Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gentle People of Gracious Privacy

Hello gentle reader,
Got graciousness?

To be a lady or a gentleman surely includes being gracious. And being gracious includes “Don’t pry, don’t spy.”

In the days of slow tropical ceiling fans, back during colonial days in India, up in the cooler hill stations, the British ladies were serious about propriety. The wives would send invitations to any formal event on a card. To be prim and proper, the lettering would be expensively engraved, not merely printed.  The ladies were gently made fun of by Colonel Robert Masters in his memoir Bugles and a Tiger. Masters said the ladies would run their thumbnail over the card to determine if it was engraved. The humor, of course, comes from seeing “elegant ladies” stooping to pry.

It was an “officer and gentleman,” Robert A. Heinlein, in his science fiction (sf) novels, who role modeled consideration for privacy. Writing in the first person, with a regular person like you or I as the viewpoint character, he might show a lady politely moving out of earshot as you telephoned, or a man being embarrassed at noticing the return address on an envelope he was distributing to you. It was British sf writer William F. Temple who showed you being handed a stack of your private journals, recovered by Peter, who blushes as he hands them to you. You don’t worry that Peter might have read them, because you know he attended a fine boarding school: Peter is a gentleman.

In my own life, when I lived an a nice shared house, a fellow took a phone call one day from one of our roommates, and then passed the handset to me, looking puzzled at why Anne would be calling someone she sees every day. Turns out she had left her journal by a chair, and would I please put it away? She trusted me not to read it. Anne knew I was a gentleman.

To “never spy” is a matter of self-respect, civility, and more: practical self-interest. Back in Europe we said, “People who listen at keyholes seldom hear good news.” The American version of the proverb might refer to windows or eaves troughs, but the principle is the same. In the real world we change our speech, our attitude and even our very actions, according to where we are .The parlor is not the kitchen, which is not behind the barn. The locker room at the church side-annex is not the Young Men’s Christian Association, which is not a college locker room. In other words: What people say behind your back is not what they say to your face.

When it comes to compliments, I might say, “Wendy, I told the ladies at church you are pretty.” But I would never say, “Wendy, I told my teammates I wouldn’t kick you out of bed for eating crackers.”

I’m still amused, years later, at a knot of five or ten young soldiers who always hung around together. They liked to think they were better than all the other guys on the base. What amused me, as an older soldier, was knowing that each of those men also thought he was superior to all his friends, too—and not one of them had a clue that each of his friends were thinking the same thing! It was a British gentleman and Nobel prize winner, Bertrand Russell, who noted that if we all suddenly had mental telepathy then we would all lose our friends… but soon we’d become friends again, as who wants to be lonely?

Remember the Watergate tapes? I never felt lonely and degraded when I was surprised by undisciplined swear words, on tape, being used by responsible people in expensive suits and ties in the White House. I never felt degraded by a private secretly intercepted phone conversation where someone was ranting and raving as if Europe were still under the Third Reich. No. Because I respect the wisdom of the old proverb. Because what someone says in private behind my back is none of my business. As an upright old judge would say, “It’s inadmissible evidence. Disregard it.”

Needless to say, I’m sure many folks would not disregard private talk abruptly made public. I’m equally sure many men and women have no desire to see themselves as ladies and gentlemen. Such a pity.

Today I know a frail lady in a power wheelchair. Wears soft pink. Smiles gently. Very nice, kind and thoughtful. What truly defines her as a lady, in my eyes, is how all the handi-bus drivers in their rough working gloves feel like gentlemen beside her. Around her, I see men in our community change their speech, attitude and even their very actions.

I think, gentle reader, being gracious creates a better world.

Sean Crawford

The books referred to are:
By Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers. Both works won the Hugo award, both are still in print.
By Temple, The Automated Goliath. No longer in print, but a childhood favorite. I have large swatches memorized.
By Russell, The Conquest of Happiness. Still in print since 1930, often found in the philosophy section. Like the other books, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it.

~As for how wholesome, clean cut, well-meaning fellow Americans can get into illegal wiretapping and killing Karen Silkwood, see my essay Reflections on Surveillance, archived October 2013… Or, still playing in the local cheap theatre, see the Oliver Stone major motion picture, Snowden.

~I just realized something: the exciting downtown Seymour Street recruiting office of my youth is no longer there, hasn’t been for years.

~I moved away from home after eleventh grade. Like Buffy Anne Summers, and so many other kids, I went to the big city. To protect their privacy, many young people would change their names or take romantic street names. Buffy changed her name to Anne. If you would try an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to introduce you to the series, one that doesn’t give away the plot and details of any episode arcs, (the way certain fan-favorite episodes do) then Anne is the episode to see.

One of the kids role models off of Buffy’s strength in helping others, and then she later turns up, with a new totemic name, helping street kids on Angel.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

Mortals Against Digital Dragons 

Headnote: the European Union is working on legislation, of 176 pages, for “freedom to be forgotten” where someone can legally instruct Google to remove data about them. It’s due to go into effect in 2018; it will apply to Canadian firms with an office there.

In two dimensions is a physical footprint,
in three dimensions is a digital footprint,
extending out of the past
like a long dragon
to breath fire on the present.
   Sean Crawford

Hello reader,
Got digital ethics?

Ethics, good manners, customary ways of doing things… It takes a while for people to get accustomed to new customs. When the World Wide Web brought in widespread hope and change, no one predicted things like, say, the appearance of trolls. When the trolls first appeared, no one knew instantly what to do about them. Cultures adapt, but it takes time: for individuals, for society overall, and for small virtual-societies of people linking on the Net.

Meanwhile, speaking of trolls, we seem to be developing anti-bodies such as the slogan, “Don’t feed the trolls” and essayists like Paul Graham are analyzing trolls and implying, in my own words, “The troll never sees a troll in the mirror.” Things aren’t hopeless.

On the Net, I have seen changes for electronic-mail etiquette; call it “netiquette.” Again a reason for hope, hope that changes for our digital life can still happen. Today I am hoping that if my young niece is shown on the social web joining the godless communist party then it won’t dam her forever in the eyes of proper church-going society. After all, every year a young radical comes to believe that Islam means peace, every year someone learns American History X.

I’ve been thinking of a man who, according to Wikipedia, was known in later life for being against racial segregation, yet who earlier in his life was in favor of segregation, of black Americans being forcibly kept away from other Americans. Should he have been allowed to change his mind? If he is a serving politician, then should he be allowed to implement measures that are anti-racist, if he used to be racist?

The man I’m thinking of once stood in front of a university door to deny entry by black students during his time as state governor. I’m sure glad Governor Wallace changed. His change was allowed, in part, because the Internet did not yet exist, because the Net did not say he had to stay consistent with his old beliefs, and because the Net did not say he had to be accountable to his distant past.

Can a man be both bad and good in one lifetime? Warden Clinton Duffy, walking in the concrete enclosed prison main yard, among twisted convicts, without any bodyguards, thought so—he was a walking miracle. The people who started Alcoholics Anonymous thought so—millions have since found AA as their way out. The slave trader in a wooden ship who wrote Amazing Grace thought so—and his song of praise is still being sung today, in our time of tiled space shuttles.

In our ancestor’s days of slow sailing ships they surely experienced change, at the level of society and groups, although I guess their society changed slowly compared to our rushing modern life. But change they did. And in their own lifetime they would have seen a few individuals who changed immensely. An old miser might learn a Christmas lesson in just one night. Some individuals might change by living among far away civilizations, or by going on lengthy sea voyages: There was a reason ship’s captains were allowed to conduct marriage ceremonies. If while traveling on the road to Damascus a person of Jewish heritage had a Christian revelation, well, too sad if his earlier words were kept freshly embalmed on YouTube.

Our mortal ancestors found their solution: The statute of limitations. If a man was lost at sea, or went into hiding in the misty wilds of Asia Minor, his wife could re-marry after seven years without losing her self-respect, keeping her membership in her church and community.

As for the ancient Greeks, they who seem like Yoda in certain areas, I don’t know exactly if they had seven-year statutes, but I suspect they did. I do know that after a war if they erected a battlefield victory sign then it was always made of wood, never chiseled in stone. It was intended to decay… The Muslim ideal of tribal feuds lasting decades and generations was not for the Greeks. (Would you believe Arabs still talk about the Crusades? Even far off Muslim-Americans, to them, are from one of the Crusader nations)

For today’s essay I would be suspicious if I thought I had a perfect, precise answer to the question of digital ethics—Of course I don’t offer any such answer: Surely social values take time to grow, starting from people feeling a little hope that their neighbors are reasonably open to change.

Here’s my humble little seed of an idea: Perhaps instead of saying that everything we post should always remain in cyberspace forever and ever, we might consider saying to each other there is an ethic of a seven-year statute… This would spare my niece.

As I see it: The Internet was put in place by people, and people can change their netiquette.

Aren’t library periodicals tossed out after seven years? If Mr. and Mrs. Clinton are applying for jobs with the United Nations, and some villain tries to post a controversial communist poem they once wrote together decades ago, or a poem-video of them reciting at a wild fraternity party, then shouldn’t I feel permission from my peers to figuratively throw out the post? Can’t I avert my eyes, hit a button and mutter something about statutes?

Our ancestors said, “Give a dog a bad name and you might as well hang him.”

Warden Duffy said, “Men are not leopards. Men change their spots every day.”

Sean Crawford
Somewhere on the Web,