Ford: Manners matter, especially in the age of the social media plague



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It’s become a common sight: a young couple in a restaurant, seated across from each other, both thumbing frantically on their smartphones. Presumably, they’re not texting each other, but one never knows these days.

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Such lack of etiquette is not solely the purview of the young who believe tattooing every inch of their skin won’t affect their job prospects or will still be a pretty sight when they reach my age. Maybe young men who think wearing a ball cap backwards is the height of fashion never learned the rules; otherwise, bad manners are endemic across the generations.

Case in point: I once sat across the table from a prominent CEO, a Very Important Person who wore his cellphone in a holster on his hip and placed it on the tablecloth at the banquet, the better to consult it regularly while ignoring everyone else but his flunky seated at his side.

I must assume he believed himself to be so important — honorary president of the host organization — that no one would mention the incredible lack of good manners he exhibited. And he was right. Nobody called him out on it; not even me.

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As an aside, I have learned from more than 50 years of observing and writing about grand poohbahs that men (and women, too) who are truly worthy and important share common attributes: they are conscious of their power and position and they are loath to display it, loath to flaunt it openly and are scrupulously careful with the “little” people whose careers they control. I’ve known a few, not nearly enough, but every single one had impeccable manners.

As for the younger generations, when social scientists wring their hands in dismay and advise parents to monitor their children’s screen time because they believe there is a correlation between the amount of time spent staring at a screen and the increase in self-harming behaviours, the only proper response should be a resounding “Duh!” Is this not a case of blaming the machine and not the message?

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At the risk of contradicting a whole slew of experts, it might not be the screen time that is causing a spike in teenage suicides and self-harm, but what is on the screen. It’s doubtful that Pokemon Go or Spider Solitaire are agents of harm. But social media is delivering a steady diet of mockery, insults and cyberbullying.

Girls and young women especially are treated to a barrage of sexual innuendo, crude images and hurtful language. For immature brains and not-quite-yet-adult emotional control, the harm done can be stunning. The same researchers who report a 45 per cent increase in mental disorders in children as young as five and adults as young as 29, also report increases in self-harming behaviour, including suicide.

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When CBC Radio host Michael Enright referred to social media as a “high-tech gift to mass stupidity,” I hoped he was referring to the mind-boggling gullibility of people who choose to believe Facebook before fact; Twitter before truth. Even worse, social media delivers its messages, particularly the vile and caustic ones anonymously.

Blame my age or my generation or even my sense of fair play, but I don’t read anonymous letters or pay much attention to rumours or gossip until some source I trust confirms the fact. For years before social media revolutionized communication, letters were written on paper and delivered to my desk. If they were unsigned, they went directly to the garbage can. That rule should still apply, regardless of the medium.

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The British government introduced the first online safety laws last year. They hold the companies responsible for social media sites have a “duty of care” toward their users. As the government explained in a news release, the law would require “companies to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity.”

Is this censorship. Yes. Is it necessary? Probably.

Frankly, if the solution to stopping cyberbullying were left up to me, the first thing I’d do is outlaw anonymity except in extreme cases. And only then, a life should be in danger.

Only cowards hide behind anonymity. Only bullies pick on the weak and vulnerable. And both, when in positions of power, frequently feel free to abuse that privilege.

Such people don’t learn to be cowards and bullies when they become adults. It is as children they are nurtured and encouraged, today emboldened in their nastiness by ready and available social media.

Catherine Ford is a regular columnist for the Calgary Herald.    

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