Weird Scenes #092: Ask Mister Manners

National Brotherhood Week / National Brotherhood Week it’s / National everyone smile at / One another-hood week, be / Nice to people who are / Inferior to you. It’s only for a week so have no fear / Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year – written by Tom Lehrer, 1965

I’m hardly the poster boy for Miss Manners. I’ve been known to be disrespectful on purpose, as I hold a deep commitment to bringing offense to power. I am just sophomoric enough to call out assholes-in-power in language that projects my emotions. Hey, it’s a living.

So this might come as a bit of a shock, and it’s certainly going to sound very old school. I think we, as a species, need to be less preemptively judgmental. By “preemptively,” I mean we give people a certain amount of respect because they’re breathing, and they can earn more or lose some as you get to know them as individuals. If we find yourselves reflexively acting in an offensive manner because of our baked-in opinion of whatever group they represent, then you are guilty of prejudice. Pre-justice, if you will.

I realize usually we don’t think we’re victimizing anybody. We’ve got to keep an eye on our attitudes. Besides, it’s far more fulfilling to loathe somebody as an individual based upon your informed opinion.

I find it hard to believe that individuals only prejudge people of definable victimized groups, and there are those who hate people of all groups, sometimes even their own. We have a word for those people: misanthropes. They exist. I hate misanthropes. They’re very confusing. Focus, people!

You might find this hard to believe, but we used to celebrate something called “National Brotherhood Week.” Yeah, I know, that’s gender specific. It was the 1950s, when Westinghouse and General Electric made kitchens so marvelous that women never wanted to leave them. The slogan was — and you might want to sit down — “Take a Negro to Lunch.” Naivety, thy name is humanity.

Clearly, it didn’t work. Perhaps this was because it was co-sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which certainly sounds like (and often is) an exclusionary organization. Would a Muslim feel comfortable advocating personhood from their platform? A Buddhist? A Satanist? An atheist? Head’s up, people, we do not all believe in the same god, or gods, or even any god whatsoever.

As Shylock sort of said, “Hath not a [fill in the blank] eyes? Hath not a [fill in the blank] hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a [fill in the blank] is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

That particular scene-stealer is from The Merchant of Venice, and it was written by a bigot. But, here, Shakespeare seems to have moved past his environment. When you think of one of our victimized groups, think of Shylock… who, by the way, really wasn’t a very nice guy.

Among all the torment and horror it causes, at the root bigotry and prejudice is as disrespectful as it is a showing of a lack of manners. We came up with this whole manners thing out of self-preservation. It is thought that the handshake, now sadly banished for good cause, was created to flush out strangers who might knife you. We say thank you to people who help us because we don’t want them to think they’re being taking advantage of. We say please because we’re asking for that help and realize we are inconveniencing the other person.

We say “I can’t breathe” so that the asshole who has lost his bigoted mind might get his knee off of your neck.

It’s not just self-preservation. It is societal preservation. America is a cultural smorgasbord of infinite length, and that is what makes us unique. It’s the only part of American “exceptionalism” that is worthy of note. American enlightenment comes from a plethora of influences that, in combination, makes us smarter, more experienced, less bored, more entertained and much, much stronger.

This is not the Planet Kumbaya. We are going to hate people; that is what separates us from lower-form mammals. But, as noted, you should hate a person for his or her own actions and not because they’re members of a group somebody taught you were subhuman. Trust me, if you enjoy hating you have an arena full of nasty individuals from which to choose.

So if you’re going to offend somebody on purpose, at least do it with a smile on your face…and be prepared for Newton’s Law to kick you in your ass.

Thoughts?