on daring to be impolite

Walk. The drum begins. Follow it. Follow the drums of thunder. Follow the sun. Follow the stars at night as they lean their long slant down the far side of the sky. Follow the lightning and the open road. Follow your compulsion. Follow your calling. Follow anything except orders and habit. Follow the fire-fare-forwards of life itself. Go where you will burn your bridges if you must, leave the paving stones smouldering and singe the gate as you leave, leave an incendiary device by The Wall, and scorch your way upon the land. I dare you. (Jay Griffiths, Wild)

I’ve just been delivering a session on the topic of living systems and workplace unions, at the marvellous Edinburgh Radical Independent Book Fair hosted by Wordpower bookshop. One of the things we discussed involved the participative and relational nature of the universe (as explored in quantum physics) and how this may be reflected in organisations.

This reminds me of the book I read recently about the psychology of groups and organisations. Individuals exist in relation to others. Our inner psyche is relational – we simply do not exist in isolation. From the moment we are conceived we are in relation to another human, our mother, and to the sounds of others through the wall of her belly. We kick occasionally to mark our awareness of the information we receive from the outside: voices, music, changes to gravity as she moves, chemical responses to food or drink or drugs she has consumed and her own physical reactions to stress or fatigue or pleasure. During life we conceptualise a self that is bounded by our personal space – our body, our mind, our genetic makeup – but we never, not ever, exist outwith our connections to others.

During our discussion, someone described their organisation as being fairly successfully “flat” in its hierarchical structure, and arranged to allow maximum autonomy and decision-making power among its members. What interested me most in the comment, however, was an aside made about this freedom and power: occasionally people “misbehaved.” The remark was made in reference to people for example misdirecting allocated project money – and in any case the observation was made lightly. But isn’t that interesting, I thought, how easily the word “misbehaved” rolls off our tongues and makes immediate sense to everyone. How much our good behaviour and/or misbehaviour is implicit rather than explicit. We have social codes, thousands of them, which govern our interactions with one another.

And isn’t it interesting as well, that the notion of someone making the wrong decision may be cast as misbehaviour? People make mistakes, errors of judgment, and sometimes just misunderstand the social cues which inform all those invisible codes. We all do this, at various times and in various degrees. We call it misbehaving in order to tie personal responsibility to individual choices and actions. Ched Evans misbehaved when he raped a woman; his victim misbehaved when she prosecuted because it disrupted his career. He has publicly acknowledged his “incredibly foolish decision”; she has been publicly hounded by sports fans and now lives in hiding. Women misbehave when they protest or complain about harm done to them, because they are kicking up a fuss and demanding that we see what would otherwise remain comfortably invisible.

Which leads me to Caitlin Moran’s popular book, How to Be a Woman. This is feminism lite, written with good humour and one foot very solidly and safely in the middle-class-wife-mother-and-media-professional camp. She offers food for thought in a very easy-to-swallow format, and that’s fine. When I read it, though, I was pulled up short by her Humanity Guideline, which follows on from her sexism rule of thumb, which is:

… asking this question: ‘Are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time? […]

Almost always, the answer is: ‘No. The boys are not being told that they have to be a certain way. They’re just getting on with stuff.’ […]

All along, we must recall the most important Humanity Guideline of all: BE POLITE. BEING POLITE is possibly the greatest daily contribution everyone can make to life on earth.

Is that it? Be polite?? I know she is trying to capture something there about being kind, being considerate of others, being aware of one’s own impact. But given the myriad complexities of individual beliefs and expectations, and the myriad subtleties of social interaction, how can we always manage to be polite, unless we live within a profoundly narrow sliver of social space? Be polite – according to whose standards? Who determines what is or isn’t polite?

Caitlin Moran is well-meaning and funny, but she is no match for Bill Hicks on this issue: “This idea of “I’m offended”. Well I’ve got news for you. I’m offended by a lot of things too. Where do I send my list? Life is offensive. You know what I mean?”

A friend recently circulated the passage above, by Jay Griffiths, via social media. We romanticise the idea of wildness – throwing off the yoke of civilisation and following our guts, our impulses – yet what does that really mean? I couldn’t help but think about the ripples of discomfort I sometimes cause (or imagine I do) when I make a feminist case. Following my compulsion and my calling, shrugging off orders and habit – I do dare, Jay, and I can be a real pain. Am I being wild, or misbehaving?

One thought on “on daring to be impolite

  1. Pingback: Miss Behaving | the clay pit's hearth

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