I’m worried about the current culture of “nice.” About how children are praised to the skies for doing simple tasks and absolved of responsibility when they lose interest in an activity.
I’m worried about how the Internet makes “experts” of people who write entertainingly, whether or not they have anything to say. Each person’s opinion has become as important as every person’s opinion, despite lack of long-learned or long-lived experience in whatever genre.
I believe in understanding the world as it is, but the zeitgeist is all about putting one’s personal stamp on interactions, even those with art and literature. My argument? If you’ve put your stamp on someone else’s work of art, how do I get to see the work of art, to interact with it, without the filter of your stamp? If I’m conducting a symphony, I won’t make it slow where the composer says go fast, or loud where they ask for quiet, how dare I? Instead, I humbly work to help the musicians respect the composer because the composer knows far more about the work than I ever could. It’s a learning experience, learning about the symphony and ourselves within it, learning what it takes to illuminate a work rather than to change it so that it becomes easy or predictable for us.
Which is just like directing a play, or acting in one, or designing. If an actor says, “My character wouldn’t say that!” does the actor understand the character, or are they trying to fit the character to their own ideas? If a designer says, “We don’t need that balcony,” perhaps the designer doesn’t understand the playwright’s intent. In the rush to be heard, to be validated, stampers invalidate the only person who was in the room when the page was blank.
In a recent class, I posed the argument that a playscript is a blueprint, not a work of literature, and was opposed by a rhetorician. Someone else chimed in with, “Be careful, he has a Ph.D. in rhetoric,” as if I were arguing to be right, to show off my knowledge. HELP. I argue to understand, to come to consensus, and also to learn – if my argument could stand up to a rhetorician’s power, then it can stand up to anything. But instead of letting the argument progress to resolution, it was perceived that I wasn’t being “nice” – i.e., agreeing about the thesis I was posing with everything anyone said – and the discussion was led onto another topic. Perhaps those who ran interference were trying to protect me from the embarrassment of incorrectitude about my own opinion? In another class, I was unceremoniously yanked out into the hallway for a dressing-down because a discussion in which the students were actively engaged, myself included, was said to promote “an appearance of discord” and that my participation therein was deemed “disruptive.” Again, I say, HELP.
So I’m not just worried, I’m frustrated. How do I find a society in which people think that respect is shown by learning and changing, by challenge and growth rather than by simple, nice agreement? I want to know only those who add to the oeuvre, whichever oeuvre one espouses because, in so doing, one adds to the greatness of the human society. We repair the world, rather than turning it into a quagmire of agreeableness. Of “nice.”
Yet the culture of “nice” might just help our society come out of this massively junior-high-school phase, the one in which people beg and receive attention without earning it, the one in which people are horrible behind each others’ backs and liars to their faces. Common courtesy, given these techniques, might just go back to being common.
Don’t get me wrong, I deplore the idea that children must teach adults how to behave like adults – just as I deplore the growing oeuvre of literature in which children save the day that adults mucked up – but hell, we’ve got to start somewhere.