Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Can a Passive-Aggressive "You're Welcome" Serve a Larger Purpose for Social Justice?

I encountered a passive aggressive "You're Welcome" today that contradicted how I thought it worked.

Riding my bike home tonight, I crossed straight through a 3-way street/bike trail/park entrance ramp intersection. A woman walking some amount of dogs walked out toward the road from the entrance ramp.

Both us humans stayed on our right, allowing us to pass each other with little issue. Her dog(s), however, were all the way to her left, on my right, the leash(es) blocking my path. Gaining control of the animal(s), she had gotten them back to her side.

I passed them, no trouble at all, with no more thought than returning to monkey brain ruminations my brain engages in when minimally occupied. The incident would have had little mark on my conscious if nothing else occurred.

But the woman yelled "You're welcome." I can't say for sure, but my memory injects an offended tone of voice. I apperceive that this woman expected me to say thank you for her moving the dogs out of my way.

I didn't and still don't feel any obligation to say "thank you" in this situation. It's an issue of me having the "right of way." She didn't have full control of her dogs before I arrived, then she gained control of them, which I view as her obligation.

Frankly, I don't care if she met that obligation before and after my passing. People should maintain full control with cars, since things can happen fast and without warning. On sidewalks, walkways and trails, I don't think it's as big of a deal. These areas have that much more of an informal ambiance to them.

I still think some level of base etiquette has its place here. People don't necessarily have to keep to that base when there's no one else around or there's a common understanding and acceptance of etiquette breaking. Such breaking down of etiquette can communicate an increased closeness between friends and acquaintences.

Between strangers crossing each other on sidewalks, I don't think such break from expectation should occur lightly. Someone breaking away from said etiquette, especially if doing so risks injury to themselves or to a less sentient creature, should not be seen as an act that deserves extra gratitude.

Performing a simple act of decency and treating another person with basic respect does not deserve special attention or congratulations. Getting out of the way of normal traffic to allow normal flow should not deserve reward.

Peventing injury to a suddenly powerless person or unpremeditated uncontrolled animal deserves congratulation. An absent minded person, a person not really caring about their surroundings or someone being careless for their pets until the last minute, not so much.


Near the end of my bike route to work, I walk my bike on the sidewalk around a corner. The sidewalk has a lot of features that can make for a tight squeeze: entrances to buildings on the left while on the right: a mailbox, garbage and recycling cans, some light posts and even a barrel or two with decorative plants.

To make things even more interesting, there's a bus stop. Not just any bus stop, either. Drivers switch out there. Suffice to say: that ten to fifteen feet of sidewalk can get crowded. It doesn't always provide the roomiest space for passing with a bike alongside.

Two or three times a few months ago, a Woman of Color yelled "You're welcome" at me after I passed. She was obviously a bus driver waiting for the next bus to do a switchout. She and typically someone else would stand back near the wall of the building while I passed by between them and the inanimate objects on the other side of the road.

I could only perceive her "You're welcome" as passive aggressive. We didn't make eye contact, body contact, no other contact other than maybe disturbing the air between us. We didn't know each other.

To me, courtesy dictated that we each had the job of staying out of each other's way. If one of us bumped into the other, one or both of us would apologize and laugh uncomfortably. Maybe one of us would get angry and some type of social transaction would occur, either escalation or de-escalation.

I can see myself de-escalating then slinking away. I created the abnormal situation by taking up more space with my bike. Even if she did the bumping and got angry, I'd probably de-escalate. My main motivation may actually have more to do with avoiding tardiness at work, or maybe I just don't care for pointless confrontation that accomplishes nothing.

(When there's an ideal, breaking of etiquette or a blatant selfish miscommunication, that could short circuit my de-escalation impulses. Breaking etiquette for no good reason just causes a disruption of smooth flow for no good reason.)

The woman's status as a Woman of Color changes the whole dynamic and instills higher ideals into the encounter. I'm a white guy. If our spatial positions were switched in the past, I probably could have harassed her with impunity if she walked by me without any sign of acknowledgment.

Breaking the normal flow of etiquette, this woman engaged in some performance theater, she disrupted the normal everyday to provide some social justice. She provided a reminder of my white male privilege.

I'd like to think that I don't deserve such passive aggression. I'd like to think that I'm a decent person who does the right thing. I'd like to think that the performance theater did more to expose white male privilege to bystanders around us or even to people who hear this story.

Maybe this woman acted passive aggressively out of anger. Maybe she just wanted to get a rise out of a boring environment. Maybe she didn't see herself embodying a larger expression of social justice. Maybe she wanted to escalate an encounter into conflict.

Who knows where she came from. Any non-virtuous motivations could unconsciously put a more meaningful message into the milieu. Even virtuous actions can fortify unjust privilege.

I have a few non-white non-male friends who have no issue confronting me with my privilege or, at the least, bringing up the topic. Numerous people have told me I'm a decent guy, but I often find myself like a deer wide-eyed in the face of headlights when my privilege becomes uncovered and raised to the conscious level.

Rounding that corner, being the target of performance theater, brought to my attention that unconscious privilege and the history of injustice such privilege hides. Maybe I am a decent guy who treats people right. I should still have the consciousness of that history and its implications.

Who was it that said something to the effect that we study history so we don't repeat it. I like to try acting kind as much as I can. I like to remain conscious of those efforts. People sometimes express an uncomfortable amount of gratefulness at me trying to be decent. Others say that I try harder than I need to, that I do too much out of conscientiousness.

I fear that by not trying so hard to act decent, my decency will fade from lack of practice. I fear without consciousness of decency, my decency will fade for lack of practice. I see decency as a habit, a muscle even.

Without discipline, acknowledgment and working it, pushing it, decency will atrophy and fade. Being a dick and looking for short-term selfish reward can have an appeal for the conscious mind.

It has the appeal of laying back on the couch watching TV all the time. The body atrophies, weakens and so does the mind. Unhappiness and tiredness seep in. Inertia slows things down. The body and mind will let itself dissolve and fall apart until death occurs. The body and mind has little reason to stick around, no challenge, so it eventually removes itself from wasting resources.

This Women of Color did me and society a service. It exposed an unhealthy habit and sparked a remembrance of the damage caused by social injustice. We need these reminders sometimes, so we remember the capacity for injustice humanity has and know what to exercise against for a better, stronger more intersubjective society.

I don't deserve cookies or any reward for these thoughts. I don't deserve a pat on the back. I don't want any of that. I just want to be a decent person. I want a decent society, one that will throw off this bullshit treatment of each other, even as we remember the bullshit so we know to avoid it. I'm idealistic, but I like to think a society of people treating each other more decent, more openly, more honestly, more justly, more valuing, more enjoying all walks of life will lead to an experience that is rewarding all in itself.

This is also probably nothing new. My privilege has likely blinded to instances such as this in the past. To me, this is a sharing to interact with the world and to understand it more, not to say that I've provided any great insight. Others probably have a better perspective on these matters than me. I hope to see and hear more, so my perspective can expand. I encourage other readers to seek out more perspectives on such matters, if you don't already have any, or to share your perspective to add to the mix.

The woman with the dog this evening was white, so I have a hard time thinking of any good purpose for her passive aggressive "You're welcome." Am I wrong? Did I engage in some injustice by just wanting to breeze by, wanting to get home, avoid a storm, and not have any lasting memory during my commute home? Am I blind to another aspect of my privilege?

No comments: