When I Observe You
Although we probably all say it at one time or another, one of the hardest things to do, when it comes right down to it and you’re sitting across from another person, is to tell them the truth; especially when that truth, as you see it or as the facts lay it out, is not what they want to hear. Then again, many people do not honestly wish to hear the truth, they do not wish to know what other people think of them or of some action they have been involved in or instigated. We all – and I definitely include myself in this – wish to be seen as we portray ourselves, and have everything that we do not only be successful, but reap praise from those we may desire to impress, or who may be in a position to criticise, further our plans and benefit us, or stop everything in its tracks.
With the advent of the internet, and the widely held belief that we can all be completely anonymous, this virtue of not telling the complete truth when it could hurt someone seems to have disappeared. I see daily assaults on other people, and have experienced a few minor ones myself, where someone has a differing opinion or, as is often the case, simply does not understand what is being discussed, but has a firm and unshakeable belief. Twitter is a fine example: someone sends out a small comment on something that has happened, and countless other people jump on this maximum one hundred and forty characters and begin their abuse. Anyone who has a blue check mark next to their name, who has proven that they are who they claim to be, is an almost automatic target. And the abuse really is abuse, it has nothing to do with discussion or debate, seldom anything to do with facts, but a great deal to do with racism, sexism, derogatory comments on appearance and size, playing down of academic achievements – especially against women – and right through the whole spectrum of what is possible, but what has, so far, always been withheld through certain educational standards, and the knowledge that we are a society of people brought up to be polite and friendly.
We’re not talking about people who we come into contact with every single day here, not even about those who work in the same field as we do, but open and unprovoked attacks simply because of a political or religious belief, and because of the belief in safety through anonymity. If a Twitter account gets closed down because of any form of abuse, the attacker simply opens a new one and carries on. This, sadly, is out online society today. These are not even people who have asked a question, requested an honest and open opinion, but ordinary men and women with knowledge, with education, with something to say.
I’m not going to claim that this is then product of our modern society, that it only happens because we have a virtual world streaming through the ether where people can hide themselves or their identities. There has been abuse and vitriol poured out at people of opposing opinion, different factions, ethnic origin or whatever since the human race began putting their thoughts down on paper, and these attacks, assaults against the knowledge, wisdom and learning of other people has been felt at all levels of educated society – which I have to put, since in early times many people did not have the ability to read and write, and had to direct their abuse, or dissatisfaction, by other means. Take the well-read and very articulate Francesco Petrarca as a fine example:
But now, when I observe you both inside and out, I thank either my good judgement or my good fortune for keeping me far from this text, which might have rendered me as you are.
Mild, I am sure you will agree, compared to some of the things which we see and hear in our daily lives, and almost friendly compared to writings on Twitter or elsewhere in the internet. At the time though, and he lived from 1304 to 1374, this would have been vicious.
In short, avoid scholars like a perilous reef, and dwell among fools
he goes on to advise his opponent, and this over a very long admonishment indeed, because:
A hunter seeks woods, a fisher seeks waters, and a wolf seeks an unguarded herd. A swindler, mime, thief, or imposter seeks out the rich, the foolish, and the credulous. Nothing grieves a swindler like a bystander who sees through his game.
The discussion, surprisingly enough, is over poetry, amongst other things, and came about because Petrarca advised Pope Clement VI to rely on one doctor when seeking a cure for his ailments, rather than a whole herd of them, with their contradictory opinions and dangerous medicines. Some of the text, I must admit, which was composed in wonderful Latin lines of biting wit and literary merit, is considerably harsher, but I shall spare your tender feelings as this is my first letter, and it is always good to have something in reserve for later.
But why should I mention this exchange between two fourteenth century Italians and compare it to the manner in which people behave themselves on the internet today? There are, of course, no comparisons at all: modern communication is fast and brutal, whereas in Petrarca’s time a letter might need several months before it reached its destination, and equally as many for a reply. In a manner of speaking I am using it as a lead in to the theme of my letter – I enjoy having a theme, but don’t always stick to my own rules and often ramble from one subject to another, which infuriates some correspondents and scares others away – which is based upon a point your raised in your profile where you wrote:
If you ask me something, expect an honest answer, even if it isn’t what you like.
Brutal honesty, as some still term it, is a rarity these days: we all have our sensibilities and our feelings and everyone else is meant to take them into account when saying anything and not tread on any toes. As if the truth could really hurt someone when it is clear that it is the truth and not a case of envy or a twisting of facts for some unfair gain. And my brutal honesty is that I had picked out your profile quite a while ago, along with several others, and weighed up writing for quite a while, then didn’t.
Why pick it out in the first place if I wasn’t going to write? That is simple enough: your profile interested me as it was / is simple and unassuming as well as being clear and to the point. The decision not to write – until now – came about because you are due release reasonably soon, according to the information I have, and beginning a correspondence so close to an end date tends to condemn it to an early grave. Many do not continue writing after release as they have other problems to deal with, and are getting their lives back or, at the very least, attempting to make headway in society again, hopefully without falling back into old ways or placing themselves in the danger zone. Letter writing has suddenly a very low priority, and there are some who, understandably, do not see the need to continue, or even forget the friendship they had created with pen and paper, with the written word.
So, why come back now and settle down on a cool evening, when the bars are open and people are out their enjoying their social lives? When I could be sitting with a whisky in one hand and my pipe in another regaling a handful of eager and willing youngsters with tales of yore, adventure, excitement? Firstly because having been picked out as a possible correspondent, as a person likely to be enjoyable to have as a letter writing friend, you don’t disappear from my memory that quickly, no matter how many letters I may have written in the meantime, no matter what has happened during the intervening weeks or months. And secondly, the brutally honest part, I noticed that your name appears on the Needs Mail list, which suggests no one has written to you, or all those who had been writing have faded away into their own lives and left you on your own. You see, I had naturally imagined that there would be plenty of mail coming your way, as I have been assured by many other people over the years, since the profile from a young woman attracts writers in far higher quantities than that of an older woman or most of the males who also advertise.
And then I see your name, your profile, on the very short Needs Mail list, and ask myself why, and also berate myself for not writing before. Had I written, there could have been a chance of a platonic friendship forming much earlier, and we could have exchanged many letters over a longer period of time. Assuming, of course, that you had replied back then, and that you reply now!
Fine, the brutal truth is not quite as brutal as some of the things which have been sent out on Twitter and elsewhere through the internet, and I probably wouldn’t be able to come up with anything harsher or closer to the bone at the moment anyway. I’m not the sort to attack someone else because of one thing that they say or write, or go off at half-cock because my understanding is different to their understanding, their opinion their experiences in life. And it is also true that, with letter writing at least, there is no need to compact an opinion into a short space, using as few characters as possible in order to publish, and opening the way for misunderstanding as a result. I tend to seek out several different sources of information before forming an opinion in anything – which can take time and make it seem as if you’re holding back, but pays dividends in the end – and prefer discussion before forming that opinion which, because information and knowledge is always in a flux and nothing is stable or absolute, could change over time.
And then we have:
Who knows what pen and paper may create?
Isn’t this the reason why people still go for snail mail, for the old-fashioned letter writing, for pretty pages and coloured pens? Another piece of brutal honesty which I have been forced to confront people with: writing a letter, hand written or typed, is so much better than sending an e-mail. But, they claim, it takes so much time to actually write a letter, and then weeks until you get a reply and I’m all: yes, but how much time do you spend on your smart phone achieving nothing which could be used to write a letter; the time between letters is what we use to live our lives, so that we have something to write about in the next letter. I have seen so many strange looks when I confront people with these truths. Not that it brings any changes: the idea is set in their minds that letter writing is long and wearisome and electronic communication quick and exciting, and that is the way things will stay. Their loss, not mine.
I wonder, though, in the future, how many tales of great intellectual friendships will, be regaled with copies of the mails and the Tweets sent, compared to the wonderful tales of the past, with letters and journals? How many people, when they have their grandchildren perched on their knee, will pull out the digital photo album and say: this was me, back in 2017. How many people will even have a photographic or written record of their youth?
So, I have put a few thoughts to paper which tell you something about me without actually divulging any details whatsoever. You can see a few of my interests from the quotations, my opinion on modern technology against the old-fashioned means of communication, my writing style and my ‘brutal’ honesty. I begin writing to people in the same manner as I meet new friends: right in the middle of life as it is on that very day, not back at the beginning, and we learn more about one another as time goes on, a small piece at a time. It works well in face-to-face friendships and relationships, why not in letter writing? After all, who knows what can be created when the tools of your trade, or your chosen instruments of torture, are pen and paper.