Thursday, May 05, 2005

Turning it around, again

So I went rambling the other day and wrote this long thing on normative behavior, socio-biology, instinct and media conferred legitimacy. But what happens when I turn that lens on myself instead of using it to peer into other people's heads?

Lo and behold, I do it too.

I get furious when people drive to the front of a line of cars trying to merge and then force their way in ahead of everybody who has been waiting. I don't get too bent out of shape by other people's anger, but if Stranger No. 1 reacts in anger to Stranger No. 2's unintended slight and Stranger No. 2 apologizes, Stranger No. 1 had better accept it or I'm going to want to come off the bench and jump in.

The behavior I'm addicted to is politeness, of a kind. Why? Well, I figure, isn't it obvious? If everybody would just be polite, everything would be so much better. If everybody would just stop the drama and become aware of their neighbors, why, look how smoothly things would work!

Yes, there's a point to such thinking, but if you think about it critically for even 30 seconds the whole notion comes apart like fat in a skillet.

My politeness is just an extension of the same awareness of the norm that I described for certain cultural conservatives. As a perpetual outsider, fine-tuning my normative antennae was a good survival and career-advancement skill. It let me triangulate all sorts of social situations, which is a good skill to have if you're interviewing a Republican congressman in the morning and trolling through a trailer park in the wake of a tornado in the afternoon. Reporters have to be aware of norms.

(Here's a hard thing to say: Americans loved the period between Sept. 11, 2001 and the spring of 2002 because suddenly we could all endorse many of the same norms. We love feeling connected in part because we love feeling accepted. Before it got turned into neo-con kitsch, 9-11 was a reminder to people that we're all in this together, and being accepted by people who usually look at us funny made us practically giddy.)

So I have the same kind of normative awareness as John Graham Altman III, and I can identify some of my normative hot buttons (tellingly, they're things that I feel rather good about). But do I have some of the destructive reactions to deviance that I described in my previous post?


It makes me mad when the neighborhood boys walk by with their pants falling off their asses ("Quit showing off. Stop acting like you're scaring somebody. Why are you trying to attract attention to yourself?"). I react violently when people give me a certain kind of look when I feel like I'm minding my own business. I feel superior from time-to-time when people who lack my tough-guy credentials say something that sounds whiney.

And I think one of the reasons for my occasional bouts of squinty-eyed defiance is a weird mutation of my normative bone fides: Sure, I may be a remarried, gray-haired hippie kid whose preacher daddy wears a dress nowadays, and maybe I read Buckland and Hafiz and Lao Tzu and Susie Bright instead of Tom Clancy, James Dobson and the New Testament, and maybe I'm a member of the liberal media, BUT, I'm still a big-loud-straight-white-home-owning-tax-paying-"Cav-ho!"-shit-kicker. In other words, not only can I pass for normal when I want to, I can pass for the kind of guy that other normal people around here respect.

In some bizarre way, the fact that I can pass for normal makes me feel superior to people who can't ... just as my ability to shift into freak mode makes me feel superior to "normal" people.

My point: Whether the topic is religion, culture war, politics or media, there's what we say we think and there's what we think but can't say. As the great Patricia Anthony once said, "we're ALL full of shit! Ha ha ha!" The ability to recognize that fact about one's self is a big step toward getting a little peace in this world.

Lao Tzu said you could see the entire universe in a leaf, that you could see the world without stepping out your front door. We're like our own little laboratories for understanding the world around us, if we can just listen to our own voices ... quietly, without judgment...