March 17th, 2004

studious

Wicked

Recently, I was reading through Gothic Miss Manners 's website. It's an interesting site; I find her writing style and manner to be particularly entertaining, and her advice is typically solid.

But one recommendation in particular has caught my attention, and I've been ruminating on it without much success lately. It involves dealing with people you don't like, or simply have bad things to say about. Her advice goes along these lines: be polite to everyone, whether you like them or not. You need not lie to people you do not like, nor feign affection for them, nor engage them in long and meaningful discourse. But if you run into Ms. Despised at a party and she says "Hello, how are you?" you should say, "Good evening. I'm fine" and not "You suffocating bag of pustulent filth, how dare you sully my air with your foul putrescent breath? Begone, wretch!" Not even if that's really how you feel about her.

And I agree with this advice so far. I have come to the conclusion that politeness of the "Do not volunteer derogatory information when not asked" is a Good Thing. (Politeness of the "Oh, that neon-green and orange-polka-dotted leather miniskirt looks terrific on you, really" sort is not however. I believe in politeness, but not so-called "white lies".)

But here's where my quandary arises: Gothic Miss Manners says that it is all right, under certain circumstances, to badmouth people you don't like behind their back. Now, this should not be construed as license to gossip: her advice runs along the lines of "make catty comments only to a few people, whom you are sure you can trust not to repeat them to others, and in situations where you know you won't be overheard." It is still not all right to say bad things about Ms. Despised to Ms. Despised's best friend, nor to point and titter with your friends at Ms. Despised in public, while she -- or anyone else -- is likely to notice.

Still, even under these constrained and carefully controlled circumstances, I have reservations about the whole activity.

I caught myself doing it recently; in an email to a friend, I made a jibe at a stranger's1 writing skills.

In some sense, this sort of activity is common. Certainly quite a number of people say things about, say, George W. Bush, that it would be the height of bad manners to say to his face. Strangers are often considered fair game for their politics, their fashion, their speech, their beliefs, or whatever. We mock to our heart's content, sanguine that the object of our satire will never know. (Or, sometimes, indifferent to that possibility. But I do distinguish even this from the net.bastard mentality, which goes out of its way to make sure the target knows he is being mocked).

This situation struck me as not quite the same as lampooning Stephen King or John Grisham; the individual in question was a personal acquaintance, even if only barely. Somehow, that makes a difference.

And, independent of how often I poke at people I don't like, I must admit that I enjoy a good rant quite a lot. I still have a copy of Lum the Mad's "Taxi to Victory" essay on my harddrive at home. Most rants attack ideas or products, not people. Still, people made that product, or hold dear those ideas. Setting out to mock or denigrate them in a one-sided and biased fashion has a certain cruelty to it. Am I going too far afield here? Surely it would not be right to say "You can never say anything bad about anyone or anything, ever". That would be silly.

But where is the line? Is it acceptable to jab at famous people but not acquaintances? Acquaintances, as long as they're not people you actually like? Anyone, as long as you do so discreetly? Does it make a difference if your remarks are humorously catty and not merely venomous bile?

Where do you draw the line?

1: For the paranoid among you: "stranger" is defined as "a gentleman who does not to my knowledge have a livejournal, and about whom I know almost nothing apart from having read an unpublished short story by him that left me distinctly unimpressed".