14 March 2013

A polite society

Ta-Neisi Coates at The Atlantic makes a number of good little observations in his blog post How The Quiet Car Explains The World. He's talking about public space and rudeness, and along the way he says this:

Every once in a while we'll be at a bar and someone (they are invariably white*) will stumble over drunkenly and decide that we should be engaged in conversation with them.

The asterisk, in a David Foster Wallace move, points to this footnote:

I am pretty sure this is because of how violence influences black communities. There's a whole choreography (especially among black men) around avoiding it. It's fairly easy to see and broadcast. If you've been acculturated to people being shot/stabbed/beat up over minor shit, you tend to be a little more careful in your interactions. You never know who you're talking to. And if you are black person of a certain age, you are intensely aware of that.

This is the coda to a post lamenting the prevalence of rude assholes, neatly defined by Coates as “a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms”. Coates has just spoken against assholes and in favor of politeness. That gives this last comment a tricky spin.

He's pointing to a characteristically White form of rudeness as a manifestation of what social justice folks would call White privilege. If you're Black, the effects of systemic racism have salted your community with armed, violent hotheads; if you're White, those implications don't even occur to you.

So in a strange way he's describing a benefit of racist injustice, in preventing the emergence of a certain kind of assholishness among Blacks that he sees among Whites. I feel certain that Coates intends this benefit to be read not simply as a good thing but as a symptom of disturbing circumstances. And it is.

But there's another kind of White asshole who finds this not disturbing but desirable. Paul Waldman at The American Prospect describes the enthusiasm of (White) gun advocates for having as many people as possible carrying concealed guns.

But gun advocates want to create a society governed by fear, or at the very least, make sure that everyone feels the same fear they feel. “An armed society is a polite society,” they like to say, and it's polite because we're all terrified of each other. They genuinely believe that that the price of safety is that there should be no place where guns, and the fear and violence they embody, are not present. Not your home, not your kids' school, not your supermarket, not your church, no place. But for many of us—probably for most of us—that vision of society is nothing short of horrifying.

“A person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms.”

And here I hand the microphone to James Wolcott at Vanity Fair.

“An armed society is a polite society.” Think about that. Think about societies where the adult men routinely pack and tote arms.

Afghanistan. Yemen. The badlands of northern Pakistan (Bin Laden Country). The Sunni Triangle. Beautiful downtown Mogadishu.

Do these regions and cultures leap out at you as polite societies? Places where you could safely stroll for a nightly constitutional and enjoy vigorous differences of opinion that wouldn't break out in a misunderstanding between AK-47s?

It takes a someone unaware of how profoundly their privileged circumstances inform their thinking to romanticize that.

Update: Cobb has a lively commentary Cowboy Up more sympathetic to gun enthusiasts than I am. He does offer this clever restatement of Coates by way of me:

whitefolks: we feel fear so we want an armed society — therefore our privilege is the asshole's privilege to unconsciously dominate.

blackfolks: we know fear and never have that privilege.

my point: grr. how long has gangsta rap been praising guns and social domination?

I hope to find time to comment at greater length on his reading.

Update: I am reminded that Wolcott also inspired a more waggish earlier post on this subject.


Zed Lopez said...

but... but... but... SWITZERLAND!

Old Surfer said...

I was once a guest at an IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation) match in Hawaii. Everyone was armed and carrying multiple magazines. Everyone was extremely polite and courteous. Hawaii is not always racially harmonious, but the camaraderie of this racially mixed group was quite obvious.