August 02, 2004

straw men and anger

At the post office today, I became unintentionally embroiled in a nasty battle. I was being helped by a worker (I want to say teller but that doesn’t sound right). Next to me, an older man – white hair but hardly frail – walked with firm strides up the counter, ignoring the long line extending down the room. Also ignoring the woman finishing up her business at the counter.

A classic case of jumping the line. The man at the front of the line – youngish, very attractive, dark skin – said something to that effect: “Hey, he wasn’t in line!” but he was down at the other end of the room and the clerk didn’t hear him. As the older man told her what he wanted, she cocked her head. “Were you in line?” He didn’t answer, just proffered his money. The head-of-the-line guy said “No, he wasn’t!” Again, she didn’t hear him. But she had her suspicions and so she asked again, asking the room this time, “Was he in line?”

I spoke. I felt like I had to. “No. He wasn’t in line.” She heard me and made the old guy go stand on line with everyone else. Boy did he not want to! He kept holding up his money, holding up his package, looking as befuddled as he knew how. Working it. But finally, yes, he went.

That’s when the fight started: a man on line, somewhere in his fifties, florid and stocky, lashed out at the man-in-front and also, naturally, at me. We’re unkind to our elders, we’re mean to old people, we’re heartless and don’t have any manners.

You get the picture. The man-in-front was fierce in his response: no, he wasn’t being mean to the old man, he simply thought it was wrong of the guy to shove his way in as if rules didn’t apply to him. If the old guy had asked to go in front, that would have been completely different. He – the man speaking – would have said yes without hesitation. I concurred. It’s a matter of manners, yes, but not ours. The old man’s.

The florid guy wasn’t having any. He kept hammering at the mean-to-the-elderly argument, ultimately calling me names and saying he hoped my mother rots in an old age home. When I told him he was the one who needed to learn manners because he was the one flinging ugly words, he said “That’s the only kind of words you’ll understand.” (This after I’d said maybe two sentences, both calm and reasonable.) That’s when I turned my back on him and made jokes with the clerk, who had missed most of the fun while he was in back looking for the unusual set of stamps I needed.

This man was clearly spoiling for a fight. Just about any fight would do. He wanted to be angry at discrimination against the elderly, therefore ignored the specifics and also what we said in our defense. He resorted to name-calling so quickly it made me dizzy. When the guy next to me jumped to my defense (at this point, the other man had finished his transaction and was gone), the bitchy man accused him of being a filthy breeder. For no reason that I could see. Flinging mud wheresoever it might rile.

I still believe I did the right thing. Yes, I absolutely think we should respect our elders. I believe, too, that most older people face an awful lot of disrespect so yes, we should be extra nice where we can. Nevertheless. Being of retirement age doesn’t mean you’re now absolved of all social niceties. Like, say, asking before cutting in line when people have been waiting for twenty minutes already. Common courtesy goes both ways. When you act in a way that abrogates that unspoken pact, you’ve become aggressively self-serving with an unpleasant dollop of entitlement. Not pretty. A little annoyance and even mild assertiveness is, I think, a perfectly appropriate response.

But what struck me most about the tangle was the way this angry man escalated – or tried to escalate – the battle, how very quickly and very harshly he did so while beating up a straw man, an argument of his own devising which had little to do with what we were actually saying. He obviously wanted to get mad. Maybe the issue was a hot one for him. Or maybe he’d just been kicked out by his lover or his boss and was angry at the world.

But as I walked out of the post office into the surprisingly pleasant August afternoon, I found myself thinking of political debate. Of the Republicans and the Democrats. Of the blogs I’ve been reading and the anger I’ve seen. I’m not immune. God, no. I hate Bush with a sick angry hate, and I hope with all my soul that we throw him out of office before he does more damage. But that means I’m part of that polarization, doesn’t it? The country is so divided right now. Nearly fifty percent strongly believing Bush is evil, the other nearly-fifty-percent seeming to believe he’s everything that’s just and good, or at least that he’s the only thing that stands between us and terrorism (um, wrong). And never the twain shall meet. In fact, the twain don’t seem to be able to talk to each other in any civilized kind of way.

And it’s not just right now, and it’s not just because GWB is so – well, what he is. It was true during Clinton’s administration too. I was amazed at the hate a lot of Republicans seemed to feel, the absolute hate, for this man who had messy extracurricular activities but who did a pretty decent job (for a centrist, that is). Why the hate? Why the blinding anger that he existed? I feel it now, but I feel it for the Shrub’s policies and actions-in-office, not for his personal life choices. A different animal, and completely justified. To me, anyway. But then I look at conservative blogs and I see such disdain for our hatred. Such curled-lip snark. So much anger. On both sides.

So much anger boiling up from beneath the surface. If you’re not with me, you’re against me. Where did all the shades of gray go?

Posted by Tamar at August 2, 2004 09:45 PM

Better hope the guy from the line doesn't read this blog. He'll percieve a trend in elderbashing. First the business with your neighbor, now this!
Isn't it awful when people consistantly misread your good intentions?

Posted by: rose at August 3, 2004 11:21 AM

Shades of grey are too hard for most people to fathom. As humans with an instinct and need to make order out of chaos, to impose some sort of control on our lives when so much is beyond our control, we need to categorize and classify as much as possible - people, ideas, beliefs, good, evil, etc. For most people, it's simply easier to look at the extremes rather than to examine the blendings. And I'm not immune to this temptation, either, though I try to see both/all sides, even if I can't truly understand why people have different beliefs from mine. Unfortunately, however, I'd posit that approaching the world with acceptance and even encouragement of plurality is a rather rare occurence.

Posted by: jms at August 3, 2004 11:42 AM

Rose, that occurred to me too. He'd have double the reason to hate me. So ironic. I want to respect my elders. All I ask is that they respect me too.

And JMS, I think you hit it. I'd like to believe it's just a cultural overlay, this need to categorize and compartmentalize, to make everything good vs. evil, us vs them, but I too suspect it's deeper than that. It's so deeply ingrained.

Posted by: Tamar at August 3, 2004 10:50 PM