Sunday, October 7, 2012

Forty-Six: Monads

I was born in a region and in a time where there were very clear rules about social behavior. I'm city-born, but I spent parts of my childhood and adolescence in small towns with streets overhung with moss-draped trees and houses built seventy or eighty years before. There were longstanding rules about social behavior, and the guardians of the rules were the elderly ladies who sat on porches or seemed always to be visiting the tiny stores along the main street.  One clear rule was  simply that one smiled, that one made the effort to smile in public.  I can remember receiving the occasional reminder about that--- being reminded to smile on such a lovely day, or reminded that a "handsome young man" should always have a smile, or that a smile brightened everyone's day. I'd always smile when reminded. I suppose, too, that I worried a bit about looking dour enough to worry others or give a darker tone to an ordinary day.  I never minded the elderly ladies and their chivvying. It was part of small town life (or even some older, insular city neighborhoods), and it did remind me as a boy that I was part of a social web, that something as trivial and simple as a smile could help make it a better day for the people around me.

I'm thinking about that because I've been finding blog posts in the Social Justice world that go on and on about how being told to smile is a kind of "micro-aggression" and is yet another gendered power play. The blog entries are written by women, and they draw flurries of comments by women. The stories are all the same: the anger and violation felt at having people (men--- always men) tell them to smile, or that they'd be prettier if only they smiled.  I did feel a bit perplexed that all the stories were gendered. My own experience and observation was that it was elderly ladies who issued reminders. Regional and generational, possibly, but I do suspect that small towns in New England or the Thames valley aren't so different. Perhaps it's only males that the authors and their commentariat remember.  I never felt the reminders to smile as a gendered thing, or as a gendered issue of power, of males using the reminder to smile to control women.

I do find the whole "micro-aggression" issue troubling. The term seems to be applied to almost any kind of social interaction, to the exhortation to smile and to the smile itself (seen as an adjunct of the Evil Male Gaze) , to initiating conversations, to asking someone to dance, to a choice of subway or airport lounge seats.  The underlying vision seems to be that any act that brings someone into a social contact is an act of aggression.

The world that the Social Justice crowd seem to envision is one that's completely atomized, one where armoured solitary figures move through the streets or through offices and schools with nothing to say to one another that could be construed as personal in any way or as creating any kind of social ritual. That's an unpleasant world to imagine. No one can speak first, lest that be taken as a sign of "privilege" or of exercising power and aggression.  No one has any part in any social webs or rituals, since such things constitute "micro-aggression" via laying claim to others' attention or reminding them that someone is regarding them with attention.  We're not even talking issues of politeness and courtesy here. This is about something else, about a belief that only a world without social rituals or interactions can be just, about a belief that only a world of disconnected atoms can be free of power dynamics, gendered or not.


Anonymous said...

My main association with people being told to smile is definitely gendered, and definitely a power thing: my dad would always tell waitresses to smile, never waiters, and it drove me nuts. But as an adult, I haven't really had any negative experiences with people telling me to smile - possibly because my default facial expression *is* pretty smiley. I can't actually think of the last time someone told me to smile on the street. I remember once, several years ago now, it was a very hot day and I was on a very crowded bus and I was very frazzled because I'd left work mid-day to go home to check on my pet rabbit in my non-air-conditioned apartment, and had to get there and back to work as quickly as possible, and the trains weren't running properly so I had to take a bus partway, and I must have looked as frazzled as I felt. A man standing next to me looked at me, then pointed to/lightly touched my arm (which has a tattoo that says "up with joy") and said something like, "as long as you remember this, you'll be fine." And it was a lovely little moment.

Anonymous said...

Brings to mind the banning of social interaction in The Handmaid's Tale. Frightening.