Hitting the Wrong Note

wrontnote_viamarimaThere are things you can say in polite company, and things you can say in private; we all know this, and yet we profess shock upon hearing publically those things we deem for limited specific company only. But it isn’t the sentiment we reject, it’s the form: we have an entire structure of polite register that allows us to express private sentiments publically, but less directly. That is, after all, the structure of formal English—to say with euphemism and evasion those things we could say bluntly with a more limited audience.

So there are really two kinds of shock to pick from when someone breaks these rules. One kind is shock at whatever private thing has been laid bare, no matter how it was said. The other kind is shock at the breaking of convention, and cares very little about the sentiment involved. For politicians, masters of gaming the rules, it is the breaking of those rules that requires response. For the rest of us, as decent human beings, it is the sentiment that requires response.

Thus we have now two kinds of shock that occur in concert, and thus also we have the strange discord inspired by dissonance: these two notes seem to ring together, and yet they ring false.

The difficulty is that even those who claim to be fools are not—when someone says aloud the things they have been thinking, we are rarely surprised. We knew they were thinking those things all along, and we knew they were just very good (or moderately good, or generally bad) at pretending otherwise when the situation required it. So when we denounce someone for speaking these things wrongly, we do it in the context of their beliefs. We use their breaking of conventional speech to highlight their unacceptable ideas.

But the other kind of shock is more difficult—what do we do when someone breaks the rules, but we actually share most of their beliefs? We know who the sexist, racist, prejudiced people are in our midst. We know, and we let them get away with it as long as they frame those things in some other way: the emotional instability of mothers, the laziness of the poor, the dangerous terrorists skittling away amongst the needy. We know, and maybe we even agree, or at least we are enablers. We don’t care very much about prejudice towards people who are not us.

The breaking of the rules, though, requires denouncement, and so we do that, but in as roundabout a way as possible. “He’s just a crude guy,” we say. “That’s just how guys talk.” The subtext rings loud and clear: these sentiments are normal and forgivable; they’re just supposed to remain private. The violation is not in the ideas themselves, it is in breaking our agreement to ignore them.

So the two notes ring together, but without harmony. It seems as though we are saying the same thing, but we truly are not.

And I wish this could be about one moment, with one person, but I don’t believe it is. This is how we treat so many of the people who break these rules. They are usually men, white, in positions of power, or all of the above. They are usually saying things that, put baldly, we all must reject, but put subtly, too many of us agree with.

These people, so many of them, are our supposed leaders. They are star athletes, politicians, CEOs, managers, scientists, teachers, and family. They are the people we look to for guidance.

But we should judge them based on their beliefs, not their adherence to formality. We shouldn’t care whether they say the wrong things—we should care whether they think them.

And if they do, we should acknowledge the truth regardless of whether those things are said aloud: that such people are not capable of decent interaction with others, let alone fit to lead us.

Image Credit: Mari Ma

2 comments on “Hitting the Wrong Note

  1. venice967 says:

    Wow! I sure understand what you mean about being enablers. Women do it every day in abusive relationships whether marital and/or romantic and familial. How many times have you heard a woman say “Oh he’s just having a bad day”. after he has humiliated her in front of friends and/or family? I have heard it too often from my own mouth! I did just as you said here; ascertain what the person believes behind the words. And sadly, I find that there was no bluff, only truth in what was said because it was part of the value system of the individual in question. It is a real shocker to be faced with uncomfortable truths about those one has made excuses for to keep the status quo and to keep from rocking the boat,. In the final analysis, being true to oneself is far more important than making excuses and appeasing. You are absolutely right that people like these should not be in places of high responsibility and leadership. Often, people like these are very good actors until they are backed against the wall of reality. A lot of times others aren’t surprised because of glimpses they’ve had of the character underneath the facade. And often, even when reality bites them on the butt, still the denials are voiced. Sad but true. Sometimes only life altering circumstances wake these people up, but sometimes not even then.


    • JD says:

      Yeah–I think after a certain point, having gone through life with others’ accepting and enabling their behavior, people just don’t change without something dramatic, and often not even then. But I also hope that if we don’t enable people in the first place, they may never form the habit to begin with, and then they can change it much more easily. I guess I think anyone can change, but they have to want to and dedicate the effort to it.


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