Saturday, April 16, 2011

Free Passes

Details are fuzzy after a couple of decades, but at one point in my childhood I remember a family friend telling a joke. I responded as I had been trained to do by my elementary school peers: "That's so funny I forgot to laugh." Later, I was reprimanded by my parents for this comment. And this made me feel terrible--I was not at all trying to be disrespectful. I thought that this was legitimately how one responded to an attempt at humor. Young children have a hard time being disingenuous, so the concept of a fake laugh was not in my arsenal, and I knew enough that to stare back in a mute pose was not acceptable, so I responded with what I thought was an acceptable attempt at continuing the repartee. To have this rug pulled out from under me, to find that I had violated a social convention and was now guilty of causing offense, was defeating. And that was one of many instances in my childhood in which I felt remorse for how I handled a social contact with an adult.

But in hindsight, I feel no remorse at all. I was a kid! As an adult, I now know that you shouldn't have any expectations for a sociable response from a kid. If the guy who told me that joke a couple decades ago actually was offended, it was his own fault. He should have told a better joke. But should I have also gotten a free pass from my parents? Should they have reprimanded me?

I thought about the concept of a "free pass" while reading an article about the oldest man in the world, who just passed away (and I hope I am not violating any social conventions by noting that this is probably a fairly regular occurrence). A reporter apparently had the opportunity to conduct an interview with this man, Walter Breauning (who died at the age of 114) fairly recently, and Breauning was lucid enough to give an account of his entire life, as well as his reactions to world events that covered over a century. The article starts with Breauning expressing dismay that his grandfather told stories of killing Southerners in the Civil War, and it ends with Breauning complaining about American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in between that tidy narrative of the life of a peace-loving old man, we get this doozy of a paragraph about World War II: "The man who otherwise preached kindness and service to others acknowledged that he had mixed feelings about the war and the Nazis. He expressed some sympathy toward Hitler."

Although the article is heavy with direct quotations, there are notably none here. The author quickly moves on to getting Breauning's thoughts about Truman and the decision to bomb Japan (he was in favor). Now, for literally almost anybody else in the world, an admission of "sympathy toward Hitler" would become the central focus of a news profile. And for almost anybody else in the world it would result in judgment and condemnation. The late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was suspended from ownership for two years mostly for her comment that Hitler "was good at the beginning."

But obviously, this incident illustrates that if we advance far enough in age, at some point the standards are again lowered, and we once again allow a certain degree of transgression against "acceptable" beliefs and behavior. But I wonder if we extend this license beyond the young and the old. Obviously, the comments and actions of people with developmental disabilities are viewed more permissively than fully functioning adults. And I've got to think that class is a factor as well: there are likely instances where those of a privileged status are reluctant to "call out" those who, because of an underprivileged background, may not have learned the same manners and propriety standards as the more privileged.

But this does raise some troubling implications. At what point does the lack of condemnation become oppressive in its own right? If I had never had a parent tell me that it is unacceptable to say "That's so funny I forgot to laugh?" in certain social situations, and I was still doing it as an adult, would there be anyone to tell me I was violating social conventions? Is it right to just let people figure these things out for themselves, or should there be some mechanism whereby violators can be at least informed of society's folkways and expectations? It's one thing to give people free passes, but it's quite another to pretend to give free passes and still administer a hidden charge.


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