. They can even pretend to be a different age and gender if they want. The only things that people have in common online are interests and beliefs. Are they into UFOs or the environment? Are they fans of a particular TV show or author? Are they a support group for people with a particular disease or with unusual sexual preferences? Online people searching for a place to belong form what Vernor Vinge calls "belief circles". These are bonded social groups based on shared interests and ideas. In LiveJournal terms, they divide the world into "people who are my friends" and "people who are not my friends."

The real world too is under pressure to form bonded groupings. In places like the UK sheer population pressure is a major issue. International competition for natural resources such as energy and water promotes rivalries. The economies of the West are coming under increasing challenge from emerging nations such as Russia, India and China. And hanging over us all is the specter of global warming that could bring our very clever but also very fragile technological civilization crashing down around our ears. It is no wonder that some people want to divide the world into "us" and "them".

Finally social groupings need leaders, and here we have been badly let down. It has probably always been the case that the rich and powerful were corrupt and venal (look at the Medici, for example). But the transparent contempt with which modern political leaders treat their subjects undoubtedly doesnít help matters.

These, I believe, are the sort of pressures that have led to much of the behavior that Truss complains about. How we find our way back from that situation is another matter. Appealing to bridge-building instincts is all very well, but can that overcome the pressures acting the other way? I have a bad feeling about this.

In the meantime, people are simply going by My Bubble, My Rules. They are defining their own social groups, their own morality, and bonding solely with people who share those ideals. If the rest of the world doesnít like it, tough, you can just ignore them. It isnít just you, Ms. Truss, the entire world is deciding to stay at home and bolt the door.

[All that speculation was, of course, cobbled together with no research and no expert qualifications, but in that it is probably no worse than most Ďopinioní columns in newspapers.]

Talk to the Hand - Lynne Truss - Profile - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
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