A little while ago, my daughter, with whom I always thought I had an open, honest relationship, informed me that while she did not want to hurt my feelings, I was treating everyone in the house awfully. She thought that I was unjustly punishing everyone for my bad day at work. She was right.
But I am concerned because even though I was the one in the wrong, she did not want to be impolite. She's only 13, and already she is questioning if she should stand up for her beliefs.
A co-worker of mine referred to the people of Afghanistan as "Afis." I got upset and told him that calling Afghans Afis was the equivalent of calling black people racially insulting names. Later, another co-worker told me that the racial slur was offensive to her as well, but she did not want to seem sensitive and rude. After all, she has to work with this person.
A neighbor was attending class at one of the universities here in Buffalo, and the professor asked why busing in the '70s was such a problem. No one said anything. She mentioned that race was probably a big factor.
My friend tried to have a discussion regarding the race issue that surrounded the problems with education then and now. A fellow student asked why she was making such a big deal of it. She was subsequently labeled an agitator. No one would look at her for the rest of the class.
When did we become so scared of confrontation? When did absolute politeness become the rule of the day? We belong to a country that prides itself on free speech, standing firm for our beliefs, plurality and diverse opinions. At what point did expressing these things become taboo? What are we afraid of?
Sept. 11, 2001, as tragic as it was, did something wonderful for our society: It produced dialogue and a hunger for individual and cultural learning. It had our society talking freely about what it meant to be fair and, thus, treat others fairly despite propagated stereotypes. Polite conversation regarding these things was set aside.
But it has been more than a year now, and we seem to have returned to our shells. We were polite before the tragedy and now we seem destined to become polite again. And I am curious to know what this kind of passive politeness gains us as a nation and as a society. If no one speaks of the unpleasantries that are as real as the pleasantries, isn't there a big chance that they will go unnoticed and eventually be disregarded? And won't this put us back into the kind of blissful ignorance that made us apathetic in the first place?
Don't get me wrong. I like the advantages of living in a basically polite society. I appreciate the person who holds the door for me. I like being told to have a nice day as I'm exiting the supermarket. And when I do something that is considered an understood social no-no (belch, yawn, trip, etc.), I appreciate those who are polite enough to ignore the act, or at least look the other way. That is the kind of politeness that fosters congeniality and social connectedness.
The kind of politeness I am addressing permits social injustice by way of non-acknowledgment. This is the version of politeness that got Jews incinerated and left the world wondering how it could happen. This is the version of politeness that gets gay people attacked while the rest of us just shake our heads in pity and confusion about other people's morals. This is the kind of politeness that makes the homeless population of our cities seem like ghosts instead of people.
This type of politeness does not foster anything good, so let's stop it. Let us speak up boldly and loudly for each other and obliterate this kind of politeness. It isn't nice at all. It only keeps our hands folded as we sit quietly and idly by.
PATRICE ROSS is a performance poet, teacher and graduate student.
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