Monday, February 21, 2011

With apologies

In many American cities and towns (New York being a notable exception, where everyone always seems in such a hurry) people make a fetish out of politeness. Strangers talk too much from nervousness. Neighbors rarely know one another and restrict communication to chatter. Too many parents act emotionally distant with their own children, much in the manner of a customer who smiles pleasantly at the barista in the local coffee shop and asks how their day was, mechanically, without any real involvement. Americans, and Westerners in general, tend to view politeness alongside routine and habit as an important marker of cultural sophistication and do what it takes to avoid disturbance.

There will be exceptions. Last week outside a restaurant in Boca Raton a persistently whingy iconoclast of my acquaintance got involved in an argument about the principle of tipping for valet parking, embarrassing many of us who were there to celebrate an impending wedding. But cut ahead by accident in a line at the grocery store and nine times out of ten, you will likely apologize to me in a singsong lilt -- Oh, I'm sorry! The 'I'm' will hit an expressive peak of surprise and be followed by a flurry of remarks, interrupted by staccato bursts of laughter that inevitably taper off with a reference to the length of the line. After that we will carefully avoid each other's eye in tacit acknowledgement of the fact that this was not an especially meaningful interaction.

Funnily enough, for a culture bred on an illusion of niceness, apologies for genuine and grievous wrongs are just as hard to come by in this country as they probably are anywhere in the world. Politeness does not correlate with an absence of ego. The only distinctly American response to all of this may be the tendency to get passive-aggressive, to somehow stir the calm of overwhelming politeness without resorting to violent language.

Some of you will roll your eyes and say, 'How does it matter? Isn't it better to be excessively polite than rude, passive than agitated?' And you would have a point: as long as peace is maintained why should we care? Indeed, it is infinitely more preferable to avoid a scene such as the one my father found himself in a few months ago in Mumbai, where he got into a slanging match with someone who deliberately decided to post himself at the head of a queue -- a circumstance which, while entirely common in disorganized laissez-faire cultures like India, has the capacity to cause a spike in one's blood pressure.

But I would make a distinction between my father's rant and the social disdain that bears down upon rude people in America: my father was fighting for a fundamental courtesy that remains elusive whereas the American distaste for rudeness is rooted in self-righteous contempt for a minority that is unfamiliar with normative social customs. In other words, we must always take the side of the less powerful.

It is not surprising that in America I have yet to encounter anyone courageous enough to break into a queue. Decades after the civil rights movement gained sufficient traction, America has efficiently indoctrinated a vast majority of its citizens of both party persuasions with the propaganda of political correctness. Left wing correctness may differ from right wing ideology, but there is common ground. That is something to be cautiously admired: the danger of a different kind of prejudice, a prejudice against those unschooled in the latest social fad, is at least partially offset by the promise of social evolution. If a country like India is to maintain its rate of economic and cultural progress its people must learn to tell apart those rules that are anachronistic from the ones that make contextual sense.

By that I mean politeness is a good value to learn and implement until it becomes a tool for social repression. In the West, white heterosexual males (and other organized configurations in the hierarchy of dominance such as intellectuals and wealthy industrialists) are taught to apologize for institutional privilege but in effect they apologize without necessarily recognizing the irony that this privilege is reinforced systemically irrespective of how sorry anyone feels. I am always shocked by how disdainfully many Westerners of varying identities speak of the post-colonial tendency to stare at light-skinned people; while I can understand how uncomfortable it must be to be objectified, and that it is problematic for Indians to subconsciously or consciously value blond hair over black, there is an implicitly racist agenda in the idea that locals in their own environment cannot be permitted to stare at people of another ethnicity merely because it is inappropriate by Western standards.

Now in the interests of politeness I shouldn't have made such a provocative accusation, but I bring it up to draw attention to a classic western liberal blind spot. Caught up as they are in congratulating themselves for pointing out that Indians should no longer remain overawed by what was essentially an evil and exploitative white hegemonic apparatus, those arbiters of political correctness fail to consider all aspects of the power dynamic and commit a sin greater than rudeness -- conceit.


  1. Not sure why "an implicitly racist agenda in the idea that locals in their own environment cannot be permitted to stare at people of another ethnicity merely because it is inappropriate by Western standards" translates to conceit. That said, your point is well made on politeness as an imposed expectation. Would rather have it that way though, than not at all!

  2. suffice to say that the idea of "american exceptionalism" is inextricably rooted in conceit. and you're dead right: politeness isn't the real problem here, oppression is.