Register Sunday | August 18 | 2019

Knowing When To Shut Your Mouth

On Inappropriate Social Behaviour

Recently, my friend Kate was left for another woman. No one in our group can figure out why, as Kate is clearly woman enough for anyone. But the cold truth remains: there was a breakup; there was another woman.

Not long after, Kate and a friend visited a local microbrew pub where the “other woman” used to work as a waitress. After the second round, though, Kate realized that the other woman was still waiting tables there. Was in fact waiting on Kate’s table. Watching your nemesis pick up a bunch of dirty glasses may afford some small pleasure, but sharing space with a formidable foe is always unnerving. Kate’s wry friend saw the need for a wry comment. “Kate,” she said—wryly—“you know those fifteen pounds you lost during your breakup? They ended up on her ass.”

This is an example of a wonderfully inappropriate comment: cathartic, cheeky (okay, mean) and, in all likelihood, true. But it seems to me that we are in the midst of a backlash against being polite. Sick of long acronyms and ever-changing “appropriate” terminology, many people are chucking the politically correct code of conduct. The other day, my friend Jessie, who teaches high school, caught me off guard during a discussion of one of her students. “He’s mildly retarded,” she said. Jessie loves her students and wasn’t trying to be funny when she said “retarded.” Over the past few decades, teens and preteens have used the word almost exclusively in the sense of “stupid” or “disagreeable,” and little by little it has lost its original meaning: instead of “slow” or “delayed,” it means simply “not cool.” “That movie was retarded,” “Your mum is retarded” and so on. (The word “gay” has undergone a similar evolution.) When I asked Jessie about her use of “retarded,” she commented that the word has been totally decontextualized. “But that’s all it is,” she said. “He’s slow. ‘Mentally developmentally delayed’ doesn’t explain him. It just takes him a little longer than the other kids. Teenagers are cruel, and so they took a label and made it an insult. But they’ll do that with any word. Or they’ll just make up a new word.”

It was food for thought. But after the pendulum swings one way, it will always swing back, frequently hitting you in the head. It’s good that people are moving away from the passive-aggressive dance of skirting around an issue. But there is always someone who takes it too far. Recently, I’ve been hearing more and more offensive remarks, and I never seem to know how to react.

Last week I bumped into a guy I know only in a small-talk kind of way. We were at the Jazz Fest, milling around with 100,000 other people at Place des Arts, and I asked him if he’d seen any good shows. He said that he’d caught the a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “How was it?” I inquired. “Well,” he replied, “it was a lot of black people up on a stage.” This comment made me feel very awkward, and I thought, This guy’s not racist, is he? Or is it that his is the kind of humour that tries to make people feel uncomfortable by saying inappropriate things? Either way, I wasn’t into it. Later that night, we saw a car plastered with posters of Ravi Shankar. “Does anyone else think that guy looks like Osama bin Laden?” the guy asked jokingly. No one seemed phased.

Am I out of the loop? Are people being so inappropriate that it becomes absurd, and therefore somehow appropriate? Can people say things so wrong that the wrongness is cancelled out? Didn’t they make a movie about this? Wasn’t it called Liar Liar? And wasn’t it a Jim Carrey thing?

I am not known as an uptight girl nor am I someone who frowns at a joke. But I believe that if you are going to make an inappropriate remark, you should be willing to say it in front of everyone. I know this guy who frequents the bars. He’s a white guy who wears a bandana and a visor (at the same time), outsized pants and mesh tank tops with droopy armholes, and he’s infamous for only dating black people. Recently, he started dating an acquaintance of mine. And then this: “I like your big black African ass.” The “big black ass” in question did not appreciate this at all. Not only was his ass objectified, but he was being actively fetishized because he was black. This can make a person question him- or herself: are you attractive because of who you are or because of what you are? My acquaintance complained about this to his boyfriend, but to no avail. When he mentioned that other people also found the comment inappropriate, the white rapper said, “Of course they do. It was only meant for you to hear.” But should you really go around saying things you don’t want other people to hear?

I guess it comes down to being honest about yourself. If you are going to say something, make sure you would say it again. Lovely Kate has bounced back into the dating scene—but not without encountering a couple of inappropriate comments of her own. She recently spent a night at a bar with a guy who liked to tell her which other patrons he would kiss and how hot all her friends were. Kate knew what was up. “Um, yeah, she is hot. Maybe I’ll make out with her.” Instead of you.