Silver Tongues & Smiling Masks: Civilized Hindrances to Real Communication OR Fuck Being Polite
“Be polite; write diplomatically; even in a declaration of war one observes the rules of politeness.”
– Otto von Bismarck
“‘Curvy’ is just a polite way of saying ‘fat’.”
– Hannah Simone
“The sea speaks a language polite people never repeat. It is a colossal scavenger slang and has no respect.”
– Carl Sandberg
The quotes above are but a few of the hundreds (yes, seriously) I read, pondered over, and considered using for this essay. I chose these because they perfectly illustrate civilized people’s attitudes toward their own communication. Growing up in and being force-fed the culture of civilization, we are taught to be polite, to be civil, to be courteous. And we are told that if we aren’t these things, then we’re rude, vulgar, savage, barbaric. While these terms (and attitudes) are prevalent in the dominant culture, I also witness them among radicals, who throw these words around like they have no meaning or power. So what does it mean to be polite, to be civil? And what does it mean to be rude, vulgar? And what implications does being polite have in terms of framing our individual and collective realities, mediating our interactions with others, inhibiting our desires, and moderating our behaviors? It is my purpose herein to touch on all these points.
From the moment we’re born into this catastrophe of a society, we are assailed with a virulent barrage of learned behaviors of politeness and civility. These behaviors cripple our animal selves, suffocate our desires and emotions. We’re taught to chew with our mouths shut, never speak until spoken to, defer to the authority of adults and the state, never, ever burp or fart in public (or at all, really), to keep our opinions and honest observations to ourselves, never to swear or curse, to control and quiet strong emotions, to keep our hands and mouths and bodies as clean as possible.
I’ve heard it said (and witnessed the truth of it first hand) that “wisdom often comes from the mouths of babes”. When children express their honest feelings and astute critical observations, it proves how stifling and silencing politeness can be. Such children are simply too young to have been fully poisoned by polite behavioral conditioning, and as such, it’s no surprise that their honesty and bluntness is shocking to civilized adults who are never true to their thoughts and feelings and who routinely hold their tongues.
Merriam-Webster defines polite as “having or showing good manners or respect for other people”; I think this is a load of horseshit. I also think it’s indicative of Merriam-Webster’s latent civilo-centricity that the second definition of polite is “of, relating to, or having the characteristics of advanced culture”. So, according to these stuffy lexicographers, who are no doubt representative of “polite” society as a whole, politeness involves being respectful toward others while upholding the virtues of civilization, most developed of all social forms! This is the mythologized Platonic ideal of politeness, that of valiantly holding open doors, never interrupting others, withholding all strong feelings and opinions, and keeping the unwashed hordes of savagery and our dark animalistic past at bay.
This idealized conception of politeness (let’s call it capital P Politeness) is a powerful driving force that allows civilization to continue, and it’s a myth that is force-fed to and eagerly consumed by the mass of civilized people. This delusion – that we’re all so fucking respectful and considerate and refined – is what allows people to have placid conversations about politics over coffee, while ignoring the violence and slavery that coffee necessitates. It’s what allows neighbors who despise each other to smile, wave, and exchange faux-friendly palaver one minute, then shit-talk and denigrate each other behind closed doors the next. Politeness is what allows Westerners to put on their smiling masks and pretend open-mindedness and Gandhian pacifism, while some poor grunt in fatigues unloads a clip of 5.56 millimeter rounds or drone bombs a village to secure the resources necessary to fuel “advanced” Western society. It allows young white radicals to wag their tattooed fingers and shake their dreadlocked heads at the lamentable forward march of urban gentrification, while they do nothing to stop their own role as colonizers on the front lines. It’s what allows us to say “it’s really good, I love it” when we don’t like a friend’s art or music, what makes us say “I’m okay” when someone asks if we’re okay because we’re obviously and visibly not okay.
Politeness, civility, urbanity: a vast collection of lies and omissions we tell ourselves and each other to get through the day. How often do we lie to our friends to spare their feelings? How often do we lie to “loved ones” or ourselves to keep intimate relationships going, or to soften or avoid painful conversations? How often do we lie to ourselves about what we truly desire, or what we truly do not desire? How often do we feign respect toward another person when we actually despise them? How many people in “advanced” urban society allow another to go ahead of them in line, all the while thinking about how they hate the other for their race, class, or because the other is female? How many interactions between civilized males and females are sham kindness and mock respect concealing intentions of rape and violence? Better yet, how often, as radicals, do we engage in polite discourse about politics and ethics with our opponents, keeping conversation “civil” just because it’s the expected paradigm for dialogue? How often do we quash the urge to scream “fuck you” at others, at society itself?
I’m especially guilty of certain forms of politeness myself. More specifically, I’m very easily accosted by what I call “time burglars”, people on the street and in public who burglarize my time with entreaties for money, for donations to blah blah blah charitable organization, to save the whales by signing a petition, etc. I’d like to think this is because I’m an open and sociable person, enthusiastic about human communication; this is the polite lie I’ve told myself for years. But the truth is that I’ve had politeness so exhaustively beaten into me that I feel “rude” and churlish if I ignore people on the streets.
Recognizing this in myself, seeing the poison of politeness for what it is, I have recently put a great deal of effort into being honest and direct with people who request my time and attention in public. And in so doing, I had an experience a few months ago that encouraged me that I’m doing the right thing by proving all my suspicions and critiques of politeness correct. I was on my way to go shopping (and shoplifting, truth be told) at a prominent and very bourgeois grocery store in the East Bay. Outside said store there are ALWAYS young white liberals canvassing for a motley smorgasbord of feel-good-change-the-world-with-money causes. In the past, it’s been very difficult for me to avoid getting sucked into conversation with these people. But on this auspicious afternoon, I was in a piss-poor mood, not wanting to be time burgled, and trying to implement honesty and destroy politeness in my interactions with others.
As I walked up to the store, a young person approached me and said “Hey, how’re you guys doing today?” – I was with my partner – “Can I have a moment of your time?”. In no mood for liberal reformist crap, I responded “No. Please don’t talk to me right now.” She was aghast, looked like I had just punched her in the stomach, managed to mutter an “Oooooookay”, and then turned to the next group approaching her. This time, as she began her speech, I overheard her quip “Are you guys gonna be mean to me too, or can I talk to you for a moment?”
I almost laughed aloud at how offended she had been by my honesty. This is precisely what I mean by asserting that civility is a vast body of lies, a set of behaviors that encourages dishonesty and the betrayal of one’s desires and feelings. If I had been polite, I would have suppressed my desires and feelings at the moment, and I would’ve listened to her reformist drivel, then I would have politely replied that “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money” or “I’m sorry, I’m not a registered voter in California” or some other such hogwash. Instead of being polite, I was honest and direct, like every animal creature in the natural world EVER, and she was horrified and deeply offended. How DARE I have the audacity to express that I don’t want to have a conversation?! So fucking rude.
On my way out of the store, I attempted to approach her to explain that it was nothing personal and that I simply didn’t want to talk, but she made a grotesque and flamboyantly amusing attempt to avoid eye contact. I laughed it off and felt sorry for her emotional and animal immaturity, but I then realized her refusal to engage is another manifestation of politeness. That is, the avoidance of conflict.
I spoke on this extensively in my essay Civilization and Its Stultifying Consequences, in which I focused especially on how the exportation of conflict (i.e. the police, the military, the government, relationship counselors, etc.) breeds a society of emotional cripples who are incapable of dealing with their own interpersonal issues. I’ve encountered this too many times in my adult life to mention, and won’t recount personal experiences here. However, based on the experience I described above and the many others I’ve had, I think it’s a fair extrapolation to say that the avoidance of conflict is also due in large part to the influence of civility and politeness.
Another facet of politeness that really irks me is polite language, more specifically politically correct language and political correctness itself. For upwards of a decade now, it has pained me to observe the encroachment of PC language and culture into many of Turtle Island’s radical scenes. At present, it seems that PC police are everywhere, and that what people say, the symbolic language they use, has come to be regarded as vastly more important than how a person acts and what they do.
As a preface to delving deeper into this, let me say that my problem with PC language (nor, indeed, my problem with politeness) is not the idea of being respectful toward others. I think acting and speaking respectfully toward others is an admirable and worthwhile pursuit, one I try (often unsuccessfully) to incorporate into my being.
No, the major issue I take with PC language is the same issue I take with civility and politeness on the whole. Both politeness and PC language foster the artificial facade of respect, while at the same time demanding a self-righteous dedication to a Platonic ideal RATHER than giving a shit about how one’s actions impact others (i.e. actual respect).
Both civility and PC language are reified, concretized systems of dogma that demand total obedience. For example, I once used the word “gay” in a joking fashion, immediately after which a PC punk person present in the social group tore at my throat with a torrent of insults and assumptions – “That’s so fucked up! Fuck you, you straight cis-male!”, etc. etc. When this person finished their spumescent tirade, while they wiped the froth from their righteous lips, I calmly responded that I am neither cis NOR am I straight. Upon my own use of PC language and identity politics, they promptly apologized and shamed themselves for “making assumptions about your identity”.
This interaction troubled me deeply. I admit it, I use the word gay in joking and casual ways. I also sometimes engage romantically/sexually with other people with penises, which is actually pretty gay. And I feel totally fine about my jocular and whimsical use of this word. I also care deeply about how my use of said word might impact others around me, and am willing to check my behavior and engage in real (not buzz word) dialogue in the event that use of said word actually harms someone I care about. This is actual respect.
But the other person involved in this interaction (a hetero-cis-woman, by her own identity) was not queer, was not speaking up for a quiet queer in the group I had inadvertently marginalized. Instead, she was adhering to her PC linguistic moral code, which I had violated with my sinful joke. Everybody else present, including other queer folks, found my offhanded joke amusing, but this person took it upon herself to shame and belittle me on account of her injured dogma. She basically ended up telling me that even as a queer male it’s never okay to use the word “gay” in a joking fashion because it’s just “wrong”. This is when I stopped giving any fucks about her opinion, and was a major turning point in the way I think about language and politeness.
Had I hurt anyone with my evil word? No. Was anyone present offended and asking me to be personally responsible for how I had affected them? No. This was simply a case of PC politeness and linguistic policing patrolling a social scene for uncouth perps.
And this is what really irritates me about both PC language and politeness in general. They’re both sets of behavior that we’re supposed to follow blindly, unthinkingly, and with zealous devotion. As long as we cling to these sacred paths of “respect”, we can otherwise trample everyone around us into the dirt and treat them like unwanted turds stuck to the soles of our shoes. Those who refuse to conform to these moral codes are to be crucified, cast out, and shunned as filthy animals.
Another, perhaps very picky, aspect of language and its connection to politeness that bothers me is that radicals rarely look into the origins and real meaning of the words they use. As a radical etymology nerd and a person who loves deconstructing language, this really bothers me. While they vehemently decry the use of words like “gay” and “retarded”, the same PC police will insist on acting “courteously”, engaging in “civil” discourse. I hear these words coming from even the most critical and deconstruction-happy radical folks I know, and it disturbs me that these etymologically fucked-up words continue to frame our collective and individual worldviews.
To be “courteous” or practice “courtesy” find their origins in courtly behavior, specifically the curtsy, a submissive bending of the knee to monarchs and other authority figures. “Civil” derives from the Latin civis meaning a townsperson and civitas meaning citizenship, thus to be civil is to act like an urban civilized person. To be polite is to be politus, polished or burnished as in metal. And to be urbane, in the sense of refined and elegant, worldly, ultimately derives from the Latin urbanus, meaning of or belonging to a city.
On the contrary, the words in English used to describe those who act in unpleasant ways are equally telling. A savage is one from the wilderness, an undomesticated forest dweller (sauvage in French, from the Latin silvaticus, “forest dweller” and silva, “forest”). Rude traces its roots to the Latin rudus, which means unworked, rough stone. Vulgarity comes from the Latin vulgus and vulgaris, meaning the common rabble, lowborn peasantry, and the behavior of such people. And barbaric behavior means that behavior of an ignorant, incomprehensible foreigner, usually belonging to a tribe.
So with but a cursory glance at many of the words used in civilization to describe respectful and disrespectful (or desirable and undesirable) behavior, we see quite a schism. All those words used to describe respectful and desirable behavior pertain to urbanity, cities, hierarchy and authority, and metalworking. Those words used to denote disrespectful and undesirable behavior pertain to the wilderness, forests, rural life, lower classes and servility, and tribal groups.
It’s clear to see, from an etymological vista, the biases and ingrained propaganda in this set of words.
Fortunately, the word respect has an admirable etymology, and passes the test of radical word scrutiny. Etymologically, respect ultimately means to regard or to behold with vision, to see, and that’s really what we ought to be aiming for in our interpersonal interactions. Allowing the rules and dogma of politeness and PC language to direct our behavior leads, at best, to the illusory pretense of respect. Actually regarding others, truly seeing them and regarding how our actions impact them, this is real respect.
With that being said, in tandem with my earlier thoughts regarding how politeness is a stifling form of restraint and oppression, I say fuck being polite! Fuck civility. Fuck courtesy. Fuck civil discourse, and fuck polite language.
We are animals, only most of us have forgotten how to be true to our animal selves, how to act like it. Let us burp and fart, piss and shit everywhere and talk about it openly, let us eat with our mouths open. Let us stink, and let us be filthy, let us sprout hair in all the forbidden places. Let us bathe and wash when we desire it, not when the rules of society dictate that we must. Let us be true to our desires, and speak and pursue them passionately; let us denounce those things we don’t desire, and passionately avoid them. Let us speak how we will and not from a place of fear, and when our words hurt or offend others, let us be directly responsible and emotionally available to them if they’re people we care about. Let us be honest with ourselves and honest with each other, even when it’s inconvenient and potentially hurtful. Let us realize that the world is an uncomfortable place, that we can’t please everyone, that conflict and disagreement are okay. Let us not fear conflict, but approach it and deal with it directly and with confidence. Let us not be afraid of being told “no”, and let’s not be afraid to say no to others. Let us experience and express all of our strong emotions, and not strangle our feeling selves. Let us shout out what we love and what we hate. Let us dance in the rain, sully our skin with the composting loam of the world’s dank dark places, run naked and unashamed in sun-bleached deserts, and make passionate animal love anywhere and anywhen we please.
Let us abolish the dogmatic codes of behavioral and verbal policing that regulate our actions and interactions, and instead, let us regulate our own actions from a position of mutual regard, of respect.
In short: fuck being polite, be the animal you were born to be.