There's a viral thing going around Singapore that I would love to comment on less obliquely, either here or on FB, but I feel that my opinion on that matter, whatever it may be,.. hang on, I don't mean my opinion, I mean the fact that I, as a non-Singaporean living in Singapore might even HAVE an opinion about an issue that involves non-Singaporeans living in Singapore and might wish to express it safely in a polite public forum where reasoned debate could ensue (say, SammyBoy's Café), that I could expect a serious backlash - and not just being told to go back where I came from (Hey, I thought Aussies had the dibs on that phrase!) - from an island-full of self-righteously aggrieved citizens.
One could surmise from the evidence of the issue I am referring to, that there is a certain class of people who wouldn't even care to read, let alone attempt to understand what my opinion might be, should I have one, before attacking me and cutting me down to the size they think is appropriate (i.e. mincemeat?) for whatever opinion-crime they assume I have committed - but not just with an insult-exchanging "flame-war" as it used to be, but with real, life-impacting, personal, damage...
Read all about it... That woman who tweeted a poor-taste racist joke at the airport and was sacked by the time her plane landed...
If my comment got out, and was misinterpreted to be racist, or culturalist, or elitist, or post-colonialist, or pre-colonialist, or anything "-ist" by this type of people, then, pushing out their pique in a cascade of reTweeted or FB-shared comments could create enough ruckus (and not just on social media, but "real" media) so that their opinions on my less than 100% approved opinion could go Gangnam to a point that my employer would not be able to ignore it and they might feel they have to sack me - with all the enormous financial repercussions that might involve - home loans forfeited, hospital bills unpaid, Dropbox subscription expired (AIYEE, THE HORROR!), blah blah...
Not happy with that, those out for justice might, as they typically do, decide to attack, abuse and humiliate my family (yeah, even to the seventh son of the seventh son). Maybe they'd turn their attention to any of friends who'd stuck up for me (if they would be stupid enough to raise their heads in this Politically Correct environment), and then they'd hack into my computer and republish those embarrassing photos of me at my 50th birthday, the ones with the blue sparkly 50 sign stuck on my fat tummy and -- oh, those pics are already out there on FB!
And, you know, my opinion might have only been along the lines of, "Just chill guys," and/or "HTFU". But I have opted for the self-censor because I read on Facebook every second day exactly what happens to smart-arses on Facebook.
Because even such a timid comment as my typical ones might incense people further, for, as we know from recent experience, insults can be sort of homeopathic, in that the smaller the intended offensiveness of the comment or act, the greater will be its perceived offensiveness. This may extend to the point where, say, flashing your car's high-beam at the rear of a bad-driver is tantamount to declaring war. (See previous post)
This overreaction happens all the time - road rage being only one instance - because we are all wired to take a disproportionate offence at certain types of mild insults when they threaten certain aspects of our social expectations. Like when you feel you are being slightly cheated by a cunning taxi-driver taking an unusual route (and who might only be trying to avoid $4 ERP charge on your behalf), or being cheatingly slighted by your drunken life-partner at a social gathering where the morals are generally getting a bit lax and the lights are getting dim...
Seriously, free speech is being curtailed everywhere these days - here's me self-censoring! I certainly never expected to see that day! - and it's not (only) by the fascist governments and the despotic tyrants we typically point our quivering fingers at, but those cyber-posses of hyper-offendable "flesh-hunters" who troll the web-prairies looking for ways to destroy the lives of those others who might not be, to their unstated standards, perfect human beings all the time.
It's the somewhat peeved public on their iPads, not the evil overlords, not the Stasi, not the NSA, not KGB spies, not the minions of Big Brother. These are the ones keeping tabs on whatever we write, whatever we show, or whatever we think out loud in a brain-farted Tweet these days. And punishment is as swift as electrons and as profoundly justifiable as 140 characters can make it.
What has gone wrong? The PURPOSE of the internet used to be just that back in the good old days - it was built to offend and annoy people! That, and document collaboration, And porn. What? Has? Gone? Wrong?
"If you can't annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.” Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim.
The Wild West ain't got nothing on the e-lynchings of these days.
E@L is calmly driving out of the satellite town of Leopold towards its mother planet/city of Geelong (we are in Australia already!) on the morning of Christmas Eve. He stops, with a few other cars, as the traffic lights at the bottom of the hill turn red. There are three lanes for each direction at this intersection, the inner ones of each dedicated to a right turn. He is going straight on and is the front car in the middle lane. This would be the "fast lane" or overtaking lane, but here, still in the Leopold township, it is a 70km/h zone and this would not be an issue, you'd think.
About 500m or so further towards Geelong the township finishes, just after the Coles supermarket complex, the speed limit then becomes 90km/h. In this area, for about 5km, are the small hobby-farmers, or the toes-stuck-in real farmers; people who sell organic produce, like sacks of horse-shit and tubs of freshly laid, unwashed eggs, and who might have a few paddocks gone fallow for a few years, and a few where dumb-as-fuck Hereford cattle graze under the enormous high-tension electricity towers that feed Geelong's last remaining triple digit employer, the Alcoa aluminium smelter, out on a finger of land by the best harbour in the bay.
Out on "the main road," if E@L was on the inside or outside lane it might make a difference. If drivers were foolhardy enough to push too far over the limit they'd risk drawing attention to themselves especially during the heavy traffic-police presence on Christmas Eve. [Increased safety, or raising funds to pay for a police budget that has already been overspent?] But here, still at the lights, E@L doesn't think he has any particular irresponsibility to be a drag-racing petrol-head loon. Particularly as he is setting up the Bluetooth from the iPhone to the car while waiting there.
When the lights change to green he gently accelerates away (but that is not saying anything much) in his little Korean rental car because, hey, he is in no hurry and does not need to rush to jump out first, plus the phone just needs a little touch to connect - 'beep' and there it goes - The Fray.
The car in the slow lane on his left is going a little faster and is pulling away slightly from E@L. Big deal, we are still in the 70km/h zone. After about 150m however, another car, or a van in fact, comes up on his inside, in left lane, and hovers beside him. It presses urgently closer towards the car in front of it, dangerously close. This van does appear to be in a hurry, and now, with only half its length past E@L's car, it appears to be contemplating changing lanes! This would likely result in it pretty much sharing the same coordinates of space-time as E@L's car which can only happen it they are both Bosons, the Force-carrying Particles, but not possible when, as is the case, they are made of Fermions, a.k.a. matter (according to the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics.)
"Hey, hey," thinks E@L to this driver, "don't be a fuckwit - this universe works fine as it is!" But here it goes: The van's indicators flash on and almost immediately it starts to swing across towards him. He is forced to jam down on his brakes and drop back quickly as the van lurches into his lane, only avoiding the front of E@L's car by a meter or two, thanks to E@L's prescience and sharp braking and the way he cried out, "FFUUUCCCKKK!"
The driver of the van, obviously not 100% aware of, or not seriously caring about, the danger he just threw E@L into, puts his thick, hairy, deeply tattooed right arm out the window and effects a conciliatory wave. "Woah, you idiot," thinks E@L and automatically blinks his high beam once at the van, which is already prematurely accelerating away in anticipation of the upcoming higher speed limit. "Ha," thinks E@L as the light-beam, hardly a laser, hits the back of the van, "Take that!"
But the van driver doesn't take it well. The waving hand that had been retracted, emerges again, this time with its middle finger raised. It seems this driver doesn't appreciate it being pointed out to him that he nearly killed someone a hundred meters back there.
Oh dear. While the physiological effects of his fright peaked early in one way - the hyper-reality of pure shock - now some other concerning signs are rising. His chest is tightening and his mouth is drying. He is angry and frustrated and a bit panicky. [E@L would like to point out that in this region (not on this road, but near Geelong) a few of the dramatic scenes from the first Mad Max movie were shot, back in the late 70's, and that the movie's ultimate road rage attitude still permeates the traffic culture round here. E@L once had a Geelong acquaintance who cheerfully told him that he always carried a small crowbar under his seat for resolving differences of opinion in these incidences of mild traffic-related personal losses of face.]
As the stream of traffic moves towards town, E@L is himself driving a little closer to 100 than to 90, perhaps because he is now so rigid with tension, and noting that the urgent need for speed that van had before is not that important after all, and E@L is catching up. Oops, did E@L say he was catching up? The van has moved back to the outer (left) lane again, and another set of traffic lights is coming up with E@L still in the right lane. E@L wonders how this will work out if the light turns red - there are two cars in front of the van and one in front of him.
What is the etiquette due to a person who flagrantly tried to kill you and then flipped the bird when you objected to this? He wonders if he should ignore the van (i.e the sensible thing), or if he should he stare hard at the driver with a tightly accusative, seriously affronted face (wrong) - but this is a matter of being a man or a mouse, right? He feels the tension continuing to rise in his chest - wonders if this is another heart attack in the making, or anger, or fear, or whatever - and stomach acid is pouring out prior to a possible confrontation. This could be a suicide decision. He has no perfect knowledge of who is driving this van: He has only seen an arm, a hand and several fingers (at least initially), although he is moderately certain that it is *not* someone's little old grandmother.
His heart does falter a bit when [as you expected] the lights they are approaching turn red. Slowing down to come to a stop, E@L passes the van's driver window slowly and he foolishly decides to give the driver a look, blank but uncompromising! But the driver is already staring back at him (in anticipation of E@L staring in the first place of course), angry and sneering. He is a big man [as you also expected] with a face like an unscrubbed potato out of which glaring eyes spear hatred at E@L. He appears to be in his mid-forties, his long dark hair is thinning and wild, he has a scruffy beard, and wears a dark shirt. He has turned in his seat to better face E@L whom, in his meek little rental car, goes slowly past, towards a position just ahead of the van.
E@L sighs deeply. Belches out his acid fumes. Great; The bad guys from Mad Max have all been reincarnated in the van driver.
When the traffic moves forward again, the van has become trapped behind some slower cars (they had better watch out!) and E@L is soon quite a few car lengths ahead of the van. He is able to move over into the left lane, the same as the van, and the speed limit is about to change again, down to 80km/h as the density of suburban industry increases.
He still feels an ache in his ribs and burning of acid, and he needs to let the incident fade away. He chants: little book of calm, little book of calm, trying not to think of the fucking idiot driver, trying to kill him and then getting angry at E@L for just a brief light-flash, little book of calm... Relax, breath out slowly, be calm. Oommmm... Thank god that's over.
Until... another set of traffic lights turns red. [You expected this as well, right?] As E@L comes to a halt, he sees in his mirror that the van had already pulled out into the right lane again, now on E@L's driver side window. The van, a big van, monstrous, surely too big for this planet, snorting malignant fumes of an infernal internal combustion, approaches menacingly (Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear) and E@L assesses it will stop right next to him. Which it does.
E@L notices only then that there is decal on the side of the van. It is a small notice promoting a motor-cycle repair service (no doubt provided by the evil driver). In a burst, it dawns on him that the dark shirt on the screaming driver is in fact a leather jacket, perhaps with a bikie group's denim colours on top. [Another quick bit of background for you: Geelong is known for its chronic and frequent motorcycle-gang-related violence, including several recent murders...]
The anger displayed on the bikie's sneering face earlier has only swelled since the last visual-only interaction - he seems to have been steaming up fury to unleash, scalding hot, against E@L. The wild hair and wild eyes are even crazier, his potato face gone to a bright Russet. Leaning over to his passenger-side window, he roughly rattles it down. E@L casually presses the button, once he finds it, on his door and his window slides down with a smooth electronic burr.
E@L has a fair idea what Mad Max the spud-man is about say, so he instantly runs through a few of the witty responses he can make to the varieties of acerbic invective which are about to be spat from the mouth of this demon with severe anger management issues. Should he tell him to take his anger out on the wife and kids as he no doubt usually does? No. Should he tell him to learn to go fuck himself with various motor-cycle parts? No. Should he suggest that he file a police report if he feels he has been legally slighted by E@L's irrational following of the speed limit? Probably no, also.
So when the potty-mouthed bike-repairman lets fly - and he does most colourfully and effusively - E@L opts for a softly-softly, more passive than aggressive, approach.
"What?" he shrugs, with a slight suggestion of irony playing around his mouth. "What?" he shrugs again. (This is roughly what he meant by the shrug: What are you so amazingly angry at *ME* for, all *I* did was blink my lights!... You don't scare me!)
And this interaction goes on for the ages contained in an enormously relativistic three or four seconds, maybe two.
And when the red-lights go green, as they must, E@L's sweaty fingers seek the window-up button, but before it rises, he looks at the potato-faced man and says loudly, in a voice as close to pleasant as he can manage, "And have a Merry Christmas..."
And so he drives away, satisfied that he will not necessarily be murdered before he gets home, and slightly smugger than he was a few seconds earlier, and also confident that the bikie van driver will have completely missed/ignored E@L's ironic point about Christmas Spirit. Or he'll be still sitting there dumbfounded. Or maybe humbled and apologetic at E@L's devastating implied criticism. Or maybe even angrier than ever at E@L's high-horse arrogant cockiness.
But, whatever, you know? E@L just wants to calm down, he wants the tension to dissipate, he wants to do his shopping - cereal for his mum, milk and bread for his sister, antacid (now required) and a AED for himself. He turns into the next (The Woolworths) supermarket car-park and was pleased to note that the van kept on going up the road towards town. And he sits for a minute in his parked car, breathing deeply, repeatedly and slightly shaking. And he feels for his pulse - he is alive, yes.
"I really didn't need that," he says, with a hand against his chest: in prayer or in defence, he isn't sure.
Then he thinks: "I just bought a house in this town. Fuck."