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I was young when I first became aware of the two things capable of upsetting a friendship, straining or in some cases even severing family bonds. Of course it is quite easy for a ten year old to misunderstand and possibly misread signals sent from the adult spectrum. But a ten year old is also supplied with large and curious ears for sponging up tidbits for assessment. The two culprits I learned about initially had a third element. I found that out when my mother and her sister (for years best of friends) began to clash over baseball. A loyal White Sox fan like my mom was horrified that her sister Lil switched teams to become a Cubs fan. Mom saw it pure and plain betrayal of all that sacred to a South Side Chicagoan. You knew things were bad when slicing an Easter ham somehow provoked a roomful of tension without beet juice being shed on a new white cloth to start it. The sisterly sports feud was an H Bomb on the family peace horizon.
Compared to that dispute the other familial peace busters were small eruptions that were easily dealt with. You learned quickly and with no doubt lingering in your little head that it was never a good idea to mention religion or morals to Aunt Caroline. The same was true about Uncle Bill and politics. One stray word was all it took to set his fuse burning. When you’re ten you can trigger an adult and then safely escape during the aftershocks of other adults chiming in. With the grownups busy indoors a kid or two might find a little unsupervised time and space to get into something worthwhile down the block where wild-kids ranged free as veld beasts. While I clearly remember the cautions involved, I’m equally sure we didn’t all shut up and totally ignore big topics. People (friends and family) did talk politics and religion (the truly bold even did team rivalry) but did so with the steadying mental reminder to go easy.
I must say from a kid’s view it was great fun to be at a safe distance when Uncle George went suddenly sky high Son-of-a-bitching and God-damning until Aunt Blanches butcher blade voice set him down in a beet face sulk that definitely needed another Rock ‘N Rye to settle him down. The calming and medicinal use of alcohol was well known in the family, as was its disquieting and sickening side. In compact kitchens packed full of talkative grownups the haze of cigarette smoke (all the adults smoked) and booze fumes were enough to addict a small child to both vices. Simply being in the kitchen for a few minutes was enough to penetrate lungs, clothing, and everything else. During these gatherings we kids would quietly sneak out of the house to escape further immersion in adult ills and vices. Fresh air was wonderful plus we were often able to find vices better suited to our sizes and abilities.
I was reminded of childhood cautions about differences in politics, religion, and sports this past Thanksgiving by Bill Maher. I generally like and enjoy Bill despite his too frequent slips into junior high dirty mouth. The F word gets flung so often it’s not shocking, and to me is most notable as a muddling of assertive power with sexual behavior; two non-identical behaviors. Substitution of vulgarity for more precise terms doesn’t make (except to naïve unthoughtful views) an individual appear older or wiser. Saying FUCK loudly in front of peers worked strongly to impress in school. As use became more habitual and uncritical it also grew less effective. Not long ago I had several conversations with a cleric from the former East German state. He went easily from his childhood language to reasonably fluid English (ability he had in four or five other languages as well) and not once did he throw in an expletive for emphasis. It can be done. I’ve seen it and with some modest effort have even been able to do so myself.
But back to Bill Maher who triggered my time warp. Bill’s comic pre-Thanksgiving blast had a couple of interesting points. ONE was asserting you’ll never convince anyone else so TWO you should “shut the fuck up!” For me it was wincingly painful to hear a comic get things so wrong. Talk isn’t about convincing others to join your thought club and march in your line o’ logic. Talk is exchange. It’s not a matter for convincing that a thing looks green to me and olive to you. For any number of reasons individuals and groups have different perceptions. Group perception is more difficult to accept, but if your language group paid an annual tax in young boys who’d become Janissaries (fighters for an occupying power) your group might be slightly suspicious even today of overtures from the former occupier. Distinctly different backgrounds along with disagreement are natural parts of diversity. Not going along with cooked up world views is probably a very human response to an imposing threat.
To then shut up as Maher says seems to me one of the worst, least comic, and dismally fatalistic things a human could do. Does the comedian really believe we’re incapable of talking through things? To hold “shut up” as a solution is to abandon belief in ability to reason and understand. That is a bleak view and one (I’m forced to say) much better suited to totalitarianism than to a democracy where citizens make noise, ask bothersome things, and annoy the living beejeebers out of one another. Not being agreed with is part of being a human. Others shutting up and not telling us how, when, and why they think we’re wrong about something is a deathly insult to our state of being. Bill has it wrong. Don’t shut up. You don’t have to be insulting about it, but even that is better borne than silence. Forger Maher and instead think of Frederick Douglas saying “Agitate, agitate, agitate.”