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Polite society?

中国日报网 2013-07-16 11:22


Reader question:

Please explain “polite society” in this sentence: There’s a saying that you should never talk about politics or religion in polite society.

My comments:

Polite society is a euphemism for the upper class. In the past, people from the polite society more or less referred exclusively the nobility, or the so-called noble families, you know, people who have titles such as Duke or Countess.

Yeah, right, the aristocracy.

These days, as society at large becomes more mobile – not noble – and diversified, polite society is more inclusive. Today, the well-educated professionals and rich people in general all seem to belong.

Generally speaking, people in polite society call each other ladies and gentlemen.

These people are – at the very least – well-mannered, well dressed and well spoken. They are sensitive to their surroundings and are considerate of others in their company. In our example, they don’t talk about weighty topics such as politics and religion because they might offend someone with what they say.

You know, people’s politics and religions are so different these days, you never know.

At any rate, one of the great characteristics of the so-called polite society is that people are – you guessed it – polite.

Or they always appear so. They’re well trained. They know what to say and how to behave when they’re around other people.

Their politeness is sometimes forced and they are masters in the art of exercising restraint and they are able to remain composed and polite in all circumstances in order to preserve appearances.

In other words, they know how to avoid making a scene.

This is in contrast to people from lower classes, you know, people who might be uneducated, rough in manners and ready to say anything they want to, and say it out loud. The Chinese public generally behaves this way. They would shout at each other in restaurants and airport waiting rooms as though they were at their own homes.

Sorry about saying something less than pleasant about us Chinese. I should’ve left them out of the conversation altogether whenever we talk about things like good manners. I usually do.

At any rate, people in the so-called polite society usually go out of their way to be correct, both in speech and behavior, lest they offend others in their presence.

I notice that I’ve said “so-called” more than once. That’s because people in the so-called polite society do often force it. They force it so much, as a matter of fact that you can easily detect their affectations. They sound insincere and pretentious.

Good manners and affectations notwithstanding, they usually fail to hide the fact that they’re often snobbish, bigoted, pompous, hollow and often downright obnoxious when it’s all said and done – as any member of the lower classes can be.

In fact, the so-called ladies and gentlemen are also known as phonies and hypocrites.

Alright, that’s both sides of the story told. Here are media examples of what people do and/or don’t do in polite society:

1. If I hear one more snide comment about the utter lack of looting in Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, I’m going to scream.

First, what happened in Japan? Entire towns were washed away. In the hardest hit areas, there was little left to loot and few left to loot it.

Second, the scope of the disaster is so great — the death toll still unknown but leaping upward every day, with nuclear reactors flirting with meltdown and huge numbers of homeless, it isn’t as if the media is going to stop and figure out whether any electronics stores have been ransacked. The proper response to anyone crowing about a lack of looting in Japan should be, “How do you know?”

Third, the entire idea of there being no looting plays into our preconceptions about Japan, a nation where — I’m sorry to be the one to tell you — there is indeed crime, indeed poverty, where the people are not all orderly worker bees collecting honey for the hive. Japanese are human beings — stop the presses! — for good and ill.

Fourth, tsk-tsking over the supposed lack of looting in Japan is a not-so-sly way for Americans to voice the kind of ugly racial prejudice that some of us just itch to articulate, to wag a finger at black residents of New Orleans (after five years, geez, let it rest) for stripping grocery stores after Hurricane Katrina. (Last week, the Justice Department came out with a scathing report indicting the New Orleans police for a range of brutal behaviors. But we can’t worry about that report, no, because we’re too upset over the searing memory of liquor stores being ransacked five years ago. Why is that?)

And fifth — I saved the best point for last — there of course was looting in Japan, as reported in the Japanese media.

From a website of Kyodo News, Japan’s version of CNN, headlined, in Japanese:

“In Miyagi, police report 40 robberies by those taking advantage of the earthquake.”

The text, translated, reads:

“According to police on the night of the 13th the morning of the 14, approximately 1 million yen in cash was taken from the Miyagi City Home Center. There were robberies at a convenience store and a food store, and robberies at approximately 40 other stores by those taking advantage of the earthquake amounting to 1.65 million yen.”

A City Home Center is a store like a Target. And, at 80 yen to the dollar, the loss isn’t great — $12,500 in cash; $20,000 in theft. In this one report. But here was some looting, and there is no reason to think there wasn’t a lot more.

Certain stories such as this scratch such a nasty itch that few repeating them seem to care whether they’re true or not. Condescending racial grievance just doesn’t get the chance to strut its stuff in polite society the way it used to. That’s why some marvel over a claim that an ounce of reflection would have cast doubt upon and a minute’s investigation would reveal as false. (The suggestion that there was perhaps LESS looting in Japan than we’d find here, well that would make sense, given how important social cohesion is there — again, for good and ill. But that’s a different claim entirely.)

I’m not expecting these facts to change anybody’s mind. Because bigotry isn’t about fitting your worldview around reality, it’s about finding examples of reality that fit your worldview, and if the looting-in-Japan claims stop doing the trick, it’s on to something else.

- But there was looting in Japan, By Neil Steinberg, SunTimes.com, April 29, 2011.

2. The thing that makes Google Glass one notch weirder and the digital noose one notch tighter for all of us is the loss of the ability to opt in. If you’re in the field of fire, you’re in. There have already been a number of reports of parties where people were asked to remove their Google Glass piece or leave the premises. The Seattle bar 5 Point has banned Google Glass and warned on its Web page, “… ass-kickings will be encouraged for violators.”

At some point in the not-likely-too-distant future, someone will come into a party with this latest fashion accessory on, and someone will ask him (it will surely be a him) to remove it as a condition of entry, and the guest will ignore the entreaty and enter the private area anyway. Then someone already at the party, certainly also male and with a few drinks in him, will wrap a towel around his hand, step over, and simply smash his fist into the Google Glass, breaking them and causing permanent damage to the face just below.

I would not advise Google or its supporters to press forward with trying to make these things acceptable in polite society. If they persist anyway, they can expect a wave of hostility the likes of which they have perhaps only begun to imagine. The type of programmers who founded Google are not known for their social sensitivity. I would like them to “get it” before someone from a more primitive age expresses himself with his knuckles.

People can’t opt in to public surveillance, and we live in a more dangerous world now, where surveillance mostly works in our favor. But even in public places, Google Glass wearers with the ability to do tactical research on others, using facial recognition technology, Google Search, social media, and other tools, will create a creepoid ethos and generate a tremendous amount of hostility.

Silicon Valley may not see things this way, but the Valley is a bubble all to itself. In the wider world, people want the right to opt in to something as invasive as surveillance by Glass.

- Without Opt In, Google Glass Will Generate Hostility, By Roger Kay, Forbes.com, June 3, 2013.

3. People who know Andy Murray only through television, which is almost all of us, grew fonder of him when they saw him cry after Roger Federer defeated him in last year’s Wimbledon final, and fonder again when he cried during last week’s BBC documentary. The first happened as he tried make the gallant loser’s speech; the second when his interviewer, Sue Barker, nudged him gently towards the events in his Dunblane primary school on 13 March, 1996, when a gunman murdered 16 children and their teacher in the gymnasium. Murray began to talk and then the recollection overwhelmed him; looking for comfort and distraction, he leaned forward to nuzzle one of his dogs. Crying sequences in television interviews can often seem unnecessary and voyeuristic – “Look, we made her cry” – but Murray’s somehow ennobled him, or at least established him as fully human among those unimaginative people who previously doubted it.

Ours has been almost an 18th-century reaction. “When we cry deeply, we are closer to our natural and to our divine state,” Rousseau wrote approvingly, believing tears to be evidence of sincere and deep emotion on the crier’s part, as opposed to the shallow verbal interplay of polite society. But it was also a cult, just as much as the periwig: perhaps there has never been a more intentionally tearful century. Among the fashionable gentry, blubbing indicated fine morals and exceptional sensitivity. According to Tom Lutz’s book on the subject (Crying: the Natural and Cultural History of Tears), the primary goal of dramatists, actors, poets and novelists was inducing “abundant and pleasurable tears” in their audiences, which as a result, burst into fits of what Lutz calls “moral weeping” or, less visibly, felt a heightening of their sexual urges. Tearful eroticism became part of courtship. In Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, the hero and his companion Lotte read odes together as they touch and weep. Three years earlier, in a novel called The Man of Feeling by an Edinburgh lawyer, Henry Mackenzie, the protagonist wept at the drop of a hat – or rather between kisses, at the news of a dog’s death, and on hearing the “romantic melancholy” of a shepherd’s horn.

- Andy Murray's tears are hard to watch, By Ian Jack, Guardian.co.uk, July 12, 2013.

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About the author:

Zhang Xin(张欣) has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


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