It took four dogs for me to admit that my blithe offers of leashless abandon often ended in disaster. I wanted each dog to be able to run free, ears flying in the wind—and then run straight back to me. After leading me on long gleeful chases at the park, taking victory laps around the neighboring lawns, and finding their way to Randy’s RR Bar uptown, my dogs finally trained me. I did not have a solid recall, and they, as a result, did not have solid judgment.
Dogs need structure; without it, they run amok. We humans are convinced that we crave freedom and self-determination, but we run amok, too. When confused or overwhelmed, we look to the past or cleave to a strong (euphemism for tyrannical) leader. That much has become painfully obvious. But I am beginning to think we need a few more rules about how to behave toward one another.
When a friend told me, with elated relief, about a bartender who posted a sign forbidding any talk of politics, that clinched it. We used to know better. One did not bring up politics or religion in polite conversation, and conversation thus remained polite. But in our haste to strip away all those fussy, straight-laced taboos, we forgot why they were there.
Will it sound priggish if I note that in recent decades, one norm after another has been tossed aside? Then I shall be priggish. People now wear jeans or sweatpants to funerals; we have such a disdain for dressing soberly or formally that we gave up the shorthand that respected someone’s grief. Communication is so insistently breezy and abbreviated that tone and meaning are regularly misperceived. Relationships end not with a gentle, painful conversation but with ghosting. Mistakes are not carefully explained; instead, the person is canceled.
Because the old ways were claustrophobic and oppressive (and because we outdo any pendulum in swinging to extremes), we tossed the rules away without creating a new framework. Men who are sensitive and decent are now so terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing that many withdraw from dating altogether, choke back compliments, refuse to hug a little girl who is sobbing. Much of what passes for talk about politics is either a spreading of lies or an outburst of frustration and hate. Sensing that mere anarchy has been loosed, Christians are again bent on dictating the laws of the land.
Because I grew up with the notion that you should be able to talk about anything and everything with someone you love, I spent a lot of lockdowns furious and miserable over a dear friend who did not want to be vaccinated. It took too long for me to acknowledge that there are some subjects we cannot talk about and that is okay. I raged against fundamentalists of all sorts for the same reason; when I realized we could not discuss or debate, my expectations were bruised. The fact that this came as a shock to me—and that I had completely forgotten the old taboo of trying to talk about religion—is proof that I came of age in a time that was too casual.
Anything does not go.
Were I abroad, I would defer to customs I did not understand, find them fascinating, learn as much as I could, but never presume to challenge them. Well, we are all another country to one another. And the insistence that comes with a “free” society does not preserve freedom at all. Why did I need to drag people into debate and challenge their beliefs? The real intellectual exercise would have been figuring out why they thought as they did, not challenging them for the sake of verbal duel or hurling insults they just might overhear.
Even the small graces have been tossed. Hosts making sure to introduce every new guest to people who will make sure they do not stand miserably alone; men told to dance with every woman at their table so no one feels like a wallflower; people sending RSVPs, thank you notes, and care-full apologies; neighbors bringing a batch of cookies to someone who just moved in…. All of that was glue. It kept us connected.
It is a relief to relax our silly nervousness and speak openly about bodily functions, sex, illness, all sorts of topics once skirted. But that does not mean we can, or should, blurt anything that comes into our heads. The lesson came hard to me, but I no longer roll my eyes at discarded protocol. Often, it was a way to ease social awkwardness and avoid useless clashes. It structured our behavior, and it made sure we did not get ourselves in trouble.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.