Domestic Affairs

It isn't personal, except when it is

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-06-11 10:14
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In the 1998 movie, "You've Got Mail," Tom Hanks tells his bookstore rival and developing heartthrob Meg Ryan that the push to put her out of business isn't personal. Ryan asks Hanks, "What does that mean?" "All that means is that it wasn't personal to you."

The popular American tv series "Glee" features a scene in which one of the show's principal characters, Will, tells the female football coach, Beiste, that although members of the Glee Club think about her to dull their passions when they are amorous, it isn't personal. She responds that it's very personal to her.

When I was ambushed recently by an online blog writer for something I had written in another Chinese English language newspaper and then blocked from responding to the cyber-attack, I'm pretty sure my assailant would have said he was just doing his job and that it wasn't personal. Well, it was personal to me.

A consequence of modern society is a growing impersonality, less daily face-to-face contacts and more dependence upon online strangers. That's not necessarily a bad thing. For many of us, some of our most important and richest contacts are through the Internet. That giant communications device provides spiritual, physical, and mental retreat. When we are rejected or hurt by someone's comments on the Internet though, we might intellectually depersonalize the remarks, but we take them personally.

I began writing op-eds for newspapers in 2003. I learned fast that you needed to develop a rather thick skin writing opinions because someone would always disagree with you. I've been a lawyer for many years and that training and likely my nature contribute to my being no shrinking violet when it comes to engaging others in spirited debate. What I can't abide and what seems to be aggravated by the Internet are increasing attacks upon individuals rather than their ideas.

Many people reading this for whom there really is no pre-Internet history will wonder at just why I seem so sensitive to ethereal remarks. The best answer I can give is that it's because the remarks hurt. That may be a bit of circular logic but in fact I don't make any great distinction between what someone writes about me and what someone says to my face. Except, I do believe that when we are provided online anonymity we write things we would never say to someone.

The Internet image I have is of someone shrouded in darkness standing on a Beijing bridge randomly dropping rocks as the cars whiz by below. Let's say the fellow causes an accident in which someone is killed. Maybe the malfeasor remains anonymous or maybe he's caught. Almost certainly the rock dropper doesn't know the victim and if apprehended claims the killing wasn't personal. But of course, it was. There are no impersonal deaths.

Society will punish the wrongdoer and again the claim may be raised that society isn't acting personally, merely meting out impersonal justice. But again, of course, it's personal.

I've always tried to adhere to a simple principle of Internet behavior. I ask whether what I am writing is something I would be willing to say to the person if she was standing next to me? If the answer is no, I shouldn't write it. Perhaps a few of the wise individuals who read this opinion could post their own wisdom as to how they manage to be civil in cyber space. But please remember, it really is personal.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, a former high school psychology teacher, and an adjunct instructor of law at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.