Daniel Menaker on Insults and Other Utterances Considered Objectionable
First of all, chances are you won’t hear such unpleasant remarks often. We tend to talk to people whom we know and trust and to meet new people who share our values and who for general or specific reasons want a conversation to go well and to be liked. When it doesn’t and they’re not, the unpleasantness takes two forms:
1. Inadvertent Affronts. Once, in an editorial meeting, an often intemperate publisher I worked for started talking about the stupidity of all Republicans. I said as lightly as I could, “You know, there may be Republicans in this room right now.” (I knew there was at least one.) She said, “Naahh–that’s impossible.” As with most inadvertent insults, this one resulted from incaution and a failure of imagination. Short of broadly agreed-upon evils like child abuse, Nazis, corruption, genocide, and so forth, in conversation it’s wise to withhold opprobrium for any phenomenon or category that may include anyone who is listening, unless one actually doesn’t mind or welcomes the prospect of alienating others. Such deliberate provocation makes perfect sense for . . . well, provocateurs–and debaters, politicians, and ranters–but its constant practice will severely limit the range and depth of friendships its practitioner can have. Another example of incautious offense: At lunch, a literary agent asked me who edited my writing at a certain magazine. I had never talked to this person before, but I sort of lost it and gave her an impulsive earful about what I considered the hopeless incompetence of that editor. A chill settled over the table as I complained. I stopped in midsentence and said, “Oh, no–she’s probably your best friend or something.” She nodded.
Other, less obvious unintentionally insulting and wounding hazards lurk in the course of conversations, especially at the start, especially with new acquaintances, and especially with regard to personal life. The subject of children–having them or not having them, how well they are faring, their possible difficulties, their relationship to their parents, and so on–presents particular dangers. A good friend in his late thirties recently told me how difficult he found the question “Do you have children?” from people he had never met before. I commiserated and said that I thought that in most cases, this was a taboo question. But I didn’t ask why in particular he found it difficult. That he did told me enough, unless he decided to tell me more. Information about family matters and finances should generally be donated rather than solicited.
I’ve called these kinds of tough moments inadvertent, but they nevertheless betray insensitivity on the part of those who cause them. If you’re on the receiving end of such hurtful remarks and can remember that they proceed from a fault in the other person’s character, even though doing so requires a kind of superserenity approaching genuine Buddhism, it helps. Such moments reveal weaknesses on the part of those who create them far more than they reflect poorly on you. If further exchanges with these people have similarly painful results and few rewards, you should just avoid them. In a work situation, like the GOP editorial-meeting disdain, sadly there is often no choice but to grimace and bear it.
In some ways easier to deal with, I think, is the
2. Deliberate, Frontal-Attack Insult. Once, at a party some twenty years ago, I was talking to a friend about the geographic-origin statistics of U.S. families. I’d read somewhere recently that Latin America had just eclipsed all others, or something like that. Someone else I knew tapped me on the shoulder and said, “It’s Germany, Dan.” I said, “Well, this piece said–” The someone else interrupted: “As usual, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and in any case, what I just said is not an arguable statement–it is a statement of indisputable fact.” Whoa! This has remained in my memory (obviously) as a real standout, Jack Nicholson-worthy “You can’t handle the truth” moment. But its endurance has far more to do with its vividness than with any real grievance on my part. It seemed to me to take place so far out of conversational bounds as not to be a real foul. And most such attacks are like that. There is a natural, reflexive instinct to argue or fight back, but counting not even to ten but just three or four will usually show the futility of joining battle at such times. And you can always dine out on and write books about such moments later on.
Not so with fundamentally reprehensible statements. You literally cannot stand still for remarks that you feel are personally or socially outrageous–serious, vicious slurs against you or your family or close friends, racism, revolting and presumptuous salaciousness. One kind of heel deserves your criticism, the other is made to be turned on. If some greater essential good is served by suffering these moments in silence–survival, one’s living or well-being, the polity’s best interests, even the success of a crucial business meeting–they must be borne. But if at all possible, and for the sake of your own self-respect, don’t conversationally accommodate or compromise with those who so deeply offend your principles.
Not all conversational sore points are the result of direct or indirect insults. They often flare up also when the subjects of religion, politics, race, and sexuality arise and serious differences about these topics exist between or among the conversants. I’ll talk about religion more a little later on, but for now, I’ll say that at the start of a connection with someone else, it’s best for grown-ups to avoid these troubled waters if possible. Stay on the beach of noncontroversy at least for a while, when you can. For younger people–teenagers, college kids–this advice doesn’t hold. That time of life, when people are beginning to settle on their personalities, beliefs, and identities, is precisely the right time to throw this kind of conversational caution to the wind. You almost don’t have a choice about doing so, since youth entails or should entail open explorations of this kind of territory. And usually when clashes occur, no lasting or significant damage results from them. You “move on,” as they say, and make new friends–in another dorm, on another block, in another group–who are of liker or broader minds.
The springtime of adult life is the season not only for bold differences of opinion, but also for the marathon conversations they so often occasion. Courtship produces marathons. “We stayed awake talking for hours,” people will say, in one of those newspaper stories about a marriage, of a third or fourth date. And since youth and courtship generally go hand in hand, they double the chances for long talks. As do bars, parties, and cruises. And then, frequently, work and family and all those responsibilities that begin in dreams settle in, and the all-night or all-day or all-weekend conversations recede into the past, as they probably must and even should, since most of the formation of character that they assist so crucially has taken place. Sadly, too, people–at least American people–often feel uncomfortable when a conversation goes on for more than about an hour and a half, because they are so driven to get back to work or some other more practical-seeming occupation.
Back to sore points, and an example of significant damage from a political conversational mistake: I inherited a writer from an editor who had taken a job at another publishing house. I went to see the writer, to reassure her about our imprint’s support and my interest in her next project (a sincere interest) and, of course, I didn’t want her to leave us and follow her former editor. She lived in Washington, D.C., and my visit coincided with the height of the argument over America’s invasion of Iraq. I barely touched on my unhappiness about President Bush’s action, but it was enough, I learned later, to alienate the writer–who, as it turned out, was a good personal friend of Laura Bush. Now, it’s true that this was not an aim-less conversation, but even if it had been, it would have been a mistake to go out, however gingerly, on this thin ice, this narrow limb. (The writer stayed with us but chose another editor to work with, an editor known to be a genius of opacity.) By the way, Republican literary writers are in my experience as rare as ski bums in the Sahel.
Like family and religion, politics will ooze into a conversation on its own and in its own indirect way, without anyone having to start campaigning or deploring policies or divinities directly. And you will decide, silently, whether the differences between you are too great for friendship and a good talk to overcome. Most of us end up with birds of a feather anyway, especially when we find the plumage of others really objectionable. But it’s a true loss, I think, to fly only and always with your own flock. You can miss out on the company of really fine people, and you can fall into a tedious kind of intellectual and spiritual lockstep if you never step out of line. I’m a liberal verging on anarcho-syndicalism myself, if you hadn’t guessed, but I find the company of smart conservatives challenging and sometimes beneficially mind-bending.
But dilemmas do occur over divisions in belief and politics. Once, a friend suffered a miscarriage pretty far along in her pregnancy and was of course devastated. I did my best to console and sympathize with her, having lived through similar losses closer to home myself. She said she felt her daughter was “with her” anyway, as a sort of real person with a spiritual existence. “Don’t you think that’s really possible?” she said. I didn’t and don’t, though I didn’t doubt the reality of her psychological and emotional experience, of course. I desperately came up with, “Well, put it this way: I can’t say that I don’t believe it.”
In our country, particularly with the election of Barack Obama, race has finally begun to assume a more incidental rather than central role in our society’s conversation, as has sexual orientation. They still divide many among us, I realize–the vote against gay marriage in California a couple of years ago was by no means a negligible event. But those many grow fewer every day, it seems. The tolerance we’ve preached for so long we are beginning to practice with more regularity than ever before. And even the unreconstructed among us have a harder time finding safe conversational havens for their group hatreds. I would speculate that they are increasingly ashamed of themselves, and I know that their children share their prejudices far less automatically than used to be the case.
At a writer’s conference not long ago, after a reading by a novelist whose books often deal with bigotry and racial identity in America, a young woman in front of me, caramel of color, turned around and asked if I liked the reading. “Very much,” I said. “Me too,” she said, “but isn’t that race stuff getting a little old?” I asked her what she meant. “I guess my friends and I all have such mixed backgrounds that all we do is joke about it. My mother is from Suriname and my father is Finnish, and their parents are all mixed up racially, too. My friends and I all think it’s much more of a given than an issue. Sort of more of a joke than an issue.” An odd upshot of the beginning of the finally true melting of the melting pot is that even stereotypes can (within reason and with caution) be employed sometimes in civil conversation now, because they are less charged than they used to be. Gay people and straight people chuckle openly about gay people and straight people. I remember someone in my office telling a gay man, when he was saying that he didn’t think Julia Roberts was very attractive, “You’re gay, so you have to shut up.” They both laughed. Black people and white people talk about characteristic traits in black people and white people. The religious and irreligious can have some fun with their very fundamental differences. Stealing a bit of humor from Simon Rich, the author of two collections of funny pieces and a writer for Saturday Night Live, I facetiously wondered to a writer I know who believes in heaven and hell what would happen if a murderer whose soul was saved ran into his victim in paradise. She was a) stymied, and b) unoffended.
I know it seems odd, sacrilegious, and bathetic to bring up movies in the same breath with religion and politics and race and sexual orientation, but some people feel so passionate about films that conflicts in opinion about them can break a friendship. I think it’s because movies have such a visceral impact on their audience that we can feel personally insulted if someone disagrees with us about their merit. They live at the very core of modern people’s being. Pauline Kael, the famous movie critic with whom I worked for a few years at The New Yorker, once told me that if she and someone she knew disagreed about the quality of an important movie more than three times in any given year, she could not be that person’s friend. Extreme, but not completely nuts, maybe. Disagreements about movies, more than books and plays and television, can have a surprisingly negative impact on relationships. Many couples take such differences very much to heart.
By the way, I have read somewhere that the subject that couples argue about most is . . . no, not money; no, not in-laws; no, not child raising; no, not plans; but: temperature. Open vs. closed windows; AC vs. no AC; blanket vs. quilt; thermostat at sixty-eight vs. thermostat at seventy; fan on vs. fan off. That old electric blanket with two separate controls? Genius! Though how would it go if its inventor had his soul saved, went to heaven, and met one of the people his invention had electrocuted?
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