I believe I got my strong reluctance to indulge in personal insults from two very different communities with whom I have had strong ties. The first, from age about 6 till 13 was made up of my neighborhood friends in Brooklyn NY, some of whom were the offspring of actual mafiosi. The second was the community of scientists I joined after becoming a professional doctoral level scientist. Both communities taught me the danger of using direct personal insults, publicly or privately, and the lessons were similar in that both could result in death. In the first case that meant the death of me, and in the second of my reputation.
For this reason, I have always been shocked at the massive level of invective and deeply wounding insults one encounters online, often by anonymous sources, who apparently have lived lives devoid of either of my two communities or anything like them. On Twitter, I instantly block anyone who insults me directly (getting close to 500 such cases). I will not watch dumpster fire style debates, and (although it hasn’t happened) would immediately leave such a scene if I were directly involved.
Perhaps I feel so strongly about this because I have personally witnessed the consequences of stepping outside those rules. In the first case the memory of a teenager hanging from a schoolyard fence, and in the second, the immediate fall from grace of a fairly famous senior scientist who began publicly badgering a terrified post-doc at a conference. This post-doctoral fellow worked in the lab of another famous scientist who was also at the conference, and in full view of a couple dozen colleagues (including myself) came to her protege’s rescue. With a few well-chosen words she reduced the badgerer to near tears. I won’t mention the name of the badgerer (who I never heard of again), but the rescuer was Charlotte Friend, the brilliant and pioneering discoverer of the Friend Leukemia virus.
What I learned, and live by, is the principle that politeness is a sign of strength, and the converse is also true. It might not be a coincidence that the well acknowledged toughest military unit in the world, the UK’s SAS, hails from a nation famous for its politeness.
Of course, I claim no credit for this wisdom, it is found throughout the Bible, and is at the core of all religious teachings, as well as many secular sources. It forms the basis for academic and scholarly exchange in all disciplines, not to mention ordinary casual interactions between all people.
So, I will end with this. Be nice. It doesn’t pay to not be.