Joel, You’re Not Polite!

First, a word on the word “bigot.”  I’m old enough that I know there’s a time to be nice – that’s when people, upon hearing of an injustice, make real, concrete steps to fix it while seeking out the input of those they hurt.  I’ll be nice when that situation seems possible.  But if you demonstrate that you don’t get it, I’m not going to make it easy on you or comfortable for you to act bigoted.  Sure, a bigot would like me to say “we have a small disagreement” rather than “you are a bigot.”  After all, “we have a small disagreement” means he doesn’t have to implement any change.  “You are a bigot” requires action – either more bigotry or a turn from bigotry.

To be honest, if everyone called out bigotry in direct, “harsh” language, there would be a lot less bigotry.  One thing that allows bigotry to continue is when those not directly involved simply stay silent or minimize the act, out of politeness towards the bigot.

If you are going to increase your bigotosity just because someone pointed out your bigotry in a rude way, well that’s pretty much the definition of a bigot.  Feel free to be rude back to someone rude to you – but if you’re doing something bigoted, it’s time for a change, even if it was pointed out in a rude way.  You’re not morally superior if you hold your ground on bigotry because the other person committed a moral transgression in your eyes (rudeness).  No, in that situation, you’re trying to be controlling.  You’re trying to enforce your idea of rudeness.  Well, that’s fine, but please do it with something other than bigotry as your “stick.”

In fact it is politeness, or the perceived idea of politeness, combined with power imbalances and subtle bigotry in bystanders that prevents people from confronting bigotry.  For example, watch people’s reactions much of the time when a non-disabled person refuses to give up a seat on public transportation to someone who apparently needs it more.  Now, I’m not talking about someone who explains that they need the seat – I’m talking about someone who just doesn’t give a care about someone else.  We’ve been taught it’s rude to get involved in other people’s business.  Sure, we’ll probably speak up if the seat-hogger himself gets rude towards someone else, but if he stays silent, we generally do to.  In other words, we’re more concerned about the seat hogger’s feelings than the person who needs the seat.  So who has the power?  Obviously the one that gets us to react in a way that helps them.

Granted, I probably wouldn’t recommend yelling at the seat hogger, “You dumb ass, can’t you see that someone else needs that seat more than you?”  I would probably suggest an attempt at politeness.  But if that request is refused, or people on the bus know that this person does this repeatedly and polite discussion doesn’t work, then it may be time to at least make the person as uncomfortable as he’s made the people who might need his seat.

My tactic is to generally point out a problem to someone and then watch where they go with it.  Generally, I give them a lot of time (sometimes months).  I start with giving them a chance to see the problem for themselves, after pointing out something that should make the problem obvious.  Later, I explain the problem in detail, again still trying to be “polite.” But if no movement happens, I’m done with politeness – since clearly that didn’t work.  I’m going to be direct enough that it’s not comfortable to remain doing the wrong thing.  Other people do things differently, and I’m glad there are many styles of advocacy.  Sometimes my style works.  Sometimes someone else’s works.  That said, I’d be curious if politeness has ever worked when when someone doesn’t correct the issue in a relatively short period of time – I think at a point, it takes shame, negative publicity, rudeness, and refusal to allow the action to continue without being contested.

To me, the ironic thing is when I’m accused of being rude – perhaps a harm that I’ve caused – but the harm I’m complaining about is far worse than simple rudeness.  For instance, I remember being handed a friend’s wallet after she paid for some items in a store.  The clerk thought I was her minder or something, and that I should have her credit cards and cash.  I asked the clerk, “Do you normally hand cash that belongs to one person to another person?”  The clerk responded by saying, “You don’t have to be so rude.”  Maybe he was right – I don’t know.  But it’s interesting that now the problem was my rudeness, not the fact that he just treated his customer as if she was incapable of holding her own wallet, and, by extension, managing her own financial affairs.  I’d say that was rude too.  Probably more rude than a complaint about giving somebody a wallet that belongs to someone else!

Really, this wasn’t about rudeness.  It was about comfort.  The clerk was now uncomfortable, just as my friend was when her wallet was handed to me.  And we’re not supposed to make you uncomfortable, apparently.  Even if you just made someone very uncomfortable, dismissed their ability to manage their own affairs, prevented them from accessing services, or were otherwise doing something bigoted.  Bigotry is not supposed to be confronted “rudely,” at least if the person doing it thinks they are a nice person who has done nothing wrong in their own eyes.  A large amount of this isn’t about rudeness, but rather about being right or wrong.  And being told you’re wrong often feels rude.  Sure, maybe the right words will help you digest things, but at the end of the day, you either are or aren’t willing to change your behavior and recognize your prior behavior as bigoted (whatever word you use for it).

I’d be curious how others handle this.  What do you do when weeks or months of politeness fails?  Do you stay polite?  What are you changing to get change in the other person or organization?

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One Response to Joel, You’re Not Polite!

  1. C. says:

    I don’t think you were rude at all in your example with the cashier. It was a simple question, not a value judgment, and he called you rude in order to silence you because he was embarrassed that you had brought his prejudice out into the open. Imagining being in his position, I personally would have apologized profusely (and then had a serious session of self-questioning and thought about my internalized prejudices, and how I might better avoid being disrespectful towards others in thought and deed).. but then as an autistic with spotty passing privilege, I doubt I would have handed the money to the “perceived normal” to begin with.

    I think a great deal of the time, people use “You’re being rude”/”I don’t like your tone” to put others back “in their place” after the other has done something to shake up the status quo. Humans are a social species, and our survival and reproduction depends upon our place in the pecking order – maintaining this place and keeping others lower for personal safety is a kind of parallel morality that for most of the population takes precedence over the “don’t hurt people” golden rule type of morality. IME most people will go to any length for it, not to be jerks but because for them, it is instinctually a life or death matter. Most of the time, socially privileged individuals are given the tacit approval of the other privileged around them to treat people of perceived lower status as, well, lower. Part of the negative reaction you received was probably because you broke probably the biggest (and most unjust) social rule of all: if you’re assigned lower status, you’d better act according to your place. Asserting your friend’s interests bucked the social order and so violated the deepest, most binding and most pervasive rule in allistic society. The cashier was used to a certain level of privileged place above others and felt entitled to it. Unfortunately, I think people who think like this have a tendency to (when contradicted by someone of “lower status”) feel like you’re trying to fight them for their place, and became anxious they’ll end up the outcast instead.. it makes them afraid for their own position, and therefore defensive, as well as just indignant at being disagreed with by someone they think doesn’t get a say. It’s exaggerated and especially easy to see with people who are very insecure.

    So (at length!) I think you’re on to something. As a feminist, humanist, atheist, and autistic, I encounter a ton of problematic behavior on a daily basis, and I usually call it out. I always remain what I consider to be polite (no name calling, insults, etc), mostly because I’m usually far better at debate (and armed with much more information and insight) than anyone being a bigot, and because I can thus easily decimate any BS that gets thrown my way without having to resort to any of that. No matter how strongly I disagree with someone, as a fellow person I wish them no ill and have no interest in treating them in a dehumanizing manner. However – I am often considered rude, because I do not shy away from necessary and inconvenient honesty, and most of all, because what I am attacking are hegemonic power differentials that most others are doing their damnedest to maintain. Please don’t be afraid to be called rude. “Argument from tone” is a tool used to keep people down. Dissent does not equal disrespect or hostility, and refusal to concede your point is not an attack. As long as you are being respectful of others as people, you are ethically in the right. Don’t let them silence you!