Tuesday 11 January 2011

We need less rage and more debate

The truth of that ancient saying about old dogs and new tricks is currently being demonstrated every day behind the wheel of my car.

Along with the falseness of that other well worn claim that resorting to foul language is a sure sign of a limited vocabulary and lack of education. I happen to be exceptionally well educated, and somewhere I have the certificates to prove it.

Yet over 40 years of driving I have developed the habit of expressing my views on the deficiencies of other motorists, and our declining standards of road maintenance, with the happy economy of words that rarely contain more than four letters.

The new factor I have to contend with is the presence of a car seat containing an 18-month-old observer with many of the characteristics of a particularly cute sponge. He is now starting to repeat words that appeal to him, and I recognise that it would be wildly inappropriate if he began addressing the staff of his day nursery with some of the choicer expressions I use about those who speed along the narrow country roads of Northumberland with scant regard to what might be approaching them around the corner.

But how to reform? A nanny friend says that she can relieve her feelings quite substantially by judicious use of the word “Noodles!” One of her small charges asked her why she kept saying it and, at the end of the explanation, the little girl observed, “Oh, right. My mummy says [expletive deleted].”

The question currently interesting me is whether it would be better for my health to find a suitable word that sounds like swearing, but isn’t, as a way of channelling my anger, or to attempt to suppress it altogether.

I can be abusive in the car because I am safe in the knowledge that I am enclosed in a largely soundproof bubble. While offending motorists will no doubt get the gist of my thoughts from my contorted face and accompanying gestures, they will be gone in a flash as we continue to speed in opposite directions.

Would I actually be anything like as rude to another human being face to face? Absolutely not: cowardice would prevail. Those who tip over the edge into violent road rage are mercifully few in number.

The internet was once known as the information superhighway and has many of the characteristics of the road, including the tendency for participants to be massively offensive about each other from the safety of a cocoon – in the virtual world, that of anonymity, sheltering behind some fatuous pseudonym.

No respectable newspaper will publish anonymous letters, except in circumstances where the safety of the writer might be at risk, and even then the editor will insist on knowing the true identity of the author. Yet look at almost any story on a newspaper website or blog and you will find that it has attracted a series of often vilely abusive pseudonymous comments.

We all seem to be increasingly angry with a whole range of other people, from bankers to politicians, royalty to climate change sceptics, and given to venting our feelings. The important question is whether this serves as a safety valve or leads us down the path to the sort of physical violence currently dominating the headlines from Arizona. A useful reminder, incidentally, that political friendships across party boundaries are not a sign of hypocrisy, but of civilisation.

The academic consensus seems to be that venting anger is better for us than bottling it up, so long as it is released in ways that do not harm others. But before I shout even “noodles” in the car, in future I shall try pretending that the person who has annoyed me knows my full name and address, and can continue the debate in any way he chooses.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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