Mean-ing

by Bob Schwartz

For those who wonder whether meanness is a sin or vice, you can start with Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, where Question 135 addresses the issue. Or you could ask your parents or your elementary school teachers or your spouse or your children: It’s not nice to be mean.

Which should make us think about why rampant meanness is not only acceptable, but encouraged, entertaining, and profitable. Cheaters may never prosper (though they often do), but meaners are doing very well these days.

Saying that all things virtuous seem to be dying and on life support is an overstatement that doesn’t get us far. Instead, four possible explanations of how what was once a private disturbance has become such a pandemic, a public poison:

Meanness by proxy: All art and performance is based on the ability and willingness of creators to express what we can’t or won’t. It would be nice to think that we only long to be the one who can move people to tears or laughter, inspire people to reach higher, and if we can’t be those creators, at least they are doing that for us. The same thing unfortunately applies to darker messaging, though. We may not be able to attack quite so sharply and eloquently, but we appreciate that someone can. “Yeah, what he said!”

Meanness as superiority: This is a subset of meanness by proxy. There’s perversity in enjoying the meanness of others, but at the same time taking pride in being one who would never say something like that because…we are better than that and would never be so mean. (Whatever the theological status of meanness, by the way, pride is definitely on all the lists of sins.)

Meanness as incompetent and faulty criticism: This is the explanation of meanness as sub-juvenile behavior. When little children aren’t sure why they hate somebody or something, or can’t articulate it, they revert to name-calling and indiscriminate meanness: “You’re a poo-poo head!” It’s a fantastic dream that one day, thanks to some spell, the most gratuitously mean would be magically forced to speak only such childish epithets.

Meanness unconditioned by a thought/speech barrier: The thought/speech barrier, the wall that should keep many thoughts from ever being spoken, is dissolving. Whether phenomena such as Twitter are causal, enabling, or merely symptomatic is beside the point. Thought moves from brain to mouth (or keyboard) at the speed of synapse. Mean heart becomes mean words in a literal instant.

There is a genuine critical function, which can be exercised with thoughtfulness, care, and respect. That simple sentence, a foundation of a free, enlightened society, is looking particularly quaint, and seems for many to have lost its meaning.

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