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Respect and Disrespect

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Porcupines and Good Manners

California State University, Dominguez Hills
Created: June 8, 2001
Latest update: June 8, 2001

A Short History of Rudeness

by Mark Caldwell

Review and Teaching Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, June 2001. Fair use "encouraged."

This essay is based on Mark Caldwell's A Short History of Rudeness. Picador USA. New York. St. Martin's Press. 1999. ISBN: 0-312-26389-9. $13.00 at Vroman's in Pasadena.

Mark Caldwell is a literary critic, and approaches rudeness from a slightly different angle from the one we have taken in studying paradigm shifts to mutuality. (Fellman, Rambo and the Dalai Lama. Nonetheless, Caldwell's treatment of rudeness fits well into our discussions of transforming discourse to good faith inclusion of the "Other" in our efforts to establish a paradigm shift.

On page 2, Caldwell refers to the high cost of "disrespect" in the social world of violence: ". . . society's outcasts are understandably alert to slights, and so beware above all perils the drug dealer who thinks he's met with disrespect." I was immediately reminded of William Oliver's The Violent Social World of Black Men, in which he describes "disrespect" as a prelude to much of the violence that occurs in local bars where folks "hang out".

Since respect and self identity are inextricably bound together, we are naturally strongly affected by "discrespect." Caldwell tells a wonderful story about porcupines on page 7:

"[Edward O.] Wilson cites a a delightfully apposite old German fable, according to which a group of porcupines, massed together against the cold, freeze when too far apart and prick each other when too close together. When they finally work out the exact degree of proximity that keeps them both warm and unstabbed, they call it good manners."

There's that old tension again between the individual and the communal needs. And good manners may be one way of managing the tension.

Later in the text, at page 139, Caldwell speaks of manners on the World Wide Web and "flaming" (disrespecting) through e-mail:

"[O]n-line invective endlessly recycles body parts, excretory products, and knee-jerk repulsives (like maggots). But with only a finite number of organs and secretions to invoke, the rude terms repeat themselves until they lose their force---like "fuck," which unrestrained repetition has turned into a staple movie expletive on the verge of becoming acceptable in everyday conversation."