Singed by the Flames

Theme Essay by Jeremiah Horrigan

Undoing the Damage of the Online Rant

 


When it comes to hypocrisy, I’ve found there’s no better place to experience it firsthand than on the Internet.

masksThe online opportunities for hypocritical behavior—defined by Webster’s as “the false assumption of an appearance of virtue”—are as endless as the number of stories and comments you read, post, or respond to every day.

It’s easy to spot hypocrisy in others, not so easy to spot it in oneself. To be confronted by one’s own posturing is to be presented with an ominously ticking package, delivered unbidden by a stranger whom you know doesn’t really have your best interests in mind. Just as you know exactly what will happen if you dare unwrap or—God help you—open such a package.

Special delivery? No, thanks. Return to sender.

But sometimes the postman rings more than twice. 

• • • 

I begin my story with a description of how I see myself:

I’m a civilized person and never more civilized than when I write. I’m considerate of others. I don’t rant. I discuss. I carefully weigh my opinions before I present them. And when I voice them, I don’t use insulting or childish language to make my points. Yes, I’m above all that—although, in all candor, I’m not above lecturing others (temperately, cleverly) when they fail to meet the standards I’ve set for myself. But whenever I’ve done that, I’ve been the very soul of consideration, ever careful not to tread on anyone’s feelings.

So, there I was in my basement redoubt some months ago, civilized as always, idly tooling around the Internet. As it happened, I was drawn to a headline at Salon, one of my favorite cyberports of entry. I read the accompanying story. I thought the headline promised one thing and the story delivered another. I felt I’d been snookered. Sold a bill of goods.

The writer—and what he’d written—had wasted a precious five minutes of my life. This was not right. I couldn’t let such balderdash pass unremarked.

So I wrote a clever comment and posted it. I was righteous in my indignation. I backed up my statements with fact. It didn’t take more than ten minutes to write and post. I forgot about it almost as soon as it went up.

The next day, I noticed that the author of the post had responded to my comment. He didn’t call me out, didn’t question my professionalism the way I’d questioned his. In measured, reasonable words, he simply let me know I’d hurt him with my comment.

He called my comment mean-spirited.

I blushed the moment I read those words. I knew he was right. My clever riposte had been nothing more than a sour diatribe, a chance to unload some free-floating anger in his direction.

Venetian carnival masks

 

So I did what any newly exposed hypocrite would do: I set about trying to make things right. I got the guy’s e-mail address, eager to apologize. But, even though I was sincere in acknowledging his complaint, even as I wrote my apology, I knew he wasn’t the primary target of my effort. I didn’t just want to repair the damage I’d done to him. I wanted even more urgently to repair the damage I’d done to my image of myself.

I got in touch with the author, and he accepted my apology gracefully. We exchanged a few more e-mails after we found we’d covered some similar stories for other publications. Then we lost track of each other.

That might have been the end of the story, except something continued to nag at me. I’d convinced my victim of my regret, but I hadn’t convinced myself. I knew at some level that I’d been given a glimpse of something that went deeper, something I was at once familiar with but didn’t want to examine closely—or at all.

I needed to take a fuller accounting of what I’d done, to stare a bit at the gap between the way I thought of myself and the way I’d actually behaved. I’d acted the lout, without a second thought. The alacrity with which I’d behaved suggested that this was nothing new for me, that I was pretty good at it. I didn’t like that thought, but neither could I deny it.

I’ve since found a description of what I felt—and why the incident kept nagging at me—in a passage by Jungian astrologer Liz Greene, in her book Barriers and Boundaries: The Horoscope and the Defences of the Personality.

Turns out I wasn’t simply feeling guilty for being caught out in a hypocritical act, as I first suspected; I was feeling remorse for my act. Greene writes:

“When we feel remorse, we feel deeply ashamed of what we are or have done. This shame and desire to atone arise from the instinctive knowledge of how it feels to be the person we have injured. There is no escape from the stark humiliation and humility of remorse.

Remorse, she writes, can be transformative:

It has the power to ensure that we never repeat the destructive action again.

Since that episode, I’ve read any number of posts or comments in my daily cyber-travels that I’ve found indefensible, unfair, plain wrong, or insulting to people I respect. And, in the heat of those feelings, I’ve written any number of scabrous “responses.” They have been clever, to the point. Some of them contained the bonniest mots I’ve ever written. And they all seemed—at the time of their writing—the very soul of civility.

maskBut I’ve come to distrust my ability to judge myself in the heat of anger. I no longer end my comment-writing with the quick stab at the “Submit” button that embodied the righteous satisfaction I took in delivering my Salon riposte. Against my every wish and inclination, I’ve ended instead by stashing each one and waiting at least 24 hours before rereading it.

And, in most cases, a day’s passage has done what time does so well—provided perspective. It’s allowed the passion to cool and my true motivations to bob to the surface like the gas bubbles they usually are.

I know, I know. I said “in most cases.” A few of my comments have either withstood the 24-hour test or escaped their limbo prematurely. My hoped-for transformation has been incomplete. Call it a failure of imagination, call it backsliding, but in the few cases where I let my outrage loose unmediated by time in the cooler, I’ve not regretted it.

Yet.

Here’s the point: When the Salon writer made his pain evident to me, I was struck by lightning. It happened when my guard was down, while I was busy doing other things. And for no reason I can claim as my own, I was given the grace to linger with the knowledge of what I’d done and see it for what it was.

Luckily for me, that bolt from the blue provided exactly enough illumination to glimpse the self-image I so rarely see or even want to see. In that moment, I saw the mask I spend so much of my time crafting and hiding behind, especially here on the Internet. And for that brief glimpse, for the shock it caused me and the changes it wrought, I’m grateful.

 


Publishing Information

  • Liz Greene, Barriers and Boundaries: The Horoscope and the Defences of the Personality (London: CPA Press, 1998).

Art Information

  • “Masks” © Brian Snelson; Creative Commons license
  • “Maschera di Carnevale” © gnuckx; Creative Commons license
  • “#166 Mask” © Caroline; Creative Commons license

 


Jeremiah Horrigan is a contributing writer at Talking Writing and a lifelong newspaper reporter.

 

“My training in the Five Ws had prepared me for a lot, but not for this: a melancholy parade of desperate people, trapped overnight in a broken-down, memory-haunted, Borscht Belt palace." — "The Editor Inside Me"


 

Comments

Steve: What a grand quote. I'm guessing I didn't read it in high school, since I knew it wouldn't be on the test. Maybe I should put Brave New World" on my list of great-novels-that-I-read,-technically-speaking,-in high-shool-and-need-to-return-to. The list so far includes The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Ethan Frome (still have my doubts) and the one I've been going back to for decades, The Once & Future King.
And don't worry about me ODing on remorse. I don't "do" remorse except on rare occasions like the one above. Hardly knew it existed before then. I called it chronic guilt. But there's a difference, ain't there?

Jeremiah, what strikes me most about this beautiful self-dissection is how much it sounds like a moment of spiritual conversion. I do think that acknowledging remorse is what brings us closer to other human beings; in some ways, it's the closest we can get, feeling some of the pain we've caused others. It may not seem like much of a gift from God, but I think perhaps it's the greatest gift.

As for your "list of great-novels-that-I-read,-technically-speaking,-in high-school-and-need-to-return-to," I think that's your next TW article. Seriously. We all have such lists, but I have to say, for a journo like you, Ethan Frome may now read like a revelation. If anyone knew about the impact of remorse, it was Edith Wharton. Henry James comes in a close second.

Limin: Based on my reading of your post in this issue of TA ("The Brambles of Life") I seriously doubt a anything you write could lack coherence. You are a writer of great force and wisdom. Thank you for your comment. I'm looking forward to re-reading your post -- such rich simplicity begs to be tasted again. I feel I can learn not only from what you say but how you say it.

Martha: All kidding aside (Steve and I go way back, as you know, and we're guys, after all) the experience was exactly as you describe. The effort to catch oneself in mid-moment, to, as the saying goes, "be there" is a something I've endeavored to realize in my life. It comes of 20 years or so of study, reflection and work that I've always found difficult to write about without sounding preachy. This was as close as I've come to documenting those painful but precious moments of self-discovery.

And for all that self-study, you've added an insight I've thought very little about: How realizing remorse can bring us closer together. I read your comment with eyes aglow. Thank you.

And I agree that list is dying to be done. I'll start by getting hold of "Ethan." But a word of warning. I've also just signed on to write about "sloth" as one of a writer's deadly sins. Perhaps, as most newspaper editors I know would say, the deadliest sin of all. Forewarned is forearmed.

Martha: All is Sloth! I've actually run into to at least one writer who says it's the biggest sin of all (and no, she wasn't an editor). Needless to say, I'll get around to finding out who that person was. Any day now. I mean it. Stay tuned. And don't get me started on pride.

Lorraine: Yeah, being a smarty pants really is a great high. If it didnt feel so good, and if we didn't feel compelled as you say to be the quickest with the come-backs and the take-downs and corrections, it would be a whole 'nother stoy.

Another thing I've found is that environment breeds civility. TW is a great example. Writers and readers take it seriously. You know you're in a respctful place when you're here. It's one of the great reasons to work & play in this neighborhood.

At Big Salon, you're on your own.

By no means should you delay with "sloth" -- ! Funny how we're getting into those deadly sins, because remorse is most certainly connected to pride. Anyway, the book list can evolve at its own slothful pace (though in some ways, that list is also connected to sloth).

I liked that quote from Huxley, too. There's the revelation of a conversion experience--and then there's the uselessness of wallowing.

Courageous piece, Jeremiah. Hit me right in my own self-righteous gut. Also reminded me of Huxley's wonderful bit of wisdom from the Foreword to Brave New World: “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

A great piece. I like your suggestion of leaving the response to sit for 24 hours and then re-read or re-examine your reactions. That's a good rule!! I don't even get to the point of responding in public like you have. Most of the time I would get too frustrated with my own feelings to make a coherent attack-back or lash out at someone's opinion. Yes the internet is a messy place, you can read all sorts of angry or mean-spirited responses.

Jeremiah.
Ouch. As someone who has been "trashed" by the commenters at Salon (what is it about that place, anyway), and as someone who has trashed someone else, I cringe in recognition.
It's a great high, that self-righteous feeling that you've put someone in their place for daring to waste your time with some insipid drivel, or, worse for me, just plain wrongness in their views of the world.
I forget that someone else is on the other end of the line.
I can't tell you how many mea culpas I've posted in which I've apologized for my behaviour. Some people are gracious and accept the apology; others use it as a stick with which to beat me. Point taken. Someone hurts you, you hurt them back seems to be what they're telling me.
Thank you for your solution to this lack of civility. The 24-hour rule is a good one. I know that, in our race to be the most clever the quickest, it's easy to ignore that rule, but I'm working hard to remember that old bromide about "if you can't say something nice..."
Thanks for another perspective on how to deal with my "anger" issues on the web.
Well done.

so.. I saw a bumper sticker on a car in Hamburg NY that said Jeremiah Horrigan..the one we knew invited me to a dance in High school & I said yes, then in a tizzy over a nitwit who I had been dating and crushing on but who stopped communicating abruptly & for no apparent reason, i called Jeremiah and unaccepted..though it seemd a bad decision even to me. I sat home on dance night and mourned over the guy who stopped calling before Jeremiah ever invited me to the dance. (More to that story but not now) anyway..I always felt badly about accepting then declining and the feeling never left me. It did not haunt me day after day, & I do not mean to exaggerate the impact, but it was buried there in my psyche and waiting to be addressed until I saw that car in Hamburg. I went online to see if I could locate Jeremiah and maybe but not neccesarliy say sorry for being a teen aged jerk (but he probably does not even rememebr this, so maybe not..it may have meant nothing really to him. I was still undecided about contacting if possible to apologize) and low and behold, I found a very touching post on Salon.com. The post was authored by the very Jeremiah Horrigan I continue to wish to apologize to, writing about his grandmother who lived on Turner Ave in Buffalo NY, the street where our own families came to know each other. Still, I wondered if apologizing would make any sense as the event I have regret about may have made so little an impression that he may have no memory of it. Then I found this piece of writing authored by him, and knew why it was important, whether he (you Jeremiah) remember or not, today I do apologize for being thoughtless and self centered and for "unaccepting" your high school dance invitation. Thank you for this deeply thoughtful peice of writng and for including this quote, 'When we feel remorse, we feel deeply ashamed of what we are or have done. This shame and desire to atone arise from the instinctive knowledge of how it feels to be the person we have injured. There is no escape from the stark humiliation and humility of remorse.” It gave me my aha moment as to why I felt compelled to apologize for something you may not recall at all. If you do recall, were I to to have a "do over" I would (as my teenage self) call & tell your teenage self about my agnst over "the nitwit" and how it almost made me univite myself, but how glad i was for the invitation and how much I was looking forward to the dance with you. I hope you went with someone else and had the best time ever!
And if you do not remember this at all, well that is just fine too!
It is a pleasure reading your deeply thoughtful writing, including reading about your lovely family. I send greetings from Buffalo from my family to yours.

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