Monday, November 07, 2005

If We Want To Stop People Being Rude We Could Use a Bit of Horse Sense

Taken from The Times

By Jeanette Winterson

AS A TRAVELLING WRITER — WHICH is a cross between a fortune teller and a brush salesman — I meet more people than most. They ask me about their marriages, confide in me their fears, invite me back for coffee, show me their manuscripts, speculate about the state of the world and sometimes, when I am not adequately fulfilling either my exotic or my practical purpose, they are rude to me.

Writers are used to a certain class of people being rude about them; those people are called critics, and in the name of free speech you can say what you like, as long as the writer is not in the room. If the writer suddenly appears in the room — especially if they have done so by first banging on the front door, as I once did to poor old Nicci Gerrard, then you can expect a Vesuvius of a press row about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.

Being rude about someone, in whatever context, is quite different from being rude to someone. As a northerner, my refugee status in the South is never more apparent than in my plain speaking, which has got me into trouble plenty of times.

Nevertheless, I believe in good manners, and practise them up to the point where they become downright lies. “How lovely to see you,” should never conceal: “God, I detest that woman.” “I’m a big fan of your writing,” should never be a self-preservation attempt when the person whose work you have slagged off for 20 years is suddenly standing in front of you with a meat axe.

I daresay that both A. A. Gill and Lynne Truss have had a few meat axes waved at them in their time, and A. A. Gill has never seemed over-particular to me about his use of any offensive weapon, so long as it is deployed from the safe distance of a newspaper column. Both have now published books about rudeness and rage. In Britain, we got no manners, see? And we hate each other, not just in the post office queue, but everywhere and all the time.

Truss’s Talk to the Hand and Gill’s The Angry Island are both entertaining, as you would expect, but bafflingly naive. The glaring gap is, of course, the media itself, and journalists themselves. Truss will take on advertising but not her own kind, and Gill just doesn’t understand why being A. A. Gill means that you can’t moan about people being rude to you.

Journalists have bred a culture of saying anything about anybody and getting away with it. This translates to readers as saying anything to anybody and getting away with it.

Rudeness is a million different ways of saying the same thing: “I don’t respect you.” In the name of truth, the media is no respecter of persons and quite right too, but what about in the name of sex, money, sales, scandal and all the grubby excuses that the media makes to probe and expose and ridicule? I have just been reading Monty (“The Man Who Listens To Horses”) Roberts, on Horse Sense for People. It is obvious stuff — you get what you give. If a horse doesn’t respect you, you can force it to behave by beating it or you yourself can behave differently so that the horse responds differently.

When Roberts is asked to come in and talk to big companies, he emphasises that their whole corporate culture has to change if they want to root out their problems of skiving, slacking and stealing.

He believes that most people are externally, not internally, motivated, and that most people will follow what’s happening around them. Humans, like horses, are herd animals, highly susceptible and used to acting in groups.

I love art and books precisely because they work on the individual and not the group, but I know that the group or the mass is hugely influenced by print and visual media — both what is said, and just as importantly, how it is said. The media has decided that everything is fair game, nothing is sacred, no-one is to be trusted, gossip is good, celebrity sucks (but it sells), politics is corrupt, art is a luxury item, (unlike the must-have Vuitton handbag), everyone, everywhere, is in it only for themselves.

And then we get the “Why, oh why” hand-wringing columns about the state of Britain. Excuse me? As Monty would say, “there can be no positive consequences for negative actions”.

Obvious stuff, but Horse Sense might be good on the bedside tables of a few media types who wonder why nobody is smiling at them on the Tube.

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