New Minimum

The news has been full of stories about people behaving badly. This isn’t really surprising, as the primary function of news is making sure that your brain, evolved to deal with a social group the size of a wandering band of hunter-gatherers, is aware of every heinous act perpetrated anywhere on earth. While you go about your days struggling to deal with almost maddening levels of tension about your family, career and your awful friends-of-friends on Facebook, journalists around the world file stories about cannibals, diseases and spiders that eat birds.

No, really. What the hell, Australia?

Yes, the world is a terrible, frightening place, and the news isn’t going to let us forget it until we’ve either solved these issues or died of cannibal-related anxiety. And while it’d be great to cure disease and wipe out that horrible spider, it might be more reasonable for those of us that aren’t oncologists or monster hunters to take on something a little closer to home. Let’s start with something easy.

Every few years, as inflation and the cost of living rise, we raise the minimum wage. I’d like it if we could, in the same way, set a new standard for what we think of as the minimum acceptable level of decent behavior. I think we’ve done a pretty good job in a lot of ways, but there is still a huge gap between what people feel is appropriate behavior and what we should be willing to accept.

Sixty years ago, white people didn’t think twice about using the n-word, and now I can’t even bring myself to spell it out for fear of being branded a racist. Forty years ago it was legal in all fifty states for a man to beat his wife, and now more than half the country is okay with wives having wives. Thirty years ago people used the word “retard” all the time and now… well, they still do, but more and more of us feel justified in telling them to fuck off. Progress is on the march!

What I’m talking about isn’t being a smug paragon of virtue. We don’t all need to be perfect all the time! We just need to be a little better about recognizing our own failings and calling out our friends and relations for theirs. (If you get in early you can be a little smug.)

So I have some suggestions. These should all be really easy to take on because I’m not even going to ask you to change very much. Part of that is just practicality: assholes aren’t going to change, but people who have the slightest interest in meeting a minimum standard of decency probably just need some fine-tuning. Most of these rules boil down to “shut up” and “mind your business.”

Before getting to the details, I’d like to point out that I’m especially talking to straight white men. A lot of us like to think that minorities or women are the people that need to do whatever it takes to overcome racism and sexism. But that’s idiotic: if there’s racism or sexism going around, do you know who’s almost certainly perpetrating it? We are. So stop thinking about these issues as somebody else’s problem and come to grips with the fact that we are the problem.

With that out of the way, here’s my list:

  • No more racist jokes. This is actually pretty practical advice: most racist jokes aren’t very funny. And even those that might seem funny to you will probably get you in trouble. If you think this is unreasonable, have I got the website for you.

  • No defending rapists. Those assholes in Steubenville recorded themselves raping a girl and then tweeted that they were raping her, but somehow thousands of people found a way to pretend that they didn’t. We have a whole judicial branch devoted to figuring this out—nobody cares what you think anyway.

  • Don’t say anything about gay marriage except ‘it’s none of my business.’ Because it’s none of your business. Unless you’re gay, in which case: good luck.

  • Stop blaming victims. If you find yourself looking for reasons that somebody might be to blame for having been shot, stabbed, tortured or raped, just stop. They have enough problems, what with having been shot or whatever. The last thing they need is you telling them what they should have said or did or worn.

  • Shut up, shut up, shut up about affirmative action. Chances are you don’t get it, which is sad because it amounts to “tie goes to the runner” and that’s 5 simple words that you should have learned in gym class. Meanwhile, a white girl who was too dumb to get into college is blaming minorities with better test scores. Don’t be like that idiot.

  • Don’t yell rude things at women. I can’t believe I even have to write that. Have some manners. There’s a place for yelling obscenities, and it’s called sporting events.

Now I know what you’re thinking: that’s a pretty easy list. You almost certainly already meet the new bare minimum. What kind of savage would you be if you didn’t? But here’s the twist: that’s not the point. This isn’t just about what we expect from ourselves, it’s about what we exepct from each other.

Your job is to enforce the list. Especially if you’re a straight white man.

How you do that is up to your discretion, but I like the confrontational approach. Don’t be afraid to tell people off. If you’re worried about being rude, ask yourself why you think rudeness is worse than racism. Then give that racist a piece of your mind.

But just yelling at people isn’t going to be enough. You’re going to need other strategies, especially for dealing with your firends and family. For instance, the best way to make your friends stop telling offensive jokes is to get them to admit that there’s nothing funny about them. Play dumb. Tell them that you don’t get it and ask them to explain. Eventually you’ll be able to say, “oh! It’s funny because you think women are stupid! That’s horrible.”

Got it? Good. Get to it.

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