On Politeness

We’ve given ourselves permission to behave like real assholes

John DeVore
Jun 15, 2017 · 6 min read

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Everyone seems to hate political correctness until I suggest they’re just lazy, selfish, hateful knuckleheads who contribute nothing to society. Then they get upset. I know I shouldn’t call other people names because it’s rude. It’s also an ineffective way to persuade a political opponent that your position is in their best interests.

I remember when “political correctness” was just called “politeness.” This is not warm and fuzzy love letter to “remember when.” The good ol’ days are never as good as they’re recalled. History is written by the victors and the victors are almost always insufferably smug.

But, once upon a time, people weren’t on a constant mission to pointlessly piss each other off every chance they could get. I suppose that was an America that struggled more than it currently does. There was less time and energy to anonymously hurls insults at each other then. Those were days when citizens took to the streets to march while other citizens turned high-pressure fire hoses on them.

I’m not really saying things are better or worse. They’re just more… boorish. We’re not screaming in each other’s faces. We’re too far away from each other for that. Instead, we just fritter and waste our days typing mean little taunts into tiny computers while swinging in hammocks. Distance makes the hate grow louder.

I learned young to hold my tongue instead of ripping it out of my mouth and throwing it at someone I disagree with. My education was simple: Do unto others, never throw the first punch, help those who ask for help, and be polite. Politeness is a defense against savagery. When I write “savagery,” I mean both blood in the streets and, specific to these long days we’re living, blood in the comments section of Facebook.

So times have changed. Today, if I want to instantly broadcast a poorly considered opinion on something I know very little about, I can do that via Twitter. Back then, when “politeness” was just called “politeness,” if a politician or a business irrationally enraged me, I’d have no choice but to find a working pen, write a letter full of time-consuming sentences, and then search my junk drawer for stamps before giving up.

I also could have voted against or boycotted whoever it was that dared cross me. I can still do that. But that’s too sophisticated for these times. Now there’s a cultural war against politeness, and, honestly, I think it’s because our civilization is so successful that we’re bored.

We’ve given ourselves permission to behave like real assholes. It’s a corrosive entertainment, but it’s where we’re at. I suppose it’s better than the Romans with their fabulous state-sponsored murder shows.

There have been times when politeness was the only thing keeping Americans from shooting each other in the face during dinner. The post-apocalypse that was the Wild West was won as much by men and women choosing to emphasize what they have in common with each other as by unspeakable orgies of violence and genocide.

To practice politeness is to survive.

For instance, when in mixed company, try to avoid discussing the destructive vanities of Donald Trump or evangelical Christian hypocrisy, because it’s a pretty effective way to make it to dessert.

Believe it or not, but I have been known, from time to time, to be rude. Being rude feels good. Especially if you think you’re a living sword of noble righteousness. Unfortunately, no one is actually an enchanted blade tasked with striking down evil. I regret these instances of rudeness. Mostly because I know better. I have conservative friends, and I try to keep the conversations to safe topics like superhero movies and pizza and the idiocy of supply-side economics. Ha, ha, ha. It’s not easy to be polite! But I try because my old man would have wanted me to try.

I was raised to believe politeness was the greatest of virtues. You watch what you say because thoughtlessly hurting someone’s feelings was impolite. Why would anyone want to hurt anyone’s feelings? My father was the son of a Baptist preacher, and he taught me to say “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” and “thank you.” These words became reflexes. I learned how to smile when meeting someone, shake their hands, and talk about the weather. More important, my father taught me to listen. Because that’s the real secret of being polite: You say nice things because it buys you time to listen and, in turn, to think. Only assholes talk without listening and thinking first.

Politeness also demands empathy, which is a word that is often used these days without any real consideration as to what it means. I have seen two ideological gangs angrily accuse each other of lacking empathy as they jockey for dominance. It is a skill that requires imagination and humility and compassion. It teaches a simple lesson: we all suffer.

Empathy is the enemy of power. Power fears understanding.

When certain politicians bring up “political correctness” as some great threat to humanity, you need to understand that politician is avoiding the truth. What truth? Any truth.

I’m not suggesting that a “political correctness” movement doesn’t exist. I went to college in the 1990s. I was part of the test generation for this movement. At the time, I just thought it was something my professors cooked up because they had to teach us something. In retrospect, they should have taught me how to do my taxes. Political correctness wasn’t particularly meaningful to me then, because it just seemed too obvious: Don’t use certain words that hurt the feelings of others. It wasn’t an affront to my freedom of speech. I could still use those words — insults and slurs, mostly, invented long ago by assholes to cruelly remind people of their place — but I couldn’t expect to be celebrated or liked for it. I could expect, however, other people to challenge me. I have come to understand recently that for some, “political correctness” has become a religion, but one without a path to redemption. That, as they say, is problematic. We can’t hate the sin and the sinner. Or maybe we can. Mobs are unforgivably rude.

There is no “political correctness” conspiracy, though. Sorry. There just isn’t a secret conclave of powerful liberal arts graduates who want to muzzle patriots and rob the world of their prejudiced rants and recycled cable news talking points.

If you say something that offends someone, then maybe you’re just a comfortable couch tyrant amused by lazy cruelty. So many of the people who shriek about “PC culture” are well-fed princes of our society who like to make-pretend they are an oppressed class. I don’t know when being a victim became such a prize in our society.

Let’s be clear: It is not oppression when a person is called an asshole after they’ve shouted a racist or sexist or militantly stupid thought.

People have a right to be rude. I support this right. But let’s speak as adults here: Politeness demands you consider the consequences of your words and actions. I have a dream that, one day, we return to harmless small talk and corny jokes and only engage in conversations about politics and religion from a place of personal, sincere conviction and mutual respect.

Politeness has its limits, of course. I grew up in the South hearing sentimental tales of gallant Confederate heroes. These men, with their feathered hats, were polite, I was told, and chivalrous, which I thought was also a virtue until I learned that it was a behavioral strategy for managing marital property. These rebels were, of course, all warm smiles, even as they split open the backs of their slaves with whips. Politeness can also be a mask. Americans love masks. We’re a nation disfigured by broken promises made during our founding. So we spoon on pancake makeup and look in the mirror and pretend we don’t see the scars.

Try to be polite. Listen when someone explains their experience to you. Let them. Give yourself permission to hear them out. Think of it as a gift that will be returned. That takes courage, so be courageous. Think before you speak. Politeness is not weakness—it is self-discipline. Politeness isn’t the art of avoiding conflict—it is the art of knowing when conflict is unavoidable.

To quote the great philosopher and barroom bouncer Dalton, “Be nice, until it is time not to be nice.” Be polite, assholes. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

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Editor, Humungus. I won two James Beard Awards once for an essay about Taco Bell. Let’s be friends.

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