In the golden age of social media, it has become a cliché to talk about the snark and pettiness that emerges from all corners of Twitter and Facebook, SnapChat and Instagram. Somehow, when their thumbs starts scrolling through their social media feeds and land on a post of particular interest, certain people, be they seasoned politicians or elementary school teachers, pedigreed academics or blue collar workers, just can’t help themselves. For some reason, many people feel empowered — nay, called — to drop unfiltered truth bombs on whomever it is that set them off.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Could you imagine if someone actually approached a total stranger and confessed, “You look like your voice is putting your face to sleep”? Or ended a conversation with a walloping “You are a $#@%# idiot. Go away”? Given the opportunity to say such things in person, I imagine there would either be a lot more restraint, or a marked increase in broken noses.
So why do people behave this way?
Perhaps it is the anonymity. Anyone can sign up for a social media account under a false name and then troll complete strangers. The least courageous person in the world is the instigator of a Twitter mob who whips everyone into a bloodthirsty frenzy, ruining someone’s life with a tweet, and then retiring to the couch to watch Laverne and Shirley reruns while eating Funyuns.
Perhaps it is the coarsening of our cultural discourse. After a while, shouting, cursing, and take-no-prisoners politics insidiously becomes part of the background noise and seeps deep into our consciousness. Or to borrow from Flannery O’Connor, it becomes “the air we breathe.” Remember when (okay, I’m dating myself) Jerry Springer and Morton Downey, Jr., Howard Stern and George Carlin were considered shocking? “Shocking,” to quote Paul Westerberg, “how nothing shocks anymore.”
Or perhaps it is because we have somehow glorified frontal behavior as some form of twisted virtue. The person who speaks coarsely and bluntly is lauded for their “refreshing frankness” or their “glowing authenticity.” These people fashion themselves as Cassandras (if you prefer Greek tragedy) or John the Baptists (if you like the Christian parallel) fearlessly speaking truth to power, living in fiery non-conformity. In fact, these are the least rebellious, least non-conformist people out there. Insolent outrage is now totally bandwagon. What is more common than being rude, nasty, and vulgar in the most public of places? What is more banal than being judgmental, snarky, and merciless? Proud effrontery? Yawn, pass the peanuts.
There was a time, however, when some figure (Mom, Dad, coach, priest, mentor) in our lives told us that “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” reminded us to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” before passing judgment, or simply admonished us to “bite your tongue.” Our faith continues to insist that we “judge not lest ye be judged” and “love your neighbors as yourselves.” But in the AGE OF TRUTH, we are told, these quaint platitudes just won’t do. If we are going to change the world, it is insisted, we need to be volcanoes of righteous indignation. Let’s introduce our virtue to this philistine stranger, and let’s do it by ramming it down his throat.
Recently I stumbled upon an essay by G.K. Chesterton that not only sheds light on our modern conundrum (the glorification of a mean candor), but it alludes to a thoughtful path forward. While candor is defined as “the quality of being open and honest in expression; frankness,” Chesterton reasons that we are in error in idolizing the disarming bluntness of candor. We have, in fact, confused our ephemeral moods with the more enduring steadiness of our minds.
In a play that exalted candor, Chesterton grimaced over the unnecessary drowning death of a suicidal girl who leapt in the river and her boyfriend who jumped in to save her:
A young man has the painful experience of being pestered by a girl who loves him and whom he does not love. His reaction … is to jump up and shout at her, “Don’t blow down my neck.” That is what he says, but it is not what he means (italics mine). He afterward gets drowned in saving her life, merely to show that it is not what he means …
It seemed to me that … people [often are] not speaking their minds, but only sputtering their moods. A man was disguised in temperament, as his grandfather was said to be disguised in liquor. The practical effect of this spontaneous speech was only that each person turned the ragged edge of his nerves on another. But his nerves are no more himself than his speeches or his sonnets or his sublime translations of Virgil.
It is liberating to consider that people who say terribly unfeeling things may not truly feel that way or, if they do, it is because they typed their screed in the midst of a white-hot fiery moment. It also reminds us, with humility, that our feelings are not always the facts. “The man is not speaking his mind,” Chesterton observes, “He is speaking all the annoyances and entanglements that have got between him and his mind.” With discipline, perhaps, we can regain a bit of what we have lost.
In all honesty, I don’t believe that a person who specializes in exclamation points or another who revels in rebuttals riddled with ALL-CAPS are bad people. Everybody can get into a mood. I think they visit their mom, hug their kids, try to earnestly find purpose in their daily work, and maybe even let someone in front of them in traffic (well, at least most of them). More often than not, their moods don’t truly represent they minds. There minds, it seems, merely lost control.
I think it is time to rethink the virtue of candor in light of the vice it can easily become. It is time to put the reins on our tongue, and strive for an equanimous mind. It is time to rediscover a refreshing civility rooted in humility and charity, honor and propriety. It is time to walk in another’s shoes and avoid throwing those stones, to argue in good faith, to be sure, but to do so without quarreling. And it is time to say what we mean, but to be exceedingly noble, generous, and thoughtful in discerning exactly what we mean.
Candor is good.
But a mindful, well-meaning candor is best.