published Friday, July 1st, 2011

Leber: Being right isn’t a license to be mean

I want to talk a little about kindness to strangers.

Not Blanche DuBois-style kindness, but the impoliteness we seem to express toward strangers simply because anonymity permits us to do so.

Take, for example, a letter I received in the mail this week. A reader sent back a copy of a recent column I wrote, along with a note reading: “Dear Ms. Leber: ... Among the two of us, my cat likes tuner fish better than me do. Ain’t grammer a indoor sport?”

The note was in response to an error I made: I used the word “among” when I should have used “between.” It’s completely inexcusable and I’m mortified, particularly since I am not what one might call a “forgiving soul” when it comes to improper use of the English language.

I have no issue with being taken to task for my wrongdoing. What I do take issue with is the manner in which this person chose to do it. Had he sent a direct admonishment instead of being so snide, I would have been equally embarrassed, but my regret over the error I made would not have been overshadowed by my observation that this man was just being nasty.

Because we’re strangers, he can get away with it.

This happens a lot. We forget about the basic manners our mothers taught us. In fact, we purposely eschew them for no other reason than the fact that we won’t really have to answer for bad behavior.

This happens a lot online; and if you want proof, just read some of the comments on the newspaper’s website or Facebook page. With user names and the distance created by cyberspace to hide behind, many people will launch personal attacks against one another for committing the simple offense of disagreeing.

“Who is this guy?” my concerned father emailed me recently about a person who commented on one of my stories. “He sounds angry, maybe toward you.”

I explained to him that most of the people who launch into tirades online do so because they feel like they aren’t listened to in real life, so they go on the offensive in a safe, anonymous environment. I also had to explain this to a woman who was the subject of a story I wrote, after she got upset about some comments she felt were attacks.

I get it. It’s not easy to honestly express anger or distaste. We live in a society of irritating political and social correctness where every criticism has to be preceded with “No offense, but ...” It gets tiresome, having to be so careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

But there’s a difference between being honestly critical of a person’s opinions or actions and nastily attacking a person for those actions because you don’t have to communicate with them face-to-face, or ever even meet them.

Full disclosure: I’ve done it too. I’ve signed on to message boards I like (not the TFP’s, just for the record) using an anonymous name and gone on the attack, because I was angry about something in my life and I wanted a scapegoat without having to worry about hurting someone’s feelings. But the truth is, I probably did. At the time, I didn’t care. At the time, if we’re being really honest, I was probably a little proud of myself.

In retrospect, these were definitely not among my prouder moments.

Contact Holly Leber at hleber@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/hollyleber.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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