TO BE HONEST OR TO BE POLITE?

13 Nov

This post is going to include comments that some people may find rude or offensive. I’m writing it nevertheless because I’m sick of being polite! Society ties us up in a whole web of politeness. The result is that we spend a lot of time smiling at one another and exchanging superficial pleasantries, while at the same time hiding our true thoughts and feelings. Clearly, this is often very necessary , as it ensures that for most of the time, most of the people get on with each other without coming to blows. Politeness is the oil that lubricates the cogs of society. The problem with this however, is that our real, honest selves remain locked up inside us. We are like players on a stage, acting out the various roles that have been allocated to us. We carefully follow the script but hardly ever reveal our true identities.

I recently had a dream in which I was walking around with my hands covering my face. The simple interpretation is that I was hiding the real me in order to avoid confrontation and trouble. Another common analogy is that we are wearing metaphorical masks, like characters in Ancient Greek theatre. In my dream ( and in real life most of the time), I cannot reveal that I’m an athiest just in case the other person is religious. Similarly I cannot reveal that I am a pacifist just in case the other has a son or husband serving in Afghanistan. I cannot admit straight away to supporting Arsenal just in case the other is a Man Utd fan. One of my most important life-style choices is that of being a vegetarian. ( veggies would call it: choosing a compassionate life-style.) However I have to be careful how much I say about this ethical choice and even HOW I go about saying it. Some carnivores ( or omnivores) show polite and fleeting interest, but if I prolong my explanation beyond a couple of minutes, I run the risk of arousing their impatience and even anger. If a person outlines an ethical standpoint he/she is in danger of being accused of “preaching” or of trying to take the moral high-ground. In other words, people think you are trying to be better than them. This gets up their noses. As soon as a veggie tries to activate a meat-eater’s conscience, a defensive/aggressive shield drops down and  an unpleasant scene is potentially only moments away. Thus, in order not to offend others who do not share their moral views, most vegetarians keep quiet, unless they are sure that someone is genuinely interested in their stance. The result in most cases is that my opinions about animal welfare and my respect for all life ( human or otherwise), are trumped by society’s need to keep the peace and avoid controversy.

I wasn’t always this passive and polite. When I was a teenager I wanted to shout my views from the rooftops. I didn’t care what people thought of them. I was in fact proud of my views for I had a strong belief that they were right. At that time in my life I had fewer inhibitions and like all idealistic young people , I sincerely thought I could change the World for the better. Afterall I grew up in the mythical, magical 1960’s when traditional society seemed to be in melt-down and all the rules were being rewritten. Just for one shimmering moment, in the fleeting era of “Flower Power”, it seemed that peace and love would conquer the world, taking the place of the usual war and hatred. I supported this movement wholeheartedly. The Vietnam War was at its height and for a brief period it seemed as if all that appalling violence could be swept away by a mass movement based on  love ( and I’m not just talking about Christianity.) Basically I believed in a way of living that supported the protection and prolongation of LIFE rather than a mode of existance that accepted and even promoted cruelty, misery and unnecessary DEATH. I extended my definition of Life to that of all creatures on the earth, human or otherwise. Thus I was against war, against torture, against cruel sports and against the mass slaughter of animals for food. All these views fitted naturally together like a moral jig-saw. I wasn’t ashamed to express them even though I risked arguments and upset. More controversially, I decided that in order to be consistent with my anti-unnecessary- death stance, I had to disagree with abortion too, unless there was a very special reason such as the woman’s life being at risk. This was and is controversial as anti-abortionists for some reason tend to be on the right of the political spectrum, whereas all my other views fitted nicely with those on the left. So as well as arguing with carnivores — sorry– omnivores — and supporters of war, I now got embroiled in heated exchanges with feminists who insisted on “the woman’s right to choose” and said I had no right to even have an opinion on this as I was a man. The unborn child who was having it’s life extinguished even before it came out into the world, seemed to have been forgotten in all this. So as an adolescent I fervently supported the rights of people to live in peace, the rights of animals to have a life and the rights of the unborn child. Then I got a bit older ( some people would say I grew up) and all went silent. So what happened? To put it succinctly: politeness descended like a fog. My views got lost in an enveloping mist of good manners.

Once I became a young adult with growing responsibilities such as: a family, a career and eventually a mortgage, my priorities became more personal. Idealistically trying to change the world now had to go on the back-burner. I could not continue challenging people about their views or their eating habits without running the risk of stalling my career and socially isolating myself. If I had kept “banging on” about the evils of war, the abominations of abattoirs or the rights of the living foetus, my colleagues, friends and even family would quickly have got tired of me. The dinner-party invitations would have dried up and promotion opportunities at work would have disappeared. Eventually I would have been branded an “extremist”, that is: someone who is unwilling to compromise. So, there’s that dreaded word — Compromise. Nobody wants to be compromised but most of us end up doing it anyway, of our own volition. We water-down our views or keep quiet about them in order to get on with other people and be a success in society. I don’t know whether I should be ashamed to admit it but this is what I did in my twenties. Some would say I became a realist instead of continuing to be an idealist. I wanted to be a popular and accepted member of my community and so I made the necessary adjustments. In other words I became a conformist. Thus it was that I hung my “Superman” suit up in the wardrobe and concentrated on living a pleasant everyday life by fitting in. Besides, unrelenting challenging, arguing and campaigning had been draining and debilitating. Constantly swimming against the tide is very tiring. As a result, I decided to go with the flow and my more controversial views were hidden away to avoid embarrassment. Some would say that it was the coward’s way out!

For more than a decade I kept quiet, trying to be nice to everyone and not rocking any boats. I led a very happy family life with my wife and children and I got on in my teaching career. Schools in fact are great places for conformists. They try to be a microcosm of the wider society and the whole ethos is on  “fitting in”, from wearing the uniform to following all the rules. They are not such good places for “rebels.” One of the first things I had to do was get my hair cut. Up to that point I  looked like a cross between George Best and George Harrison.( or so I imagined.)  Now I was forced to look like an American GI going to war! I also had to get used to years of slavery to the collar and tie as I masqueraded as an upstanding member of the “establishment” Both at home and at work I generally avoided controversy and I was rewarded with social and vocational success. I was pretty happy most of the time.

However nothing lasts. Mrs Thatcher came to power in the 1980’s with her aggressive and destructive ( in my view) right wing doctrine. Unemployment reached frightening proportions, the pointless but dreadful Falklands war was fought, the miners’ strike was smashed, along with many of their heads, and dangerous Cruise Missiles were arriving at Greenham Common from Reagon’s America. On top of this, environmental issues such as pollution and destruction of habitats were getting more and more urgent. CND was revived and Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were born. All these developments meant that I was radicalised again, as were many of my friends and family. It was no longer a case of hiding away one’s views in order to keep life pleasant. It was now the time to stand up and be counted. So I donned my duffle coat, put on my badges and found myself:  on torch-light processions, writing protest letters, lobbying my (Tory) MP, signing petitions , going door-to door canvassing, joining the Labour party ( and attending boring meetings) and going on a wide variety of demonstrations. I became a peace campaigner and in a small way, an environmental activist. It felt good. There were millions of us. Taking part in mass marches, I felt energised and empowered.  It was good to be fighting for positive change rather than timidly keeping quiet or sitting on the fence. Unfortunately millions more were either apathetic or downright hostile to the causes I supported and the Tories under Thatcher and then John Major unbelievably won 4 elections in a row! Eventually I and many others got tired and dispirited. Ten years of campaigning had burnt me out and I desperately needed to rest from the fray. So I lapsed into the “quiet life” again.

The temporary abandonment of my activism was also necessitated by an unfortunate series of crises in my private life in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Separation, divorce, not being able to live with my children and further relationship turmoil, all now took over from trying to save the world. I had to recover from the traumas, lick my wounds and reconstruct my life. It was quite a long time before things settled down and were more or less stable again. Eventually I found happiness once more, becoming a grandfather twice over, falling in love and even remarrying. By 2006 I at last managed to escape the tyranny of work after a tough few last years, and discovered the joys of slightly early retirement. I kept my more contentious views and concerns largely under wraps and avoided controversy. Everything in my garden seemed rosy. What more could I ask for?

However, underneath all this surface contentment, restless rumblings of dissent were once more stirring inside me like a dormant volcano coming back to life. Why did this happen? Why did I want to threaten my new very happy life? Well first of all, my fundamental, heartfelt beliefs had never actually gone away just because I hardly ever aired them in public. If anything, they had grown stronger and deeper, like good wine maturing in a cellar. They were beliefs that formed the foundation of my life. Although hidden away, they are what defined me as a person. I wouldn’t be Stuart Bates if I wasn’t a pacifist, a vegetarian, a socialist ( with a small “s”), a “Green”, a Republican, and so on. These principles shape me as much as my various roles of: husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, friend etc. Once I was a retiree and had more time to think and reflect on life, they inevitably rose to the surface again. Also, I’ve found that one advantage of getting older is that one is not so much in thrall to all the niceties and rules of etiquette that can prove so limiting in one’s life. William Blake memorably called these restrictions: “mind-forged manacles.” As I got past 60 and had less responsibilities to tie me down, I increasingly wanted to break free from my shackles and reveal my true self. I wanted to be honest and not be “economical with the truth”, to quote a famous cabinet secretary.

Many older people get this feeling. They lose some of their inhibitions and become so-called “grumpy” old men and women. They even made a humorous television programme about it and so I found myself in the illustrious company of Rick Wakeman, Ben Elton, Dawn French and others. It almost became fashionable to be “grumpy”. I prefer to call it being “honest”. However, other people think that older people can be as much of an “embarrassment” in polite society as children. Afterall they might just suddenly blurt out what they truly think instead of just saying what they think others want to hear. Older people, like young children, don’t care so much for the consequences of their words and actions. I would argue that they do not so often allow their true, honest selves to be smothered by the niceties of polite society. I am still courteous most of the time but think that it is also important to speak out. In this 21st century, Britain has been constantly at war and has proved to be an aggressive, militeristic nation, just as much as it was in the infamous days of Empire. We dress it up as supporting “freedom” and “democracy” but we still end up invading other countries and killing and maiming lots of people. The real reason is to get oil and other natural resources.( in my opinion.) We have even ended up torturing people and have apologised only when we have been caught. Yet the British still think of themselves as the good guys and describe their invading soldiers as “heroes”. Yes, there’s lots to speak out about and lots of potential arguments in store because so many have relatives in action in the armed forces. If you speak out against war you are accused of not being patriotic and even of being a traitor. Society has lots of techniques with which to gag its critics. And that’s just one controversial subject. There are plenty more that need to be addressed instead of being swept under the carpet of polite society.

Probably closest to my heart is my deep concern for animal welfare. I am against the abuse and exploitation of animals and birds be it through sport, in laboratories , on farms or in abbattoirs. Some of the stuff I read about makes my blood boil and makes me feel physically sick. And yet most people’s response seems to be either they “don’t know” or they “don’t care.” To me it’s simply a case of “Ignorance” or “Arrogance” How can I be expected to keep quiet about all this in order to avoid awkward moments in social situations? I have been emboldened in this by reconnecting with the friend who I turned vegetarian with in our mid-teens, all those years ago. Vic has not changed his fundamental views in his lifetime and neither have I. The trouble is that I am increasingly encountering people who believe: its OK to torture animals in order to find a cure for human diseases, it’s OK to eat animals’ dead bodies because they are very tasty and it’s OK to whip race-horses excessively in the name of creating an exciting finish. How can I remain quiet about all this?

I am sick of being policed by politeness. It’s cords still tie me down to a greater extent and I will probably not subject anyone to an outright attack. However I no longer try to disguise my disgust and dismay when coming across something shocking. For instance I was recently confronted with the grisly sight of a bloody, medium rare steak on a restaurant table. To me it was  obscene but the others in my party all drooled over it and couldn’t wait to get their teeth into it. To me it was the grilled corpse of a poor murdered animal. But apart from my look of horror, I meekly remained mute and pretended to be pleased with my vegetarian alternative. So I spoke out to my diary, to my wife and now in this blog. Sorry about my emotive vocabulary. It’s embarrasing isn’t it?

I know that some of my relatives regard me increasingly as a “loose cannon”. They fear that I might “go off it” at any time. ( and they may be right!) But I believe that honesty trumps politeness in most situations. At least it should do. What is the point of life if we all hide behind euphanisms and never say anything meaningful?  What’s the point in having views if one is afraid to express them or to act upon them?

So now, in my 60’s, I am embarking on another decade of campaigning. My Facebook “friends” are already getting fed up with my vegetarianism and for constantly reminding them about the shocking abuse of animals. However, as I have said, nothing is gained through being always quiet and polite. Anyway, it’s very uncomfortable sitting on that fence all the time!

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12 Responses to “TO BE HONEST OR TO BE POLITE?”

  1. Catherine Bates November 14, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    a strong piece – and very interesting to read. it has made me think about a lot of things but a. i don’t have a coherent response to it, yet
    b. i don’t want to seem as though I am marking it
    c. there is so much to say, I am not sure where to start.
    I will, however, return!

    • scrapstu1949 November 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

      Thanks for taking the time to read this Catherine and for your positive response. After the recent travel pieces I wanted to get back to something more personal. This started off in Italy when I was confronted with the steak and also with Chris’s appeals to me ( earlier in the day) not to make a scene. Of course i wouldn’t have caused a fuss but the issue got me thinking. What is more important — having strong views or avoiding making a scene? I think this could go with my memoirs and with the Grandfather/Vegetarian blog in helping to explain why I am like I am.

  2. Catherine Bates November 14, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

    no worries dad. I found it really interesting. It made me think a bit of the role of blogging – I expect to read exactly the kind of strong opinions in a blog and on the internet generally, that you rightly point out would cause discomfort if expressed in person. There has been quite a lot recently about the way people interact on the web, and how it can be a liberating place to express opinion (but also, a dangerous place where people forget they are actually talking to others). Your blog is a great example of the former, since you use the blog to put across your own perspective and thoughts – the latter becomes ridiculous, when people are just insulting others and not really reading what they are saying properly….anyway, i have been thinking all day about politeness. I have found that even in academic situations, when I am giving a paper, people worry about being ‘preached at’, and don’t like it if I emphasize the potential for literary texts to make us think about difficult ethical topics, such as the treatment of native cultures by colonial powers, or the haphazard and negligent attitude many in the UK, the US and Canada have towards the environment and the waste they produce. I am also in the position, though, in my teaching, of trying to get students to express opinions and argue with each other and finding that usually, they don’t want to offend others. Even at that younger age, they are worried about standing out and being defined by their own opinions. I am your daughter, so I can really empathise with the dilemma you raise – when to speak out when you find something offensive or when you think it is necessary that your point of view is heard is very difficult. When I was an undergraduate I had these horrible next door neighbours who were a group of very laddish lads. I got into a number of altercations with them, because, unfortunately, some of my housemates wanted to spend time with them (and I wanted to spend time with my housemates!). One time, in the pub, these laddish next door neighbours started making horrible homophobic remarks. I challenged them, asking them why they felt the need and telling them why they were being offensive. They then made fun of me, and my housemates just ignored what was happening. Afterwards, one of my housemates asked me why I had had ‘made a fuss’. ‘After all’ she said ‘you are not gay, so why does it affect you?’. Moreover, her main point seemed to be that I had ruined a perfectly good night. I tried to explain that, to me, not to challenge would be to become complicit in a prejudiced, discriminatory attitude; I was sticking up for the right for people to live in a society where their life situations and choices would not be attacked. She didn’t understand. The next time I saw my neighbours it was in their house; as soon as I walked in, one of them put on porn to wind me up. This time, I just walked out in silence, realising that there was no point in confronting – it had gone beyond a choice of politeness/honesty because they just saw me as a joke. I was never going to get them to listen to me seriously so what was the point in engaging? In some ways, this has led me to be more pragmatic – if there is little chance of someone really engaging with what you think, is there any point in disrupting social situations? I try to take each situation as it comes, but, like you, feel as though I should be speaking out a lot more. Luckily, my job allows me to express, honestly, my thoughts on a lot of subjects, in writing and with students and colleagues. It also allows me to meet lots of people who productively challenge what I think – I strive for a place where we can learn from each other. To go back to the internet: at its best, it can get us to think about these things (like your blog….) at its worst it becomes a haven for impoliteness, with lots of people sticking to their own positions, effectively yelling insults at one another….

  3. Catherine Bates November 14, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

    oops – that was a long comment! just wanted to say as well, though – abortion, I think, is a very complicated issue….I think this is a significant point where we disagree!

    • scrapstu1949 November 14, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

      Thanks for your long and interesting replies. I didn’t fully appreciate that I was “sounding off ” partly because I had the safety of the Internet to shield me. I agree about the abuse of the Net by certain people. You get a lot of it on the football sites but also there is sexist, racist and homophobic stuff as well. The Observer had an interesting but disturbing article recently about women bloggers being subjected to abusive comments by men such that they have stopped blogging.
      Anyway, I’m pleased I gave food for thought and maybe you understand me even more now. I didn’t want to go into the abortion issue in detail. I know it’s sensitive and complicated. maybe we can have a civilised discussion about it sometime. I was trying to illustrate how my main raft of viewpoints came about ie — pro life and anti unnecessary death. It is embarrassing finding myself being on the same side as George W Bush and the fundamentalist right-wingers. Nobody has ever explained to me why being anti war , in order to try to save lives, is left wing, but anti abortion, in order to save lives, is right-wing. I kept quiet on it for a long time because it was not fashionable to be against abortion on demand. But in the end I had to stop being a coward and express my beliefs. Annie set me up to have an argument with Sheena Dennison at a party once. She just lit the blue-touch paper and then stepped back to enjoy the “fun”. That’s when I was told that I had no right to have a view on abortion because I am a man! But I’m getting on to feminism now which I barely touched in the blog.
      I’m pleased you suggested blogging to me. It has been interesting and theraputic . Also like I said once before, I feel it has strengthened my relationship with you.

  4. James Browning November 23, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    For those closest to me, I care more about being polite and good to them than ever. For the rest, I try to be cordial and decent, but after that I really don’t care what they think! All I can do is my part…. good post… thanks for sharing so much of yourself!

    • scrapstu1949 November 24, 2011 at 10:08 am #

      Thanks James. I think it’s important to be honest to those closest to you, otherwise the real you will be hidden away for ever. However I agree that it is important to express that honesty in a polite and respectful way. One owes that to one’s friends and loved ones.

    • ank August 19, 2012 at 6:21 am #

      you sound like a considerate person, James : )

  5. Jay January 16, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    Hi Stuart, I enjoyed this blog a lot knowing that other people feel the same. I do think that close family and friends should not see expressing your opinion as impolite I am lucky have mates and family who enjoy a good heated debate and is considered pretty normal for us to do that in social situations. Work mates and aquaintances in the pub etc is a different matter I feel like in many situations I ‘dumb down’ my opinons to avoid akwardness.

    • scrapstu1949 January 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

      Thanks for reading and commenting. It seems you have roughly the same appoach as I do, except that I don’t get into too many heated debates with my family. Even if a person has very strong moral views, he/she cannot take on the world. It would be very debilitating.

  6. ank August 19, 2012 at 6:20 am #

    anyone know how to respond to rude personal questions about one’s disability? i wouldn’t mention a ‘flawed’ part of their body myself, but it seems if you have a disability it’s ‘all access’ like you are “public property” or something. Thanks!! i have been ‘explaining’ for decades and it just gets more invasive.

    • scrapstu1949 August 19, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

      Thanks for reading my stuff and commenting.It’s a shame you have experienced such rudeness. Matbe writing about your experiences may help.

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