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    Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one

    I was rereading a Virginia Postrel article from a decade ago, and it got me thinking. Maybe one of the reasons the American “return to civility” is taking a while to get off the ground–have you noticed?–is that it requires accomplishing two goals that, I’d imagine, seem contradictory to a lot of people. They aren’t in reality, but assessing which value is ascendant in a given situation requires discrimination.

    One thing we need to do is get rid of the idea that using different behavioral patterns in different contexts is somehow ipso facto insincere. Nowadays, behaving formally is something people do if they have to–as when there’s a difficult but lucrative client to deal with–but the assumption seems to be that it wouldn’t be necessary in a world of perfect, just-folks honesty. Different styles for different arenas as a way of life has an image of being suitable only for actors and PR types.

    There are lots and lots of problems with this way of thinking, but one of the most important is one that gets little play: If you don’t establish low-stakes, essentially content-free ways for people to show goodwill and allegiance to the group, you can’t distinguish between friend and foe until you see them react to a real emergency. At that point the knowledge may come too late to be useful. In America, we want to make room for idiosyncrasy, which does make enforcing social custom more difficult than it is in societies that have no qualms about being openly conformist. (Not to mention any names.)

    But is it really that hard? I’m not talking about censorship; I firmly believe that no expression, no matter how repugnant, should be flat-out suppressed–with exceptions for treason or falsehoods that cause immediate danger, obviously. And personally, I like boisterous conversation with lots of four-letter words and smutty jokes as much as anyone. I like Madonna videos. I like pictures of naked men. (Which of those three is my absolute favorite, I will delicately pass over. The point is….) In America, women don’t show their tits in public, and men don’t walk around on the street in leather underwear, because…well, just because. World cultures have a variety of ways of conveying businesslike public modesty, and that’s ours.

    I’ve never found such arbitrary rules to be all that inhibiting, but I’m no choirboy. When they showed the footage from the gay pride parades yesterday, I was craning my neck to see which of the barechested guys were especially hot just like every other queer with a television. I also wasn’t traumatized, a few months ago, at the irrefutable proof that Janet Jackson’s breast is equipped with the standard-issue nipple.

    But the issue isn’t just uptightness or prudery. The issue is also whether people who visibly flout expectations that take minimal effort to fulfill can be trusted with the big responsibilities. If gay guys can’t restrict thong-wearing to the beach or indoor clubs, is it any wonder that people shudder to imagine how we act when we’re actually out of sight? If Justin and Janet can’t find choreography that keeps everyone’s parts covered when they’re performing at a nationwide event watched by millions of families, why wouldn’t some parents decide it’s best to avoid any further surprises by avoiding their output altogether? (A related question, which probably doesn’t trouble, say, Michelle Malkin, but is of great interest to me: Now that twelve-year-old honor students and members of the 4-H club are wearing halter tops and hot pants, how does a bona fide slut distinguish herself as being actually on the make?)

    I’ve been talking about pop culture partially because these events have made for evocative news lately. But the problem of running all of life’s venues together has infected politics and the life of the mind, too. And that leads to the second thing that needs to happen: once we’ve reestablished the boundaries between the public and the private, we have to make free expression the highest priority in the appropriate areas, and then deal with it.

    Willfully offensive speech helps to keep us from solipsism and complacency. The freedom to shock others encourages us to stretch our imaginations, and confronting in-your-face challenges to our own beliefs encourages us to question them. And the ability to blow off steam is a safety valve; using words aggressively helps us calm down before we’re worked up enough to go the whole way and reach for a knife or gun, as Virginia Postrel pointed out. Of course, there are conditions attached. If all you ever do is throw verbal or visual Molotov cocktails, without developing an argument or having a sense of humor about yourself, you just turn people off. This, to me, was the problem with Al Gore’s Brownshirts remark. There are plenty of people who are up in arms about it that don’t seem to have any difficulty tossing around words like feminazi or Gestapo tactics, so how much partisanship is involved in all the condemnations is hard to judge. The problem with Gore is, everything he’s said and done for the last four years makes it all too easy to believe that he wasn’t exaggerating when he said that he thinks of Bush supporters as equivalent to the Brownshirts.

    Isn’t everything I’ve written here so obvious as not to be worth remarking on? I would have thought so. Maybe behavior is slow to change because people just have a hard time resigning themselves to the fact that there’s no way to eliminate misunderstandings. Agreed-on patterns of surface behavior can allow a clever villain to slide through society undetected, and they can put nice but ungainly types at a disadvantage. A rant, even in a forum in which no-holds-barred expression is clearly expected, can alienate even some people who aren’t determined to be offended. But the alternative, to judge from empirical evidence, is a society in which a lot of people feel that their beliefs are stymied while opposing beliefs are enshrined in policy, and in which no one trusts anyone who isn’t already on his team to behave without being coerced into it. Not good. I do think that American good-heartedness and common sense will fix things eventually, but we’re at such a critical juncture right now that I can’t help hoping it happens faster.

    2 Responses to “Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one”

    1. Ach says:

      “Isn’t everything I’ve written here so obvious as not to be worth remarking on?”
      Well, no actually. One of the reasons I bookmarked your site is because you have something intelligent and interesting to say. And this post goes back to, well, the fundamentals of society. And I like fundamentals.
      I also really enjoy learning about the cultural differences (I’m living in the US). Anyway, thought I’d just comment and let you know I enjoy your site.

    2. Sean says:

      Well, thank you; that’s very kind. (And it reminds me that I need to start posting more that illustrates what I love about Japan and its people; I’ve been on a real “Can you believe this malarkey?” jag lately, but that really isn’t how I experience life here.)