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In the last – oh – maybe decade or so, there’ve been a lot of people fah-reeeking out about what the internet is doing to literacy.  Me?  I don’t really get why they’ve so got their shorts in a knot over this (and what does that actually mean, “shorts in a knot?”).  Seems to me we’ve got more people reading and writing now than EVER in the history of the world.

The writing tends to be in short bursts, yes.  The spelling reeks, yes.  And more often than not, because the writing skill isn’t the strongest, the short bursts are rude and stupid – yes.  But is that really so much of a change?  At least the rudeness is in writing.  And people are learning that you CAN communicate through a keyboard.

There are problems, of course.  When people are reading actual books – well, decently written books – the language tends to expand in their heads; they think a little more deeply, maybe even more lyrically, and they can learn something about the world outside themselves.  Assuming that the book in question has any truth or intelligent insight in it.

The internet is being underused in some important ways, though.  There is such potential for discussion in social media—I’ve been part of discussion groups that have changed my life for the better, simply by feeding me both information and insight into people and thus, widening my perspective.  But most of the groups I’ve been part of don’t have discussions.  Or if they do, there doesn’t seem to be a real passion shared – or once it is shared, it seems there’s nothing else to say.

In a few of my groups, the discussion is rapid, dense and interesting. Sometimes misused and nasty, but most of the time interesting.  The trick is to get every person contributing to ask real questions and give real answers.  Not to give into the easy out of abusive and weaponized language.  I had my life threatened by a nasty mouth dude I stood up to once.  I got him kicked off the service – and rejoiced that he happened to live half a planet away.  But it shook me up. Admins need to administrate, and people need to learn to communicate.

Conversation has the same problems, but without the protection of anonymity. But even when some people are face to face, their go-to is bluster and insult and threat.  And how is that going to solve anything?  Well – aside from the fact that it shuts down a conversation obviously distressing to the blusterer.

I have seen calm voices (written ones) disarm situations like this on groups, bringing the discussion back to something meaningful, and certainly, for those participating and lurking, that has to be an education.

It’s interesting to me, the concept of “manners.”  People used to teach “manners.”  But the truth is, your manner is your style.  They didn’t teach a unit on civilized manners, then one on low-class manners.  Even though both could be a legitimate study.  They should have called those classes “improving your manners.”  And maybe they did call it that.  Before my time.

I heard a news report on a high school class in our state – the teacher had used To Kill A Mockingbird as the heart of a year long study of civility.  The language in this book is beautiful.  The dialogue reflects a different time, a more graceful time with underpinnings of southern fluidity and graciousness.  The students were asked to think about these things, to absorb them.  And in the interviews, those students expressed the fact that their own increased civility had improved the quality of interaction in their homes and hallways.  That when the word they used were civilized, so were they. I think this teacher was very wise.

So I hold the short-burst internet on one hand, counting as a virtue the daily exercise in simply reading and writing words, and the reading of good, long-shanked books in the other.  And I think, in the end, that we need both.  And that having even this casual, vulgar (meaning simply, “the way of the commonest folks”) and pretty constant exercise of language in social media is WAY better than nothing.