The Slow-Cooked Sentence

An exploration of the lack of manners points out my own

Rachael Conlin Levy

Author Rachel Cusk wonders if we live in an age of rudeness. In an article for The New York Times Magazine she examines what happens when politeness disappears and the social contract frays. Increasingly upset with the incivility that’s been magnified by Donald Trump’s presidency, I read eagerly. Her words cut to the quick:

I have prided myself in my willingness to object to injustices, to speak my mind when I thought I saw wrong being done. But perhaps all I was ever doing was trying to make something stop, trying to return the world to something I could bear to live in, without necessarily understanding it first.

These sentences, emanating pretension and priggishness, felt uncomfortably familiar. I’m embarrassed. Cusk’s decision to expose her prejudice — her rudeness, superiority and irritation with others — revealed mine. Rudeness, Cusk wrote, is the process of no longer viewing the other as real, as an individual:

It could be said that one-half of our country has told the other it is full of shit, deliberately choosing those words because it knows that their object finds rudeness — the desecration of language — especially upsetting.

I witness incivility in our government’s random arrest of illegal immigrants whose presence here breaks the law. Agents handcuffed a father as his young daughter watched, moved a sick patient from hospital bed to detention cell, arrested an individual who sought court protection from an abuser, and targeted a homeless shelter. The disrespect shown these individuals makes me ashamed of my government.

In the same magazine issue that held Cusk’s meditation on rudeness was an essay that quoted university professor Andrew Reiner, who teaches a seminar at Towson University called “Mister Rogers 101: Why Civility and Community Still Matter.”

Civility is the idea that you’re not always going to agree but you still have to make it work. We fear our idea clashing with somebody else’s even when we’re all ultimately pulling for the same thing.

My rebuke of federal agents’ actions and empathy for those living here illegally offends others. Immigration might be one of those areas where we must agree to disagree, but I believe it’s possible to unite behind the idea that the rule of law must be applied compassionately.

Finding fault in the government and pointing out another’s rudeness is all too easy, and my own efforts at politeness continue to fall short. I am on the phone trying to track down the correct person to receive my complaint, and I lose my temper with the young woman on the line. My voice is irritated, my words are short and sharp, and I interrupt repeatedly. When I learn the person I’m trying to contact is the person I’m talking to, I don’t apologize.

Later I chastise myself, briefly wish Mr. Roger’s 101 was nearby so I could enroll,  consider making an apologetic second call — but don’t. I guess civility, a graying word, a bow-tie concept, out-of-date and largely irrelevant, is yearned for by many and needs relearning by me.

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