Politeness

On the plane the other day I was chatting with this pleasant, jovial man. He had an Irish accent, which made him seem even more pleasant and jovial. Everything was lovely, and then he leaned over and said, "I'm not a racist, but..."

I kept my face neutral while my insides squirmed. I thought, Oh no. I thought, What do I do? I thought, Just keep a blank face and a calm demeanor.
And I did. He said some things about how it was hard because "The Muslims" were taking their (the British) jobs, and then proceeded to complain about the Polish and the Czechs as well. And I said some non-committal things about globalization and hard times being hard for everyone and stupid shit that was meant to be sympathetic but not agree with his xenophobic and nationalistic statements.
We got through it and back on to inoffensive ground, and everything was polite.
 
And here's the thing. GODDAMNIT WHY WAS I SO POLITE?
 
How is it that I have been so socialized to value politeness, to shy away from confrontation, and to 'keep the peace' that I fail to address racism when it is blatantly spread before me? When there is even such a handy and obvious clue heading up the statement like, "I'm not a racist, but..."? 
This is ridiculous. My first response should not be "stay neutral, stay calm." There is no such thing as neutral. Calmness is a racist response to racism.
Not that I had to freak out and get hostile on him, but I could have challenged him, been more assertive. I could have spoken my mind. Maybe nothing I could have said would have changed his mind, but I didn't have to tacitly condone his worldview either. Silence is assent. Polite hitherthithering is even worse.
 
I AM SICK AND TIRED OF BEING POLITE. I am such a good little middleclasswhitelady, and this is BULLSHIT. There, I said it in all caps. That's not polite. 
 
We're told not to rock the boat. We're taught to conciliate. We learn to silence ourselves. And I'm not throwing the baby out with the bathwater- I know the value of politeness, I know the number of times when approaching with polite subservience, when withholding, when using extreme diplomacy, when being able to smooth things over has saved my butt. But when did it get to be the default? When did it become an end unto itself? When did I start sacrificing my integrity to politeness? Well, since forever. But I'm done. 
 
I value vulgarity. I value messiness. I value a little bit of conflict and a little bit of chaos and a lot of righteous anger. And I value being able to channel those powerful and rebellious tools into something productive, but sometimes you've got to play with fire if you want to burn some things down. Sometimes you've got to shake things up.
 
I guess this is where the connection to Mad King Thomas comes in. I love that our work is vulgar, messy, chaotic, a little out of control, based in anger and love and mostly unabashed. I love that Mad King Thomas helps me embrace my better, louder self. Our choices are not only aesthetic, but political too. (Of course aesthetics are always political, as I ranted at length several posts ago.) I hope that we can construct our dances in such a way that the rebellion is useful. 
 
It's always a balancing game. I'm learning to push. When to yell and when to hold my tongue and when to flip the middle finger. How to be wrong. I'm going to push and sometimes it's going to be too hard, sometimes in the wrong direction. Good thing I live in the Midwest, where nobody's going to push back, 'cause they're all too polite.
Okay, you're not going to see me running down the street, finger-guns blazing, flipping off the world. Sometimes I'm going to be the Midwesterner, and forget to speak up. But this is a call to question the silence, the status quo and the right times to be polite.  

Comments

Agreed.

How many times have I been there too? It is really hard to speak up and risk awkwardness. Especially at work, with coworkers who I respect in so many ways and who I have to see everyday. But then I kick myself for not saying something when I hear a colleague say that homosexuality is a choice, or whatever the issue is that day. I try to make it obvious in my own actions and words how I feel about the world and what is right, but I think I am going to join you and try a little harder to stand up and let polite come second. Why didn't they teach a class on this in college?  p.s. This is Amelia, not sure how to add my name up there!

Hey, in your defense, you

Hey, in your defense, you were trapped!  A plane is not a good place to start talking about sticky things with people. 

Another thing I like about

Another thing I like about provocative art is that it can acclimate an audience to be receptive to provocative things. I hate dealing with that guy on the plane because I don't have a response that can lead to the outcome I really want. But that's true on your planes, your cubicles, your family gatherings, it's not necessarily true at performances. The audience can't get all huffy if you push their buttons. If they do, it just makes you that much more awesome. It's a neat little switch in social power and it means your outrageous stuff can be a part of a productive discourse. At least, more productive than silently judging the racist guy in the seat next to you.

- Eric

outcomes

"a response that can lead to the outcome that [you] want" is what I wanted to mention: I don't think it makes sense to talk about politness (among communication tactics) without the outcomes in mind. Theresa clearly wanted some other outcome instead of  avoiding confrontation. While it's true that not many inspiring outcomes are embedded in the position of being trapped next to some racist guy on a plane, there are probably a couple other ones. For instance providing a piece of evidence to the guy that his casual racism will indeed sometimes provoke confrontation (not that he would be magically anti-racist then, but perhaps enough data points would convince him at least that his attitudes are at least not the norm, and therefore posisbly questionable).  Or even just feeling good about yourself, not feeling complicit with some odious banter. That's a good outcome.

But with my family and friends, more inspiring outcomes do exist as potential and so I am more likely to view politeness with them as an important tactic. If I listen to the bad ideas of an aunt or uncle with whom I share some solidarity, I have a chance at sharing back and knowing that she/he might actually consider what I say. 

Overall I just wanted to say "hell yeah" to the main post. I was looking through my few old issues of the Hegemon last weekend and thought: this was really messy, and not quite as brilliantly incisive as I remembered,  but the impoliteness was still worthwhile. And I say that as a contributor to the zine who wrote perhaps the tamest, most polite, most "constructive" stuff in there.

-Jesse M