Yesterday I accompanied Mr. Beale to one of his periodic social events at work, a company picnic sort of thing. Mr. Beale’s workplace is a conservative place in every respect: socially conservative, politically conservative, you name it. So at these affairs my job is to be pleasant, talk about the weather, ask after everyone’s health, kids, pets, etc. This is how people behave when they are being polite.
In all my years of attending these events I’ve only once crossed the line into confrontational territory, and that’s when someone used the “N” word with me. I made clear that I found such language offensive and to please never use that word around me again. But other than that one time, my conversation stays on the weather, the disease du jour, the grandkids. This is called manners. It’s how I was raised.
So it really struck me when one of my husband’s Teatard colleagues tried to yuk it up with someone he did not know about the wretched President Obama. The man was quite literally just walking by and the Teatard shouted his disparaging words about Obama at him in a way that indicated he thought they shared the same views. They may have, I don’t know; I just can’t imagine assuming that someone you don’t know feels the same way about politics that you do. I find that very strange.
Then, not 30 minutes later, I’m sharing a casual conversation with someone I don’t know and he starts in on the religion stuff with me. “Woman comes from man, I know that,” he says to me, almost apropos of nothing, as I had just made a joke about “belonging” to my husband by way of introduction. I’m so stunned I find myself grasping for some witty comeback and failing miserably. I stammered something like, “that might be news to your mama,” in my best Southern drawl, and the man snorts and says again, “well I absolutely know that if it weren’t for man there would be no woman, it’s in the Bible.”
I’m one of those people with what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier, “staircase wit,” meaning I usually think of the right response long after it’s too late to be useful. While I should have said something like, “that’s one interpretation of the Bible but it’s not the only one,” or “my church views that Biblical story as a metaphor,” or even just, “well, okay then!,” instead my brain files through every Amy-Jill Levine lecture I’ve ever heard explaining the origins of these creation myths and all I can think to say is, “that’s a fairy tale.”
The man looked so shocked and repulsed, I might as well have sprouted horns and a forked tail. He slowly backed away from me shaking his head, and if he could have made the sign of the cross, he would have.
Far from being embarrassed, I was pissed off. I didn’t ask for this confrontation. Since when do people spout off about religion and politics in what was once called “polite company”? When did that become okay? I guess that’s the world we live in these days, where everyone broadcasts their opinion to everyone else, manners be damned.
Yes, a political blogger just wrote that last paragraph. This isn’t cognitive dissonance, I am very aware of the irony here. But isn’t blogging different? People go to blogs to take part in a conversation, they seek it out. I don’t force my blog on anyone.
Whatever happened to “polite company,” anyway? Do people just feel the need to spout off about their political and religious views with strangers because this is what they see happening on TV and the internet? Is this the result of reality TV and opinion-oriented “news”?
Do we not account for circumstances any more?
A few weeks ago I read an interview with one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett. This quote has stuck with me:
I just feel the world is choking on disclosure. I think we could all stand a little less reality, and a little more creativity.
This from someone who in addition to writing amazing fiction has penned a heartbreaking memoir and numerous personal essays and articles. But goddamn, sometimes I feel like our entire society has just unzipped itself, spilled out its guts, and we’re all walking around in a mess of entrails.