Friday, June 13, 2014

Clashing Over My Beer/Gay Clash!

Seth Godin commented on my previous posting, "A Clash of Beer Week and Gay Pride":
Oh, Jim. Last time I checked, no one had recently been beaten or killed because they liked to talk about corned beef hash with willing waitresses: [link]

Or even forced to quit their job, or leave town or hide out.

False equivalencies are a dangerous slope. We can never imagine someone else's life, and telling them to get a life isn't our most generous act.
My reply wound up way too long to post as a comment, so I've published it here. It's so long, in fact, that I've highlighted the most important parts (for those in a rush).

Hi, Seth,

Thanks for commenting. Looks like I wasn't clear about the comparison I was making. My fault. Let me try to sharpen it. The distinction is a bit counterintuitive, so please forgive some repetitiveness as I try to approach it from a few different angles.

I'm drawing a strong distinction between bona fide persecution/oppression (which, for the record, I think is bad, something I figured readers would grant me) and the kind of social sorting and friction which, though unfair and unthoughtful, is inevitable in any society for literally everyone.

Hopefully, we can create a society where everyone has political and legal equality. It ain't easy, but it's getting there. Gay people are doing awesome. Even my crude friends strongly favor equal rights and marriage for gay people (we discussed it). If someone tried to attack this guy, they'd have defended him....I have no doubt at all. In 1970? Perhaps not. But now...yes. It's a great time.

But there's a question, and it's real, and oughtn't be dismissed without some clear-eyed contemplation: is everyone owed full, respectful, social acceptance by everyone? Beyond legal/political/economic rights and personal safety rights?

I'd love to answer a resounding "yes". But be brutally honest with yourself (as I've tried to be here with myself): do YOU fully respect and accept everyone who appears in your social orbit? I try to do that. I really do. More than most people, I suspect. But I fail a lot. Petty sociality is an often mean-spirited arena, and conceding this obvious truth doesn't mean you've conceded that some people deserve to be beaten or persecuted!. You may secretly hope the obnoxious, bad-breathed stranger who's latched onto you at a party might fall into a deep pit...and you might even roll your eyes or otherwise let him know how unpleasant you find him. But if a pit magically appeared, you wouldn't imaginably actually push him! I believe that's an important distinction. In fact, it's the very one I'm drawing. We're not talking about hatred. It's a lighter matter (though that guy would nonetheless be mortified if he knew what you were thinking), and we need to see it as such.

We all have dismissed certain sorts of people, and shut them down even when they're non-evil. We even might smirk or glare a little, though we hate to admit it and try hard not to. Perhaps not at gay people, but we all have our flavor of "different" which strikes us as amusing, disturbing, or beyond our particular pale. I've elicited catty, mean remarks from gay strangers for my shlumpfy clothing (and they were right!!). I'd never expect immunity from that.

No one should. Human rights don't extend that far! In our moral imaginations, everyone in a social setting ought to be treated with perfect kindness and respect. But that's one of those imagined ideals which even idealists don't live up to. Why do many of us pretend otherwise?

Question: when you watch the Marx Brothers, does your heart break over Margaret Dumont, the aristocratic, uptight fat lady attempting to sing an aria at her pompous party while Groucho and the boys ridicule her and ruin everything? Think about that one! I actually think about it a lot. It's exactly my point. I mean...women have been victimized by misogyny for centuries, and overweight people are tragically discriminated against. So do you duly recoil at the disgusting treatment she receives in those movies? If not - if you laugh (or if you EVER laugh at slapstick) you need to self-examine, Seth, and try to understand why you're not a perfect font of tolerance and generosity (that's what I was attempting to do in that article).

But don't judge yourself too harshly. Because there's a huge difference between social callousness/petty meanness and bona fide brutality/oppression. That's the distinction I'm trying to draw. And it's not fatuous, it's not hateful, and it's not uninteresting. But you, alas, dove past the distinction to flatly equate the puny with the brutal. My friends aren't brutal in the least. And neither are you or I, even if none of us is a perfect font of tolerant gentility.

No human being escapes from social callousness and petty meanness. And gay people (who can be as snobby, condescending, mocking, and judgmental as any of us) would be hypocritical to demand otherwise.

As I once wrote, the opposite of being a discriminated-against minority isn't becoming an empowered minority, it's pluralism. Boring old pluralism! And in pluralism we put up with petty affronts and social friction. If a disenfranchised minority imagines soaring past pluralism to a point where petty social swipes never afflict them, that's 1. unrealistic, and 2. not something they could ever manage, either (unless they're Mr. Rogers....who I idolize, btw).

Human beings irritate, abrade, and offend each other, but brutality, oppression, and persecution are - as of recently, at least - beyond the pale. So that's where the line gets drawn. But it doesn't extend to uniform niceness and social smoothness. I'm not always nice. You're not always nice. You and I don't beat people up, however, or deny them their rights. Those are completely different things, and that is the real false equivalency here. Any minority (each of us is a minority in a few respects) who fails to recognize this distinction is doomed to mistake the unavoidable petty swipes of pluralism for the unendurable brutal assaults of hatred.

Lots of minorities miss this. It creates bitterness and division. It may be the single most troublesome miscalculation humans make. And the solution is not to try to transform humanity into a uniformly thoughtful and welcoming species incapable of social affront (good luck with that!), but to encourage everyone to see petty as petty and brutal as brutal. All negative life experience doesn't stem from a single monolithic blob of evil persecution.

If you've got a zit on the tip of your nose, all external injustice appears to stem from that.

Finally, yes, people who primarily self-identify via their preference for innies or outies (including straights....and as a member of a Queens health club, believe me, I see a lot of that) rub me the wrong way. It does the same for plenty of gay people, too. Just for one thing, if you make that your primary characteristic, you can hardly be offended when others see you primarily in terms of that characteristic. A fuller and broader persona invites people to view us as less narrow and cartoonish.

Yes, you're right, though, that any such judgement is ungenerous of me (though perhaps you missed my recantation further down). But a question: are you rubbed the wrong way by certain sorts of behavior, Seth? Or do you personify the perfect large-minded generosity you're advocating? If not, why the scorn as I attempt to earnestly parse through it all? These are tricky, knotted matters to try to unravel. I'd love thoughtful input!


Richard Stanford said...


I have to say that I'm with Seth here; also, I don't think that the two situations you described were equivalent. Now, I wasn't there, so I'm just going off what you said. In waitress story the people doing the humiliation were the coworkers of the woman who (in their eyes) needed protecting - although the only thing they did was to "[not] hide their disgust." She was young and inexperienced, you were old and (apparently seen as) predatory - and you have no way of knowing how she really felt during this encounter. I'm not sure that I agree with your quote, "Guys my age are not supposed to socially bond with younger people. It looks desperate and creepy," but I'm including it here for reference as your own opinion - the fact that you were also in a position of power (paying her tip) and that she couldn't just leave if she had wanted to has a lot to do with it too IMO.

In the beer bar, you describe a conversation that was between peers. Two grown beer aficionados, having a good conversation. In this case we do know what you were thinking, and you didn't issue any kind of a hidden cry for help. Your friends, rather than just simply not endorsing this behavior, "stood over the guy's shoulder, and started batting their eyes and making kissy faces at me."

Even at face value, in the first case you were made to feel uncomfortable for something that you were doing - in the first case, being significantly older than your conversational companion. There may or may not have been more to it, but we'll never know. In the second case, the home brewer was made to feel far more uncomfortable, simply for being who he was. You hadn't gotten any kind of a "pick up" vibe, so it feels far more likely that he was simply guilty of being friendly while gay - worse, being friendly while possibly gay.

Is this poor physicist never supposed to start a conversation outside of a bar for "his kind" because some "actually very kind-hearted" folk will tease him until he leaves, now? What if he had been a woman and also (for the sake of argument) "into you" when you weren't interested - should [s]he still have been humiliated into leaving because of that interest, even though it was indicated so subtly that you had no idea it even existed (if it ever did)?

Your Margaret Dumont comment was in a similar vein - although since you asked I've never personally enjoyed humor that's poking fun at others nearly as much as I enjoy self-deprecating humor. In that case she's generally being ridiculed for what she's doing, not for doing perfectly normal things while being a woman.

That's the key difference to me.

You and the waitress could easily have a conversation in a setting where you were both closer to being peers, which would probably remove a lot of the perceived power imbalance, and I doubt that her coworkers would have objected even as subtly as they did. How much more equitable could your conversation with the physicist have been though so that your friends wouldn't have felt the need to "protect you" from The Gay who dared to think that he was just as good as you and they were?

For that matter, why do they think you need protection? In the waitress case, that's easy to understand, but in yours? Or could it be that rather than taking care of someone they perceive to be on the wrong end of an uncomfortable situation, they honestly just liked the taunting?

Jim Leff said...

Richard, I've read this several times and chewed on it for a day, but I just don't see it as you see it. But that also helps me feel more empathic about you (and Seth) not seeing things as *I* see them!

I don't think the issue with the waitress was any "power imbalance". I'm pretty sure I was just perceived as a creepy old guy hitting on an attractive young girl. I wasn't, though, so, to use your words, I was made to feel uncomfortable simply for being who I was. That's it. And I don't think my friends thought they were "protecting". No idea where you got that from.

I, like Vic, was not hitting on anyone, just enjoying innocent social connection. The waitress, like me, was enjoying the conversation and not interpreting it in a creepy way. But onlookers misinterpreted purely on the basis of stereotype, leading to a shattering of dignity.

One single diff seems salient: Gay people, who've been grievously mistreated, understandably seem more sympathetic victims than creepy middle-aged white dudes. So, there's that. But my point is that social friction isn't a form of comes from a different place. It's something we suck up in a pluralistic society; a cost of coming to the table (rather than cowering in the closet).

That said, I could imagine an argument that we owe gay people greater social deference as a form of penance (more deference than people generally have a right to expect in a social milieu). But as a Jew, I don't think German folks owe me deference. And I wouldn't want it if I got it.

I once wrote that, as a member of several minorities, I find skittish deference from the left much worse than the most ham-fistedly explicit racists on the right, with whom I can feel genuine friendship and affection because they don't act as if I have some terrible condition which must never ever be mentioned yet must perpetually be monitored and finessed. This explains how I perceive society, racism, and progressive thought in general. It helps explain why I'm temperamentally neither left nor right wing.

My corned beef hash chat.....Vic's physics chat......and Margaret Dumont trying to throw a all three, I see people doing innocent things and being humiliated after being reduced to cartoonish stereotype. But that's neither hatred or persecution. Just a cosmic call to lighten up. Feeling ridiculous happens, and maybe it's not the worst thing in the world.

I'm more consistent with that conclusion than you might expect. Back in 1999, a crowd of 4chan troll kiddies wandered, en masse, into Chowhound, ranking on the denizens for their food preoccupation and their earnest paeans. There were hundreds of them, like a plague of snarky locusts, and after leaving thousands of postings, they were gone. Our moderators, who had to clean it all up, were spitting mad. These guys had ruined the site (temporarily), making a mockery of something I held dear, but, in a stoop-shouldered, glum/resigned way, I did chortle at some of the funnier remarks and, generally, at the perspective. Each time I found myself near a huffy pique, I realized, sheepishly, that I was failing to see humor in myself. I was acting like Margaret Dumont.

Everyone looks ridiculous from some perspective. And dignity's an illusion (and an affectation). It's not a bad thing to be reminded of this. I choose to be a chortler rather than a Dumont. Even when (ESPECIALLY when) one of my rawer aspects is the focus. That's an antidote to the human dynamic that most worries me. As I've asked a number of times here: Will human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

I don't harden boundaries in response to petty affronts. I don't escalate or reciprocate. I accept the invitation to broaden my view, laugh at myself, and scrape off some dignity (which can accumulate like barnacles if one's not vigilant).

Richard Stanford said...

Jim, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

What I meant by "power imbalance," was that, in that case, the waitress was working (so she couldn't leave if she wanted to) and her financial livelihood was at least somewhat dependent on you being happy with her (which has all sorts of other issues, but that's not the subject of this post). In the other case either of you could have turned around and left at any time with no comparative negative affects.

FWIW I, like you, personally don't agree with social penance - I think that it interferes with moving on.

As for the protecting comment, that was (clumsily) intended to point out that in the first case you said that the waitress's friends got involved because they thought you were hitting on their coworker - "protecting" her. That somewhat explains and justifies their behavior. If your friends didn't think that you needed to be protected from the attention of the gay physicist, what were they doing if it wasn't just deciding to be cruel? They had no other motives that I can see.

I agree with most of your points. It still bothers me however that while there are plenty of ways that an older man can talk platonically with a younger woman without being harassed for it that are less conflict-creating than a waitress-customer scenario, and indeed these conversations happen all the time, I can think of no more convivial situation that two people chatting over common interests in a public bar and yet that wasn't acceptable for your chat with the physicist, simply because of who he is.

If, as a gay man, you can't have a platonic conversation not about dating but about home brewing in a bar with someone who's your peer, without experiencing public ridicule simply for being there and daring to talk to a stranger, what's left? Where can a gay man go and what is he allowed to do, other than to return to the "gay quarter" and stay there?

Would it change anything if that paragraph had read:

If, as a Jew, you can't have a platonic conversation not about religion but about home brewing in a bar with someone who's your peer, without experiencing public ridicule simply for being there and daring to talk to a stranger, what's left? Where can a Jew go and what is he allowed to do, other than to return to the "Jew quarter" and stay there?

I'll admit that its that last part is what bugs me the most. Not intended to be inflammatory, just picked something else that's innate, affects a similar number of people, and doesn't actually have anything to do with home brewing.

I do feel that your friends would have been well within their rights to have ignored him, by the way, but crossed the line when they drove him out.

I'm glad that you could laugh at yourself after the 4chan incident by the way, and that you weren't driven to shut down Chowhound because of it :)

One final comment, then I'll step down from your soapbox (thanks for sharing it btw) - maybe what's really fundamentally me is that you seem to be arguing that in both cases the driving out was understandable and not something to worry about - I'd say that in both cases the driving out (if your chat with the waitress was really welcomed by her) was shameful.

Also, consider that the 19 year old and her fellow waitresses will sometime, hopefully, grow old themselves and possibly find themselves in a similar position. Your straight friends are unlikely to similarly all become gay at some point.

Jim Leff said...

Would it change anything if that paragraph had read: "If, as a Jew..."

I'm not a fan of this sort of "How would you feel if...." response to moral calculation.

If my response were "Well, I'd be extremely insulted, grab a blunt object, and bludgeon them to death!", would that invalidate the point I'd previously made? By the same token, if I replied that "I would welcome such a person into my house, feed them a stupendous dinner, hug them sincerely and send him off into the night aglow". You'd say, "Ok, so you're Jesus. How awesome. But you can't expect others to share your beneficence". My personal thresholds have nothing to do with it!

But I'm not really sure what point you and Seth are making. If you're trying to instill in me greater sympathy for "Vic", then you misinterpreted the original article. I was unhappy about the situation, and felt horrible for him. And for me! I was REALLY embarrassed by what happened at that restaurant. Deeply. It frickin' killed me. If I can't talk to people with eagerness and warmth, because it will be interpreted as something creepy and ugly, then I'm not sure this is a planet I particularly want to be on. "Vic", I'd imagine, felt exactly the same.

As a middle-aged dude, I've also got to diligently avoid contact/conversation with children. Pedophilia's an atrocity, but nobody talks about the epidemic of unbounded pedophilia suspicion experienced by middle aged dudes who direct the least attention toward children outside their very closest social/family circles. So who does this leave for me to chat with? Other grizzled elderly gentlemen? Yeesh, how boring!

So I'm highly sympathetic to the insidious nature of dissing/suspecting/profiling anyone who happens to display characteristic X. But I also realize how things are, and that I do this, too, and that there's a world of difference between a prejudicial shmuck and an oppressive monster.

So what are we arguing about here, exactly? I'm still curious as to what, exactly, Seth was angry about. Did I fail to "tsk" indignantly enough at my friends' behavior? Is it taboo to try to understand and explain inegalitarian human tendencies we're all guilty of? Is the only permissible way to wade into this terrain to do so with a surfeit of righteous judgement and condemnation...full stop?

Such thinking is alien to me. I'd make an awful liberal (though probably a much worse conservative)!

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