My parents once brought me to a fancy dinner in Washington D.C.. It was some kind of chichi banquet for my stepdad’s industry, and before long I had his boss slamming his hands against the banquet table in fury.
He was the kind of well-fed, grey-haired fellow who oozes a sense of power. Think Tillerson.
“Where is she?” He glanced around. “She better move her tail.”
“She” was our waitress. A woman juggling a long table of executives, their wives, and me.
All I had done was ask boss guy a few questions. He sputtered for a retort, fuming. Then came the hand slam. Silverware shook. He shot my stepdad a glare and then turned away. He didn’t speak to me again for the rest of the evening.
That was twenty years ago and I’ve since gotten used to social shunning after making a remark that is deemed rude. Untoward. Obnoxious. Confrontational.
Manners are considered the high point of civility, but I’ve long known they were really just a way to get truth-talkers to shut the hell up.
All I said to boss guy was:
“Have you ever worked as a waitress?”
He lowered his eyes. Pretended not to hear.
“I have.” I continued, louder. “Do you know how hard it is manage a table like this? Can’t you see how hard she’s working? For not enough pay. At all.”
Now I had his attention.
“Women don’t have tails. Are you aware that we aren’t animals?”
Then he slammed his hands. He was buying my meal after all. Who was I to be so coarse?
Later, my mom murmured that I shouldn’t confront people. She was nice about it, but that wasn’t the first or the last time that she has given me such advice.
I have always said Things That No One Wants to Hear. It is my most consistent “talent” and it has always brought me ostracization instead of accolade.
Mostly, my Remarks That No One Wants to Hear have been met with laughter. Sometimes silence. On occasion, scorn. Recently, all those in addition to diagnoses of mental illness and/or demonic possession.
I grew up with ridicule. I have long known that my “mouth,” as some ex-husbands called it, was the very thing that made me effortlessly socially repellent since I first began saying anything of consequence.
So, since high school.
The football coach who was also my economics teacher finally stopped calling on me when I raised my hand.
The mustached vice principal looked at me with barely concealed annoyance as I pontificated about the injustice I witnessed around the campus. Later, male professors (it was only the male ones) would give me bad grades if my work was too “obnoxious” (i.e. feminist.) Which was fine. Because then they had to deal with me during office hours while I pointed out all the ways my arguments, writing and research did conform to requirement.
“But they’re not treating women like horses! You can’t say that!” My Shakespeare prof finally yelled at me in exasperation. (A different prof would cross out my sentences and say: “You can’t write that.”)
But I was right about the men with horses. They were equating them with women—(the subject was Hotspur and the Dauphin in Shakespeare’s Henry tetralogy)—and I brought the receipts, the passages. The scholarship of other feminists.
If feminism was an annoying topic, then racism was downright vulgar.
As was critiquing anything having to do with “the founding fathers.”
Once a friend walked out on me at Starbucks when I mentioned that I would not overlook Abe Lincoln’s rote racism.
In lit class, I was told to quit disparaging Ben Franklin’s passages about how God invented small pox to destroy the heathens (Native Americans.) And why was I “desecrating” the classic Tarzan of the Apes by mentioning the ways it made racism seem a natural part of natural selection (which is grotesque.)
It wasn’t just my professors. My family didn’t like it when I would bring up alcoholism. Or racism. Or sexism. Or any other dysfunction.
I was a frequent first date, but almost never a second because I was confused by the conventions of small talk.
I would go from zero to politics in six seconds.
Somehow, those two symbiotic BFFs, our great American duo: Politics & Religion, have gotten a free pass since forever.
They don’t have to answer for themselves. They somehow got society’s golden ticket: Off-limits! Leave it alone! Don’t go there!
You are a vulgarian if you bring up either subject in polite company. But strangely, when you wield either to oppress people, you’re off the hook. (Yes, Trumpians I am looking at you. Again.)
That is a baffling situation for those of us with an interest in human rights or constitutional freedom. And trust me, when I say that my greatest regret thus far in life is not speaking out enough about Politics & Religion. If I could redo anything, anything, I would undo my complacent, apathetic silence about the two in previous years.
The saying of simple things on these topics (facts and whatnot) is now met with ridicule or exile from our families and friends–and with a brutality from internet strangers that is softened only by its flagrant nonsense (Snowflake! Cuck! Elite!)
We have believed that we were protecting each other by never speaking about Politics & Religion, when this habit was actually enacting untold damage.
The manners that we all worship—our lust for politeness, our valuation of courtesy, and our praise for civility—are really just a system of authoritarian rules.
Laws, actually. With clear punishments for breaking them.
“We are the makers of the manners.”
That’s a romantic line from Henry V. The king says it to the French princess when she pulls away from his unwanted kiss. She doesn’t want her pussy grabbed by a stranger. She talks about this at length in an earlier scene. The prior “English Lesson” scene is conventionally understood as being chock full of vulgarity: it revels in the French words for cunt and fuck. Presumably to delight the crass groundlings in the front row.
But I’ve always known that Shakespeare got all up in that princess’s pussy to make a point about politics. About the Problem with People in Power Obsessing Over Politeness.
When Henry says that “we make the manners,” he really means that just he does. He makes fun of the “nice custom” that doesn’t allow the princess to kiss before marriage. He has just taken over this woman’s nation, killed her countrymen, and in modern conservative argot, “cuck”-ified her dad and bro.
The people in power always make the manners.
Our collective politeness tends to serve the status quo and help maintain power. Politeness doesn’t recognize dissent.
Rules about civility come from Our King, but they are first recognized on the schoolyard. Most of us, at one time or another, have either been the shamed child in the center of a circle of chanting pointers—or we have been the chanters and the pointers.
We humiliate and avoid humiliation because to be outside of human life is so desperately painful.
The social norm may be abhorrent and repressive, but we long to belong so we will tolerate, work toward, and worship The Normal.
We all learn early how to weaponize exile. And our means to do so is through manners.
Most of us will stop flying our freak flag the moment we realize we prefer the safety of conformity to the ache of ostracization.
No matter how many times we are told: “just be yourself,” we live in a society with hard and fast rules about acceptable behavior.
When we buck custom, we are deemed impolite. Rude. Obscene. As if there is something uniquely garish about wearing a “vagina on your head,” the oft-tossed accusation at the celebratory pussy hat. In addition to claims that these hat wearers are devil-possessed, a disgrace, “paid,” and not really real women at all.
The vagina (and the pussy hat with which it is tangentially symbolized) IS NOT VULGAR.
Ever. I don’t care if it is spread-eagled, fingered, mid-childbirth, bleeding, hairy, or yours or mine, as long as it is doing whatever it wants. Not what you want. What it wants. Get the distinction?
It is not impolite to wear, or mention, a vagina. Not when you’re doing so in protest of vulgarity (the vulgarity that is the raison d’être of Trump, et al.)
Neither is it merely impolite to grab a vagina. It is not impolite because that act veers worse. It doesn’t just break with social convention. It breaks the law.
But that wasn’t clear to the world when the Trump tape made its rounds. So those of us who understand both vaginas and laws had to speak louder.
And in a bizarre cultural Twister game, the loud-speakers among us were categorized as vulgar. And the people who condoned the litany of nonstop pussy grabs, bans, corruptions, assaults, lies and disruptions are the ones who took on the Great Mantle known as Politeness.
And they have engaged in a new course of Manner-Making. That basically just re-litigates all the ways no one should mention Politics & Religion.
I plan to Continuously Mention both. All-day-every-day, Mother Fucker.
Call me obnoxious. Desecrate my skills as a parent. Impugn my mental health.
Go for it. CuntPussyFuckFreedomJismJamboree.
The Dadaists, the Surrealists and all the other Punk Rockers have always know precisely where society should stuff its precious courtesy.
If you find yourself offended right now, here’s the real truth about your goddamned civility: it is ONLY present if it is used in the service of protecting human rights. That should have been the actual goal of your twin sweater set: Politics & Religion.
Rant over, you ask?
I am not shutting up. Not on your fucking life.