Belonging

Snark, Impatience, and Urban Living

A generous give-and-take among citizens, a willingness for us to make excuses for each other is even more important that an aesthetically pleasing cityscape.

By Michelle Martin
Published March 11, 2009

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."
-- commonly attributed to Philo of Alexandria

In the movie Ghost Town, British actor Ricky Gervais plays a dentist who is definitely not a people person. One of the objects of his misanthropy is a patient who talks incessantly about her son.

Frankly, the audience also finds this minor character amusingly annoying - to the point where we sympathize with the dentist and laugh when he stuffs cotton wads into her mouth mid-sentence.

It isn't until much later in the film (SPOILER ALERT) that we learn, in a brief, surprising, and understated scene, precisely why she needs someone to listen to the stories she tells about her little one. And yes, I was a little shocked at my own reactions here, because I like to think of myself as a naturally sympathetic person.

Well, aren't we all sympathetic people when it comes to those whom we know well? Knowing them personally, and their ups and downs, triumphs and difficulties, how can we be otherwise?

But the person ahead of us on the road, on the sidewalk, or in the check-out line is another matter. The late writer David Foster Wallace put it well in a commencement speech he gave in 2005:

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer...

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

I don't mean to come off as preachy here - this has just been on my mind a lot lately, perhaps because it's Lent (okay, maybe that makes it a little preachy).

What triggered the topic for me was a post about snarking on Roger Ebert's blog. Ebert, in the context of writing about the way we talk about famous people, defined the practice of snark as "...holding someone up to ridicule not so much for anything they actually did, as for having the presumption to be who they are."

Certainly I'm guilty of this. It's something I have to be aware of and tone down, because how can I teach my own kids not to make snide remarks about anyone if I behave as if others are fair game just because they are famous, or have made a public statement of some kind?

You don't have to be a fan of Sarah Palin the politician (and I'm not) to see that her family was the victim of unmerited snark.

These days, the internet makes it possible for anyone to make a public statement, via comboxes and blogs. This opens them up to all kinds of nastiness. Plus it gives an opportunity for the rest of us to snark about nasty internet commenters and make all kinds of rash assumptions about their personal lives while doing so.

You see? It's in the air we breathe, as David Denby argues in his book, titled ... Snark. And snark is part of our larger human tendency to be hard on others when we have no hard and fast reason to be, other than the belief that we are, as Wallace puts it, "...the absolute centre of the universe."

These days, the internet has made it increasingly easy for people to think of themselves as the stars of their own shows.

But why bring all of this up on a web publication about urban life? Well, in a city, we've all got to get along and to look past our own navels. A generous give-and-take among citizens, a willingness for us to make excuses for each other is even more important that an aesthetically pleasing cityscape, though ugly and impersonal urban planning can certainly contribute to interpersonal ugliness.

Furthermore, in these days of economic difficulty which will likely get worse before they get better, chances are that if someone ahead of you forgets to hold open the door or cuts you off in traffic, or posts an angry blog comment in haste, he or she has good reason to be distracted.

It's better for them and for us if we simply believe the best of them when we have no hard and fast reason to believe otherwise.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

Michelle Martin and her husband are watching their ten children reach adulthood one by one in Hamilton, where they relocated from Toronto 13 years ago. She has been published in both the Hamilton Spectator and Raise the Hammer, as well as in the online edition of the National Post. Michelle has worked in the developmental services sector for many years, most recently as coordinator of the Community Access to Transportation project. However, the opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own. She sometimes tweets @deltawestmom

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By JonC (registered) | Posted March 11, 2009 at 15:00:42

"There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." - Vonnegut

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 08:49:44

Two thumbs up Michelle.

You might say we're all in the same boat, a sinking ship and up a certain creek without a battle as the water's writhing in tongue bitten snarks. And as such, it is okay for us to pluck out our belly button lint in unison, in the hope that there will be enough of IT to plug the A-graded holes.

Ear wax eye booger and drool Our affluent effluent's pool The splintering hull lent a specter to our I's Our sphincter's rafting logs lends no surprise Clingon's and dangle berry's left there behind Discomfort our end-run's floating bums in kind

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By DIanne (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 14:16:12

Great article!

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By mado (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 14:32:04

Great Michelle---I find I am always trying to inject a positive angle to conversations. Good to hear it is worthwhile to keep it up. There are, actually 2 sides of every coin.

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By viewer (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2009 at 21:19:57

Thanks Michelle,what a great read. We probably can do without one more snarky comment.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted March 16, 2009 at 10:20:43

Hi Michelle,

Great article. I actually 'cured' my own road rage tendancies by choosing to feel sympathy for the person who just cut me up rather than go chasing after him.

My pedestrian rage is still a work in progress however. The other day I got blocked off on the sidewalk by a car exiting from a parking lot. As I tried to make my way around the front the car continued to edge forward, pushing me onto the road. As the car drove away I slammed my hand against the back window. The car then stopped at the light so I chased after it.

When the window rolled down there was a sweet old lady who appeared to be genuinely distraught that she had blocked my way.

"It was so hard to see" she explained, squinting into the sun.

She then offered me a lift and apologized profusely.

I agree with your point about poor urban design being a root cause of some of our angst. Some neighbourhoods seem to encourage anonimity. Where I live now we have a plethora of parks and services all in close proximity to our houses. I bump into my neighbours all the time, watching their kids in the park, going to Sobey's, walking to school. Whereas in car-centric/poorly planned neighbourhoods I may have seen my neighbour once a twice a year and said 'Hello', in my current neighbourhood I see them every other day and have forged friendships as a result.

Thanks again for the post.

Ben PS This is Ben your old neighbour :) Say 'Hi' to Steve for me. Hope the kids are well (our family is doing fine:) )

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted March 17, 2009 at 20:39:26

Hey, everyone-- thanks for the nice comments ( I must admit I was wondering if someone would snark me, just to be ironic).

Ben-- nice to hear from you, I know from your writing that your bunch is thriving, as is ours. Stephen says "Hi" back. Say hi to Susanna!

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