The Words We Mutter Under Our Breath

Some years ago, as I waited to be served food by a prickly employee of an eating establishment, I sensed my temper flaring. She and I had had run-ins before; she had always seemed unnecessarily querulous and brusque in her interactions with me; the  milk of human kindness seemed to have curdled long ago in her. I anticipated more trouble in this encounter; I was on edge, wondering which pronouncement of mine would be met with curtness or indifference. I wasn’t mistaken; a few seconds later, I was subjected to a familiar, rage-inducing rudeness. I placed my order, picked up my food, and walked away. As I did so, I muttered under my breath, “Fuck you, you fucking stupid bitch.” My short and bitter rant was loud enough to be overheard by someone–not a complete stranger–standing next to me, who promptly did a double-take and said something to the effect of “Wow, that’s harsh.” Now mortified, I mumbled something about having a bad day and walked quickly away. (I was especially embarrassed because I had just interacted with a service worker, someone who at the best of times is underpaid and overworked.)

It wasn’t the first time–and sadly, I don’t think it will be the last–that I will say something quite unhinged, in a hushed tone of voice, in words only audible to myself. On various occasions over the years I’ve deployed almost exactly that same line above on the conclusion of an aggravating social encounter–with ‘bitch’ replaced by some other derogatory term, sometimes racist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes sexist, sometimes fat-shaming. In the encounter I make note of above, I had been detected and called out; on most occasions, I am the only audience for these private expressions of my feelings.

I do not know if this history means that deep down at heart I’m a sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic person; I do know that I’m afflicted with many kinds of implicit bias, and they play a role in my understanding of the world and my relationships with those who inhabit it; I do know that being exposed to all those strands of thought as I grew up, and living in societies that still suffer from those afflictions predisposes me to fall back, lazily, in the cauldron of unfavorable circumstance, to those very same attitudes when I express anger. They suggest themselves to me as the right kind of ammunition to deploy against my imagined foes, the only balms that will assuage my psychic wounds. (Conversely, with probability one, someone has referred to me in precisely the terms above after an aggravating encounter with me, with their favorite prejudiced expression for folks of my ethnic persuasion inserted into the schema above.)

These are not flattering reflections on oneself; my utterances are only partially excused by being made in a fit of anger. Perhaps I can congratulate myself on having found a ‘safe outlet’ for my frustrations; after all, all I did was rant a bit to myself. My words did not lead to prejudiced action or violence or politics or some form of systematic discrimination against those who, unknown to themselves, had been subjected to abuse my me. But perhaps that lets me too easily off the hook; and perhaps it lets off our societies and our times too easily as well.

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