All the rage

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 June, 2010, 12:00am

It's been said that a gentleman never offends unintentionally. But the converse is also true - that he never takes offence unless he chooses to. It is ungentlemanly - and unladylike - to take offence easily; and it is barbaric if being offended throws one into a murderous rage. The ability to control our response to offences directed at people, values and beliefs we hold dear is a sign of the mastery of self, a sophistication of mind. We should all condition ourselves to be slow to take offence. The world would be a more peaceful, or at least a quieter, place.

In this regard, we live in a most uncivil age. Globalisation and the technologies that underpin it have taken electronic communication to near the speed of light. And that means we - with our rude messages and uncouth thoughts - are constantly in each other's faces. Thanks to the wonders of electronic media, we experience this simultaneity in newspaper columns and reader responses, in internet forums and chat groups; so we often react instantly, driven by our biases, prejudices and prejudgments.

Instant rage is something new in our age. The great American journalist Walter Lippmann told an amusing story, apparently true, in his classic Public Opinion about a group of Englishmen, Frenchmen and Germans who holidayed, on the eve of the first world war, on an island reached by no cables and visited by a mail boat only once every two months. For weeks they acted as if they were friends when in fact they were enemies because their countries were at war. That would never happen today, because they would instantly know their nations were at war.

The world's wars, conflicts and crises are not only broadcast live on TV, but show up instantly on our computer screens. One or more of these conflicts are bound to touch our personal likes and dislikes at a deep level - our innermost beliefs. Thus, Jews are upset that the world is upset about Israel's deadly raids on an aid-bearing flotilla; Catholics take offence at suggestions that the Vatican at the highest levels suppressed disclosure of priestly paedophiles over decades and across continents; many Chinese - and I count myself among them - are sick and tired of Westerners constantly rounding on China about its exchange rate regime, investments across Africa and for causing the global financial crisis because of trade imbalances.

And we all - Jews, Muslims, Italian Catholics, Chinese nationalists and whatnot - can feed on our rage by responding as fast as our fingers can type. I am no brain scientist, but I believe a different part - the more reptilian sections - of our brain are triggered by, or triggers, those instant responses. That is why the internet is full of vile comments that most of us would not be caught dead voicing in front of other people. There is something to be said for snail mail and old-fashioned letter writing, which frustrates instant gratification, delays responses and forces the thinking parts of the brain to formulate a considered reaction.

Just as road rage poses a mortal danger to road users, so our propensity for angry reactions and ease with which we take offence pose a challenge to the body politic. Muslims who called for death to cartoonists who drew caricatures of the Prophet are not really different from those tea party movement types in America who darkly hint at welcoming the assassination of their first black president. Their rage is the kind of negative energy that demagogues have always exploited and channelled to further their own agendas and spread their twisted messages.

The internet and modern communications technology just make it easier for them to do it faster, and take it further and wider. And that is true not only in the developing South, but in the rich North, in dictatorships or authoritarian states as much as in American democracy. Just think of such odious US broadcasters as Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, their jihadist counterparts on the internet, propagandists-cum-editors at Xinhua and our own rabble rousers in the Legislative Council.

By being civil, by suppressing the reptilian parts of our brain, we are saying 'no' to these people. We are contributing our part, however small, to world peace.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post