What Do I Owe You

There is an idea that has gained a lot of traction in recent years that you do not owe anyone sex, attention, or even your time. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me say I am very much in support of this idea. Philosophically I have long held the notion that you don’t owe anything to anyone, outside of very limited and specific situations (such as contractual obligations*). This might sound pretentious, but I believe your presence is a gift, which you are free to share or withhold from anyone at any time you please. (Bear in mind that, like any gift, anyone is free to decline it, although one hopes they would do so gently). It is actually quite refreshing to me to see the rest of the world finally catching up to me in that regard, at least somewhat (there does still seem to be a bit of gender bias in this regard, although which way that bias goes seems to depend on who you ask, so for now let’s just say we have some more work to do).

I have noticed a peculiar knock-on effect from this generalized freeing from social obligation that is somewhat troubling, if for no other reason than it seems as if society is regressing even as I personally am advancing. At the risk of being indulgent, I’ll admit to some personal flaws; when I was younger, I didn’t see any value in politeness. It seemed a waste of time and energy, and honestly, I didn’t value others enough to indulge in it (and to be fair, I’m still a misanthrope). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that politeness is a social lubricant. Simply put, it makes others more tolerable, and it makes you more tolerable to others.

Kindness and respect are similar in that regard. We don’t give them because they are owed; we give them because they make the world a better place to live in. They make society more functional, easier to manage on a daily basis. And not to put too fine a point on it, but you get what you give. It took me far too long to learn that particular lesson, but I learned it all too well. If you want kindness, respect, or even basic politeness in your life, you need to give it first. There’s no guarantee it will be returned, but this is an investment worth making, because it costs nothing and yields so much. It really is the ultimate low risk, high reward choice.

* One such situation that some might assume would apply would be in the case of the law, such as with Social Contract Theory. Now I’m going to admit upfront that I am at best an armchair philosopher and a schoolyard political scientist, so take my opinion for what it’s worth when I say: poppycock. When it comes to the law, there is no obligation to anyone other than yourself, and the only obligation you have is to know the local laws and customs (as well as how rigorously they are enforced) well enough to make an informed decision about how closely you will follow them.

This should of course always be informed by your own personal sense of morality and ethics. As has often been said, “just because something is legal does not make it moral, and just because something is immoral does not make it illegal”. Also bear in mind that a sense of righteousness is no shield against the long arm of the law. Stand by your convictions if you must but be prepared to pay the price. Note the part about “an informed decision”.


Politeness for Impoliteness’ Sake

Among some of my family and friends I have a slight reputation as a know-it-all. Among the rest I have a huge reputation as an arrogant ass who thinks he has the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. (It’s 42. I read Douglas Adams.) I’d like to think this is an unfair characterization born out of jealousy of my awesome awesomeness. I’d also like to think I have a face like Matthew McConaughey, a body like Brad Pitt, and the intellectual acumen of Stephen Hawking. So I’ll let you be the judge of which of us is right.

The point, however, is that regardless of my reputation in this regard, my family and friends are generally too polite to make an issue of it, even when I start to go off an one of my infrequent rants. I am of course using the colloquial definition of “infrequent”, that being “the length of time that casts the speaker in the best light, usually a modest one.” I particularly appreciate this as I have reached a much more mellow middle age (no, I am not using a colloquial definition of mellow, I really used to be worse) and have come to appreciate the value of politeness.

In my brash youth, I didn’t really see the value of politeness for its own sake. It always seemed to me to be more a matter of hypocrisy; after all, when you are being nice to someone you would rather spit in their eye, how is that NOT hypocritical? It was only after I had spent some serious time in the corporate world (and if you don’t think that’s a culture all its own, you’ve never lived in it) that I started to understand the value of politeness. I found there that politeness was a tool, nothing more and nothing less, and like any tool the value of it consists entirely in what you make with it.

Politeness doesn’t exist, as I thought it did when I was younger, for its own sake. Nor does it merely separate us from the animals, as I have heard some people assert. Rather, I have found that politeness is the oil that keeps society as frictionless as possible. It is the “civil” in “civil society.” Consider: polite conversation doesn’t allow for religion or politics as topics. I look around these days and realize that’s not a coincidence. Not to put too fine a point on it, politeness is what makes it possible for us to coexist with the people we would rather not have to coexist with. Whether it’s in the workplace or the marketplace, at school or at church, there’s always someone you just can’t stand, chances are they return the favor, and politeness is the only thing standing between the two of you and a date with destiny.

That’s not to say we always have to be polite. Sometimes it’s time to get impolite. After all, I would hardly refer to a good protest march as “polite.” Your typical rock concert hardly measures up to the realm of “polite”. And God knows any conversation with my close friends will never be within seven dirty words of being “polite.” But those are the stand out moments, the exceptions, not the rules, and should be cherished more for it, not less. But when we start turning every day into a protest, when every night is a concert, and every conversation would make George Carlin blush (bless his smutty departed self), we lose something priceless. It’s not just a matter of losing the “specialness” or those moments. We’re losing our dignity as a society.

Our current culture of brashness that seems to reward the braggart, the loudmouth, the shock jock and the bully-pulpit preacher both, the people who drag their politics and opinions out at every turn instead of confining them to opinion columns and blogs where they belong; it needs to stop. We need to – not step up, but step back. Not speak up, but quiet down. Take our fingers off the hyperbolic trigger and for once, don’t let our voices be heard. Just let it go. Stop feeding the trolls.

Even me.